Resisting constant surveillance in my predominantly white neighborhood
I feel so exposed walking around my community, like I have no business taking up space lest the police be called on me.
By Gloria Oladipo
I am tired of my white neighbors watching me, my family, and other residents of color. I’m anxious that their surveillance will get my Black family hurt, especially with the unchecked power of law enforcement in our community. They take pictures of us in the park. They mount “Blue Lives Matter” signs and flags, reminding us of their power to use the police as personal bodyguards. They give side-eye from the comfort of their hulking minivans, eyes of accusation that say, “Why the fuck are you here?”
I feel so exposed walking around my community, like I have no business taking up space lest the police be called on me. I’m fearful, angry, and made to feel so unsafe. White residents are given their right of privacy while I and other residents of color are denied ours because of my neighbors’ bigotry.
My family and I have lived in our mostly white neighborhood for almost 19 years. It is not a community I would think of as home. We came because my parents thought the neighborhood was one of the few affordable and safe locations in the city, one of few neighborhoods with good local schools. It was a decision they made based on circumstance, not an infatuation with the community itself.
My siblings and I have all gone to the neighborhood schools. We’ve played in the parks, volunteered in the summer camps and libraries. Not to suggest that familiarity is the metric for whether to surveil or not, but we aren’t strangers here. Compared to the couple who moved in next door less than a year ago, we have an established connection. My parents who aren’t ready to begin the process of selling their house, so leaving isn’t an option for me.
But the community’s anti-Blackness means we stick out. It enables white neighbors to write us off as the clumsy, intrusive foreigners being graciously tolerated in their space. We are watched under the guise of “community care” (“We’re just looking out for one another!”) even while we’re invited to help watch others.
My neighborhood and the thousands of other predominantly white ones that Black children find themselves out of necessity (either due to their parents choice or some other circumstance) is a common place for policing. Unlike the BBQ Beckys and Permit Pattys that received national attention for wielding the police as weapons against us, these instances of watching go mainly unnoticed. When white people police people of color, it’s normalized and seen as appropriate. Why wouldn’t they surveil their space if they believe communities inherently belong to white people?
In a Facebook group dedicated to my neighborhood, residents will frequently post videos from their security cameras for others to see. They ask the other anxious soccer moms and overly aggressive dads, “Do you see the way that suspicious person is walking past my car?” Others will chime in affirmatively, mentioning their own experiences with “suspicious” people.
Someone else will create a new thread, snitching about the people they caught “smoking” in the park: “With as many police officers that live in our community, I wish there was more vigilance of our park to prevent this from happening.” The only form of criticism or reflection during the hysteria is someone asking why the police weren’t called instead of harassing someone personally.
A worried white woman behind the comfort of her computer screen calls for a “midnight walking group” to deter the “nonsense.” Others jump in, excited at the opportunity to watch and control others. They act as if walking as a non-white person is a crime because to them it is. Everyone is eager to police the difference out of the community.
It’s bizarre to watch my community fret about looming threats when so many existing ones aren’t dealt with. Our neighborhood had the highest amount of Trump supporters within our very “liberal” city. In response to a rumor about teachers at the local elementary school creating a curriculum about the Black Lives Matter movement, there was uproar from parents in our beloved Facebook group. “Teach [Black people] about wrong and right and following the law,” “ALL LIVES MATTER,” with someone else adding “I said that once..got my AZZ chewed off LOL.”
No one wanted to police the man in the group calling multiple people (including myself) “retarded.” No one wanted to correct the person who asked me “why I moved here” if I didn’t like the racism I had experienced. For a neighborhood supposedly invested in the wellness of its community members, the selective watching and correcting is a clear demonstration of the bias and anti-Blackness my neighbors refuse to deal with.
I’m frustrated that I feel such a sense of anxiety when walking around my community. I worry about having my picture plastered in the Facebook group, someone accusing me of doing illegal activities. I feel anxious when I make eye contact with white parents who hurriedly avoid my path with their children in tow. When people treat you as a thing that needs to be watched, as someone who needs to be surveilled and avoided, it’s easy to internalize that position as an outsider.
I know logically that I have as much of a right to this community as anyone else, but I don’t get excited to leave my house knowing that I’m not ensured basic privacy on account of people’s nosiness. My close friend, one of the only other people of color in the community, and I often talk about our plans to move. We sit in the park, our heads on a constant swivel, as we watch white people watching us.
I worry about the impact of this heightened surveillance on my family and friends. I have Black siblings, a brother who is frequently in the park playing basketball or riding around on his bike. When they ask for “vigilance” from the many cops in the community, they are asking to be protected from him. Will my neighbors call the cops on my brother for walking past their car “suspiciously”? Will they accuse him of smoking and drinking as an excuse to have him detained? My friend has a Black brother as well. Will he be next, caught in the crossfire of the white gaze?
When Black people are already hypervisible in society, the added expectation of spying makes my brother and other neighbors of color easy targets. I genuinely fear for their safety as my neighbors are not in a rush to hold themselves, or the officers who they so comfortably call upon, accountable. When there is such a lack of awareness around one’s anti-Blackness, I’m not expecting my neighbors to do the work of interrogating their biases.
In the meantime, I actively reject the way my neighbors watch me. If my friend and I are up for it, we will ask people who they are staring and what they are looking for in the park. White people call it hostile; I call it necessary.
I often do the solo work in the group chat of clapping back at people. They don’t understand the consequences of advocating for increased police presence and a neighborhood watch group, but they need to. No, you’re not going to take pictures of people without their consent and accuse them of criminal activity. I’m sorry, Sussan, but it’s not ok to call the cops on children who you believe are being rowdy. This is the active resistance towards the order maintenance policing my neighbors so desperately crave.
My neighbors like to watch me and other people of color. It is both a way of bonding and projecting their fears about those they see as different. Unfortunately for them, myself and other residents of color are not here for their organized surveillance, even if it brings them closer together under the frenzy of perceived trouble. May I suggest a book club instead?
Gloria Oladipo is a Black/Nigerian-American first year student at Cornell University. Based in Chicago, IL.