How I Lost My Fear of Being White in Compton

It was a dry, yellow day in Los Angeles when I clomped my way up Hollywood Boulevard to tour one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural treats, the Hollyhock House. The couple that joined me was from Pittsburgh and the husband was a Lloyd Wright aficionado. I felt very artsy, cultured, and even privileged to be there. We gossiped about the late owner of the house and the architect himself as though we had visited the early decades of the 20th Century on some other vacation.

I was surprised that some rooms were tarped-off, concealing wreckage from water damage. Others had spider webs and dust clots draping the door frames and ridges.

“Times are tough,” the curator said. “But education and Medicare have to come before art. Half our citizens don’t even speak English properly.”

I was so impressed by her pragmatism. (Later I would chat with a curator for the Latin American Museum of Art, in a much different quadrant of LA, and he would say roughly the same thing.)

Several of my friends in Canada are artists, or art brats, as I like to think of them in my head, constantly grappling for funding in some bizarre frenzy of entitlement, as though because our Albertan cities are dominated by engineers and oil execs we deserve government money for flimsy art projects.

I lunched in the novelty charm of a drugstore soda fountain and decided to spend the remainder of my day in an area of the city where what the curator had said would be obvious.

I took the blue line through Compton all the way to the end, to Long Beach, by myself. I was the only white person on the train. The car was packed with strollers, saggy-assed sweat pants, nose piercings, super-sized pop sippers, gum-snapping and large hoop-earings. Preconceptions and flashbacks to Jerry Springer episodes cycled through my mind. I was terrifyingly nervous. Stomach-tight, clammy-handed, short-breathed, nervous.

I wheeled my Ipod menu to Shakira and absorbed her nasal belts for power and strength, reminding and assuring myself that I could pass for Latina if I had to.

When I disembarked a hippy on a bike informed me which direction to walk in order to hit a trendy neighborhood. A few blocks in I felt again like I was caught in a bad rap video. At a street corner, waiting for the lights to change, a man said a regular, friendly “hi”, and a car carrying a big, black woman with a cigar in her teeth slowed.

“Hey baby what’s goin’ on,” the big mama yelled out the passenger side.

To my surprise, and pride, I responded with natural ease a simple, “‘Sup.” She nodded and smiled and the car continued to roll down the street. In that moment all my fears were completely assuaged and I felt totally at home in this projecty area of Long Beach.

I had forgotten that despite the skin heads with tattoos on their necks and 50cents-in-training, doing chin-ups on anything metal and pole-like, that people are still just people. I’m not unfamiliar with being a minority – I was painted white and rosy and crammed into a too-small dress on the set of a Chinese soap opera when I lived in Hong Kong – but I am unfamiliar with being so caught up in stereotype and hype that I would feel faint at the sight of an infamous station sign, even if the sign did sayCompton.

I love LA. I love all it’s greasy Vinnys and vivacious, mouthy Laticias, and how one block you’re sipping a Venti, skinny chai latte marveling a cutting-edge installation, and on the next you’re ‘supping gangstas in wife beaters and munching tacos al pastor.

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