Of Privacy and Racism

The pink flower poked out onto the sidewalk. It looked pretty, a little bit mischievous – worthy of a quick capture. So I paused in my walk to take the snapshot, to hear a woman yelling, “Don’t do that!”

Floral - pink
this is not the flower in question

My camera was already poised. I could have just hit the button. But, curious as to what this woman thought I was doing, I paused. “Why?”

A woman stood before me, dressed in long skirts. She wrapped her head in a scarf but her hair showed – if she was Muslim, she didn’t practice the hair standard.

“That’s private property!”

Well, yes – it was private property, viewable by the public. US law is quite clear on the subject. If you put it in your front yard, people can take pictures of it. You might not like it, but legally, there’s nothing you can do about it except ask people nicely not to. That’s how US law is supposed to function. If you don’t like it but you lose nothing from it, you just have to live with it. Example: the strikedown of DOMA. Free speech. In theory, freedom of and freedom from religion. No one would lose anything because I took one picture of one flower, isolated from its original context.

This particular property owner put quite a lot in her front yard. She even included creepy little dolls. I assumed she was just concerned about the location, something reasonable – maybe a stalking problem, I heard that a lot and I always honored not taking pictures of people without consent because of that. I attempted to explain that I was just taking a picture of one flower – that I generally avoid taking pictures that identify the specifics of someone’s address. Whoever lived at this house did not have a problem with public identification – two brightly colored vehicles, painted in the colors of the Kenyan flag, sit in the driveways.

I tried to explain that because it was viewable from the public streets, I was doing nothing illegal.

The woman had no interest in hearing me. “That’s the problem with you Americans! You take pictures of everything. You have to learn to just  look!” She carried on about privacy and brushed off my attempts to explain that the US had had a whole lot of court cases about it and determined actions like mine are considered harmless. She refused to provide any example of how I might be hurting her family with one shot of one rose.

It became clear at the “You Americans,” that whatever this was about, it had nothing to do with privacy. It became clear as she wagged her finger at me I was dealing with some bigotry – and considerable hypocrisy. I have known a LOT of people from Kenya, along with many from many other countries. It is not just Americans – both continents and the isthmus – that are notorious shutterbugs. One of the best street photographers I’ve ever known came from Kenya -a trickier business, since he takes shots of people more than I do. Despite the millennial obsession with the selfie, most US citizens are still astonishingly camera shy. Most that do obsess with their cameras have less interest in botany.

She claimed that a family member owned the property. She insisted I should be very, very afraid of that neighbor and what she “might do.” This is of course, the worst possible approach you can take when establishing international relations with any neighbor – especially since she was definitely operating on the assumption that since I was white, I should be afraid of my spooky African neighbor and her spooky African practices. I’ve known too many people from Africa spooky and not – and I’ve also had family members speak “for me” and indicate thoughts and opinions that I most certainly do not have. I attempted to make no assumptions about her in her blackness – I’m sure I made a few and tried to be conscious that I did not always know what I thought I did. She made lots about me in my whiteness, and from the spew that came from her mouth it became clear that giving any correction to her multitude of dead wrong assumptions might lead to a mental breakdown. Besides, she was itching for a fight. She wanted to prove her power. She assumed I needed to prove mine. She also assumed – incorrectly – that I don’t know what it’s like to be an immigrant or a minority. She had no way of knowing that I’m one of the “not quite white” hidden thoughout the US, that I lived to see my racial status change from a serious segragatory matter to something physically not recognized. She did not know – and was not interested in learning – that I am also a religious minority in the United States.

Racism is always about power. There are, in current thought, two kinds of racism: institutional racism – this is the race with the most power holding onto it because, well, power. In the United States it is impossible for a person of any color but white to be an institutional racist. Then there’s the other kind, the type where someone tries to use assumptions about race to gain power over another. This is what this woman was doing – an irrational, verbal assault trying to tell me I didn’t have the rights I knew we both had. She either banked on me not knowing better because most youngish white women in Minnesota don’t know better or she simply did not learn what she should to live here herself. I should hope if I went to Kenya (assuming she told me the truth about who lived in that house and her relationship to that person) that someone would hold me accountable if I willfully ignored the freedoms and limitations of that land, insisting my US citizenship and cultural beliefs overrode where I happened to be. I know US Americans among other industrial Western types have done this and that’s why Africa is a mess. I wasn’t involved so I can’t apologize, but perpetrating more evil won’t help anybody.

I let her carry on and kept defusing from the confrontation she clearly angled for. I was offended by her assumption of my fear. I was offended by her assumption of my superstition about her based on her skin color. I was offended, above all, that she has family that lives here with enough commitment to own property – and that she does not consider herself an American. Trying to shame me with my race and for not sharing her values just made me feel ashamed that someone like this, with so little respect for my country in both its brokenness and wholeness, felt entitled to tell me how to live in it when I was honoring the law – and in no way risking her family’s privacy.

My country is not perfect. It is definitely not paved with gold. But I’d appreciate it if some of these extremely angry young women found ways to use that energy to build good things rather than try to tear down and control others. Just because it’s done – by my own and their own – does not mean that we have some sort of right or obligation to repeat it.