I’ve had to call myself out on a bit of white privilege bullshit this week. An activity that I usually reserve for the fuckwits that pass through my life but this week I am, indeed, the fuckwit.
I recently moved out from the lovely, leafy streets of Paddington into the hip, hop and happening hood of Redfern: a place where I was told I would ‘belong’ because “Redfern is gentrified now.”
Sometimes white people use gentrification as a reason to justify being in a situation that we would otherwise have declared beneath our good old-fashioned middle class standards; or if you’re a real estate agent, it’s a great way to add an extra zero onto a dilapidated property because it’s within five square metres of a ‘cool poetry slam joint’.
Anyway – I guess you could say Redfern has undergone a process of gentrification. We’ve got pockets filled with almond lattes and boutique gin bars and we’re only a stones throw away from the groovy rainbow vibes of Newtown; but Redfern also houses a history of generational poverty and oppression. While I knew this would be the case, I didn’t quite understand what it was like until I was literally living within it.
Within the first three hours of unpacking our car, we met the police – twice. A woman, who introduced herself to us as ‘Aunty Judy’*, told us not to worry about drugs in the neighbourhood, which at first gave our fragile souls a sigh of relief, then she continued: “don’t worry about the drug dealer’s kids, because I know where they all are.”
We weren’t quite sure if that meant that Aunty Judy was saying that she could hook us up with some neighbourhood drugs, an interesting alternative to a friendly muffin basket, or if she was unofficially naming herself as our bodyguard and protector. Either way, we were glad to have her on side.
On the second day of our move, we met another one of our neighbours who warned us to be careful because Danny* had just been outside on his motorised-scooter, brandishing a knife. We sat in our car staring nervously at her, our fingers pressed firmly on the ‘lock’ button.
“What do you mean?”
She proceeded tell us that Danny “wasn’t all there” and had approached her with a knife because she’d pissed him off in some way or another. In an act of self-defence, she flipped him off his scooter and then went back into her house. We were left speechless, stunned that our thirty-something year old neighbour had just flipped a fully-grown man off his motorised-scooter to avoid being stabbed. None of us had enough upper body strength to be doing something of such heroic standards.
We spent the next three days living as if we were on the front line of a war zone, frantically locking our doors and shielding our i-devices from view of any window or open crack that could leak in prying eyes.
My housemates and I all put in frantic calls to our families, recounting the knife, the constant stream of expletives spewing through our open windows, our stolen bins, the broken door lock, the neighbours stolen white goods and much to our surprise they all returned similar advice to us. It wasn’t the panicked maternal/paternal sympathy that we had all hoped for but instead a little dose of reality: “some people’s lives are much harder than yours will ever be.”
I think we sometimes forget that our parents are still wise and even with our fully-grown bodies and partially grown minds, they are still teaching us lessons about life.
Basically, they were nicely telling us to get over ourselves. “You’re in your twenties,” they said to us, “You’re not meant to be living it up in Paddington, you’re meant to be in Redfern learning about what life is really like.”
At dinner with friends I’d recount the story of Danny, gesticulating with gusto for comedic value, re-enacting how I imagined it would have looked when our neighbour flipped him to the ground.
I’d tell them about Aunty Judy: the self-proclaimed neighbourhood stalker, and worry that she might be listening in with special ‘stalker technology’ so would continue in a whisper.
I guess what my jokes and recounts were really masking was the fact that for the first time in a long time, I was uncomfortable with my privilege. I was forced to recognise it on a daily basis. It wasn’t the new suburb that was foreign to me but the feeling that I had about being a white, well-off, able-bodied human with a roof over my head, a fridge full of nutritional food and a well-paying job to go to everyday. I didn’t know how to be around people that weren’t like me and that was an incredibly uncomfortable realisation.
While I was busy locking my doors and hiding my jewellery there were others, literally metres away from me, who had been sitting out on the street during that awful week of heatwaves, scraping coins together to buy themselves something to eat. I’m sure they couldn’t have given two flying fucks about me or my grandmother’s engagement ring, they are just out there surviving while I am inside my house thriving.
"I didn’t know how to be around people that weren’t like me and that was an incredibly uncomfortable realisation."
I think it’s definitely okay that we had a little bit of a culture shock when we moved into a new environment, it’s natural. I don’t think it’s okay that for a short while I squeezed myself into these people’s agenda, thinking I was important enough to be of interest to them because I’m probably really not.
I’m going to keep in mind what our parents said to us, some people’s lives are hard and they are much harder than ours will probably ever be. Treat everyone with respect, recognise when you’re being a bit of a dick and always take measures to keep yourself safe, no matter what suburb you live in. Shit goes down everywhere.
*Names have been changed.
Kate Neilson is a list-maker and a booty-shaker. She likes avo on toast (because she never wants to own property) and gin and tonics (because she is a psychopath). She is the creator of Twenty Something Humans and can be lurked @katie93rose.