Juliet Takes a Breath – Reflection: The Ghetto

Mount Vernon and The BronxSource: The All-Nite Images via Flickr Creative Commons

Spoiler Alert Note: it is not possible to read this reflection without having one particular scene spoiled in the book, Juliet Takes a Breath. I have omitted as much detail as possible to leave the scene as unspoiled as possible, but this blog post will likely still spoil it for you. Read at your own discretion.

In the book, Juliet Takes a Breath, there is a scene where [spoiler alert] a white woman refers to the Bronx neighborhood where Juliet, a Latina, grew up as “the ghetto” and claimed that Juliet grew up “dodging bullets.” But it is not how Juliet sees her neighborhood. So what is going on here?

When I was young, I was raised in the country, like farm country. When we took a trip to a big Midwestern city, where both my parents grew up, they mentioned that there were certain neighborhoods where it was unsafe to go. Years later, when I was headed off to college in same said city, my parents sat me down and explained that the neighborhoods which were predominantly inhabited by people of color were unsafe and “the ghetto.” This rule of thumb stayed with me when I moved in Queens. On one of my first subway rides into Manhattan, I realized I was the only white person on the train and immediately felt unsafe. I checked that reaction and thought I worked through this racist view that a predominance of persons of color equals an unsafe area or neighborhood. It turns out I was wrong.

When the white woman placed on Juliet this presumption of how Juliet’s life was growing up, my heart sank. It sank for the pain and anguish it caused Juliet, but it also sank as I realized I had likely done this myself to persons of color in my own life. At the very least, I had assumed the neighborhoods they grew up in were unsafe. At worst, I had actually referred to a neighborhood a person of color grew up in as a ghetto and obviously naively sympathized for how hard that must have been. In reality, I knew that I had refused to go into to certain neighborhoods which were inhabited by predominantly persons of color in Washington, DC when I lived there (after moving out of Queens) because I considered those neighborhoods unsafe “ghettos.” Shamefully, after my first six months in DC, I moved out of a neighborhood which was mixed white and persons of color, though still predominantly persons of color at that time (it no longer is – gentrification is a whole other subject) because I could not feel safe in that neighborhood (and my apartment kept flooding). Where did I move? To a neighborhood nearly entirely white, but worse, I justified moving there because I was in a low-income apartment building which was mixed race. The truth is, that move never sat well with me. I denied it, but I knew I had run from facing my white privilege and these racist thoughts where I equate majority persons of color with unsafe. It took reading, Juliet Takes a Breath to force me to confront this part of me and to remind myself that I still have plenty of room for growth when it comes to racism.

I am grateful to have read Juliet Takes a Breath so I could have gained this insight. I do not know if just any book could have given me the space to gain that insight. This is the beauty of Juliet Takes a Breath; it discusses all these hard issues and forces people to check themselves, but not in a harsh or judgmental way. The characters in the book do not cast out the woman who called Juliet’s neighborhood a ghetto. Instead, they discuss it and give her the space to grow, which is exactly what I needed. I needed a safe space in which to confront my racism and then find a way forward. [spoiler alert] As the woman says while they discuss this transgression, “I am a fucking racist moron and any white person living in this damn country, if any of us tell you otherwise, is a liar and not to be trusted.” Because of Juliet Takes a Breath, I have accepted that I am a racist, but like any other flaw, I am continuing to work to overcome it. This blog is part of my attempt to do just that.

Have you had a similar experience, either assuming a person of color grew up in a ghetto or having someone assume that about you? Please share your experiences below and discuss!

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8 thoughts on “Juliet Takes a Breath – Reflection: The Ghetto

    • Thank you! It really is a unique gift this book gave me! I have found books to impact me since I was a child, but now as I mature, I am seeing and feeling that impact in many different ways.

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  1. I have really enjoyed your reflections. Having moved back to the Flint area, it is interesting to me how the issues of race come up, especially around people’s opinions ranging from going to Flint for various events/activities to the Flint water Crisis. Some people will be appalled that I would go anywhere in Flint by myself and blame the people there for the Water Crisis. Then there are other people, like myself, who love Flint and not just the gentrification side. As you said that can be a whole other issue.

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    • Thank you for your comment! I had not really thought about how the sentiment of “the ghetto” can be applied to cities generally, but you are absolutely right. Having lived in big East Coast cities for so long, I now focus on the nuance of neighborhoods, but before I moved to those cities and was going to college in Milwaukee, I remember some friends from high school would not come visit me because “they would get shot if they did.” I now realize how much that had to do with race instead of just being afraid of an unknown city which is much much larger than the hometown I grew up in. While it shouldn’t be, it is still incredible to me how insidious racism is and how much it is built into everything to the point where many people do not realize they are accepting and perpetuating the very racism they abhor.

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