I was recently out with other contractors in a predominately-black, working-class neighborhood of West Baltimore assessing a potential development site. The contractors were white architects who have worked in similar neighborhoods before. On two separate occasions while taking pictures of the site, we were approached by people concerned with our actions.
The first interaction was with a group of middle aged black government employees. They told us we couldn’t take pictures of their building because for all they knew we could be, “ISIS”. I thought this was particularly amusing and ignorant since the person taking the pictures was a mid-20’s white woman. The employees laughing and bantering suggested to me that they were more concerned with fucking with us rather than building security.
The second interaction was a little tenser as it involved a Blood gang member who told us he didn’t like us taking pictures around his neighborhood. Instead of heeding his warning our approach was to engage the man and tell him why we were taking the pictures. What followed was an enlightening conversation on how we could improve the areas connectivity to better help the elderly population who had to walk too far to get their services. I admit with how the conversation began I was a little nervous because the man was pretty intimidating and he was sizing us up. We had cameras and other equipment on us and I was thinking, shit I hope he doesn’t try to rob us. Given that I was the only black person in the group, I also felt pressure to figure out a way to deescalate the situation before anything got out of hand.
The reality is I stereotyped the gang member and there’s nothing wrong with that. What I didn’t do was act out on that stereotype. Instead I treated the person for what he was, a human being. Because of that approach we all were able to benefit from the conversation. The architects got to see that even the most dangerous looking individuals can have compassion for other people. The gang member got to speak to people from a life different from his. I got a chance to realize how much I stereotype my own people — and that was a sad pill to swallow.