By: M ( BreakingVoices Guest Journalist)
Naomi Levine, the owner of Tipsy Cake bakery recently stated that she moved her storefront to Bucktown from Humboldt Park because “There were just too many gunshots in the cake, so we decided to move…We did have some very upscale clients in Humboldt Park, but with Bucktown, nobody would be too scared.” She also had named one of her pastries the “Humboldt crack bar”.
There is no doubt that Naomi Levine’s comments betray latent racism about the ethnic divisions and crime in Chicago. Let’s be clear: we can all save our cookies because first and foremost she made comments that were racist. She jokes about crime in a community with a strong Puerto Rican cultural background (while Bucktown, the neighborhood she claims to be safer, is in the same scale of crime according to CPD’s clearmap). We can claim that this is just about a neighborhood, but Humboldt Park is predominantly a Puerto Rican neighborhood and to claim otherwise is to ignore the cultural centers, the icon of the neighborhood (the large Puerto Rican flag), and the clear racial make-up of its population. She also makes the distinction that they had some “upscale clients” in Humboldt Park. This distinction is made because it is supposed to be contrary to what we would believe. There’s no award for “least racist”, but what I’d like to take this as an opportunity for, however, is a guide for people with privilege, in particular white people and people with economic privilege, who have privileges granted to them by society that many people of color do not.
The relevant, but often missing, information is that crime is created by privilege- more accurately the lack of privilege. For people who lack privilege, class mobility is limited if not near impossible. So if you start out with little, you don’t to stay at “little” . In terms of Ms. Levine- a person joking about crack has probably never been in a position where selling or making drugs was one of their only options for money. This is the important context that made her comments racist: perception of danger is highly racialized not only by personal racism but also by the racism in the criminal justice system. This is information that a person with privilege should have, because for many people of color it is a lived reality. Ignorance is just another in the long list of white privileges and one that we can actively resist.
The other striking privilege-induced behavior demonstrated in these comments is individualist thinking. She showed complete lack of gratitude for a community that took in her store, despite that it could contribute to gentrification, and patronized her bakery. This is another sign of privilege, to see yourself as valuable and important enough to be the top priority. Our society tells people that if they succeed it is due to their merit and if they fail it is due to their lack of effort or intelligence. What is always left out is that we are not all born equal in the United States; with a 20,000 gap in median income between white and black people. 97% of people arrested in Chicago are not Caucasian and 31.7% of people living in Chicago are Caucasian. 75.6% of those arrests are African American people while African Americans account for less than 32.9% of the Chicago population (less than because there is no division between black Hispanic or Native people and African Americans in the Census data).(Arrest information from http://arrestjustice.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/arrests-by-race-sex-by-district-2010.pdf and demographic information from the 2010 U.S. Census)
Let’s look at Levine’s apology statement and pull out some key points for the privileged among us.
She apologized: This seems simple but for many privileged people it isn’t. It is so much easier to use your privilege to simply dismiss the allegations- “I didn’t mean it to be racist so it isn’t”, “I was just referring to crime, I never mentioned race,” or any number of other responses could have sufficed to sweep this incident under the rug while leaving all the criticisms unaddressed. However, Levine took her criticisms into consideration in a fairly adequate apology. For this, we have to thank the many people who spoke out about her comments.
She listened to Criticism: She considered the implications of her comments. For many this is a step in the painful direction of recognizing one’s own privilege. She recognizes that maybe, despite that she hadn’t intended to be terribly offensive, what she said was racist and based in privilege and uses that line of thinking to reassess her jokes. Levine manages to see that her position is not objective or above implicit bias; this is necessary for adressing racism.
This brings us to the second thing that is done right in this apology: she recognizes personal bias.
For privileged people, it is very difficult to realize that you do not have the undefeated 100% correct objective factual perspective. It helps when thousands of people express their disapproval of your comments, that makes it a bit easier to admit that maybe somewhere along the line you missed something.
But what was she still missing?
She claimed she was living in a vacuum: Maybe this reaction is a misunderstanding of the original criticism that stated that things don’t occur in a vacuum but in fact no, Naomi Levine was not living in a vacuum. Her business grew as the result of its patrons. Her patronage came from a community consisting of people with a history. History is the reason that for Naomi Levine, cops coming to her bakery is not a strange occurrence. This is not a vacuum, it just looked to her like a vacuum because she paid no attention to the people supporting her in the background and their lives.
She didn’t admit privilege: Levine could have used this as an opportunity to acknowledge and discuss privilege. While she does admit she was wrong she does not admit to the depth or reasons she was wrong. On the surface it does seem to be “ignorance”, but as many of her criticizers know, that ignorance comes from an insipid structure called “privilege”. If she had brought this up, it could have led to a much larger dialogue. I could be telling you now about the incarceration rates of people of color versus white people, I could tell you about the pay gap, not between men and women but between white people and people of color. Actually, if Naomi Levine had done a great job in her apology, you would be well versed in these areas.
In short what she fails to do in her apology is take full responsibility for her comments and their effects. She leaves us with the impression that while she feels bad that she made inappropriate comments, they were mainly a result of ignorance which clearly we can understand, right? What we needed from her is an admission that she is ignorant because she has privilege that she hasn’t had to check until now. Intentions aren’t important in racism, it exists structurally in our society and things you say may reinforce those structures. No one is claiming that Naomi Levine intentionally made racist comments but that doesn’t change the offense. It is pointless to argue that a comment wasn’t meant to be racist or to claim that it isn’t about race because in our society ninety-nine out of a hundred times it is about race, whether we notice it or not.