Who is this miracle speaking to me?
Because I come from a pretty long line of homebodies, it’s a little bit ironic that I’ve become such an ardent advocate for neighborliness. But more and more, it’s starting to feel not just like a radical kindness thing to do, but a politically active one. Of course knowing my neighbors means I feel safer around them; I know I could ask for help if I needed it, and that we are watching out for one another’s spaces and things. More importantly, though, I’m increasingly aware that knowing them can be the difference between comfort and fear. When I read this story about a fourteen-year-old boy who missed his bus and was shot at by his neighbors when he knocked to ask for directions to school, a chill went through my heart.
There are a few young men who live in the building behind ours who cut through our parking lot and jump the fence to get from our street to theirs. It’s really a reasonable shortcut, given the layout of this neighborhood, but even though they’ve never shown me any animosity or even the vaguest hint of a threat, and even though I know that they live within sight of my house, I always have a twinge of anxiety when I see them because I don’t know who they are. Although I think my reaction is probably a pretty common one, I’m coming to realize that it might not actually be justifiable, and recently it’s become pretty clear that reactions like mine can be deadly. If my initial reaction to a person who has made absolutely zero threats to me or anything I own is “you don’t belong here,” that’s a problem.
I recently read (but unfortunately can't seem to find again) a twitter thread from a woman who, after the latest incident of a teenage black boy being killed because his neighbors saw him as a threatening stranger, went around her community and introduced her teenaged son to everyone she could find. She wanted to make sure her neighbors would know her son belonged there. And although this was probably a good idea on her part, it’s a little ridiculous that it fell on her to do it. I’ve probably made it pretty clear over the course of my last several letters that I think there are thousands of important reasons to know your neighbors, but among them, especially if you're white, is "so you know that kid and don't do something that leads to his death." That something can range from pulling a gun yourself to calling cops who too frequently do it for you. For our black, brown, disabled, and poor neighbors, being recognized when seen is all too often literally a life-or-death question.
When we treat the people around us as problems to be solved, it becomes more too easy to think of them as either Belonging or Not Belonging. When we see each other as nothing more than traffic to avoid, eyes not to meet, a stranger hogging a seat, or noisy neighbors we complain about to our friends in the morning, we risk losing another piece of the human context that keeps us safe together. Knowing your neighbors, even if only by sight, makes a big difference in restoring that context.
I’m reminded, too, of the fact that I once had a decal on my car for my doula practice, and that having it (and, therefore, being recognizable) made me think a lot differently about how I behaved on the road. It forced me to be more generous and more responsible, because if I wasn’t, it could reflect badly on my work in ways that would be difficult to measure. It was the first time in the city that I wasn’t anonymous, and it changed my experience. Although I no longer have that decal, it’s a reminder that recognizing and being recognized is a feedback loop for more sociable behaviors. When we know each other, we behave differently. Knowing your neighbors can feel like a quaint, Mayberry-esque thing to do, but it’s a really easy step most of us can take to help keep one another safe.
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