25 years ago today, my mom and I left Chicago and arrived in central Florida to begin a new life. I was two, she was 28 (a year older than I am now… yikes), and almost everyone we loved was suddenly a thousand miles away in breezy Chicago or its soft-grassed suburbs. I was distraught and ungrateful; she was newly divorced and brave enough to make this daunting leap alone.
Almost every day since then, I’ve missed Illinois and hated this state. I never adjusted to the weather, I flew back “home” to spend every school break with my cousins, and as I got older, I learned to associate the whole godforsaken state with Southern accents, slow drivers, relentless mosquitoes, close-minded bigots, and the bullies who killed animals for “sport” and tormented me for a popularity boost.
Of course, people have been trying to change my mind and deprogram my Windy City loyalty for years. My mom always laughs when I answer “where are you from?” with “Chicago”, because of course I’m not actually from there, even if my only good childhood memories are. Others have patronized me ad nauseum for missing Illinois at all, especially when I cite “weather” as Reason #1. (It’s preposterous, apparently, that someone would choose four seasons over endless stretches of humidity and heat.)
Even co-workers at my most recent job would smile smugly and declare with absolute certainty that I “wouldn’t be saying that” if I had to deal with blizzards and bitter winters (like I’ve never melted snow in a fireplace during blackouts, or scraped windshields long after I couldn’t feel my fingers). Their lack of perspective and sensitivity — could it be possible that family is more important than not having to shovel my driveway? — has always made me that much more adamant: nope, I hate Florida, and yes, I would move back to Illinois in a heartbeat.
But today — this milestone anniversary that I thought would be a final wake-up call to motivate my move, once and for all — I’m finally grateful that I grew up here.
It was, surprisingly, a relatively nice trip to my beloved birthplace that did it. A couple weeks after returning from a vacation in Chicago, I finally appreciate so many things about my Florida upbringing, including:
- the diversity and kindness of my IB classmates, who made sure high school was absolutely nothing like the clique-y stereotypes and soul-crushing monotony that most teens seem to experience (instead, I squeezed all of that into middle school)
- my one-of-a-kind, picturesque liberal arts college, where tuition was free for me and I could spend years making short drives to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches
- a full-time writing job right out of college, in a building where alligators and wild turkeys were parking lot regulars
- a summer job years before that, which consisted entirely of parading around a theme park in a midriff-baring patriotic peacock costume and riding water slides on my breaks
- my mom meeting my stepfather so soon after our move, and the still-thriving pest control business they built together (between snow birds and bird-sized pests, the market is booming)
- a childhood full of annual Disney passes (back when they were affordable for the less-than-wealthy), and the luxury of memorizing the layouts of parks that are pipe dreams for so many kids
- falling in love with a lifelong Tampa resident, and joining him there instead of aimlessly haunting my college town for too many years
These have little to do with comparisons to Chicago, but they emerged in plain view as the rose tint faded from my proverbial glasses. That tint faded with force, too; no trip has been as disenchanting or clarifying as this one.
Because most importantly, I’m grateful that my experiences in Florida didn’t blind me to my own privilege. Because I grew up in central Florida, went to college in Sarasota, and began my adult life in Tampa, I never became desensitized to the racial or economic segregation that poisons Chicago and whitewashes its suburbs.
I know Florida’s not much better. Killer George Zimmerman is a security guard, while Marissa Alexander sits in prison for injuring absolutely no one. Our governor Rick Scott got rich off making people poorer, and continues to do so. A confederate flag bigger than a billboard has waved over a local highway for decades. Our laws and schools and traditions are embarrassing at best, so when I say I’m lucky that I can still recognize my own privilege, I’m speaking from a very insular perspective. But I can’t speak from another one, and I won’t try to.
I was the “poor kid” at the private school that permanently damaged my psyche, but I’d choose that a million times over feeling superior to genuinely poor peers, or being conditioned to dismiss other races. I know casual, unashamed racism is still everywhere here, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t just realize that the Chicago area takes it to a whole new level, both personally and institutionally (how was the gun violence epidemic not a clue?).
My twelve-day trip with Joel was the longest we’ve ever taken together, and the most time I’ve spent in the state for years. And it was full of warm family gatherings and beautiful sight-seeing, and I’m glad we went.
But it also gave us enough time to notice one big, glaring, dark cloud over every neighborhood we visited: racism.
I don’t know if it’s been this casual all along or if it’s gotten worse, but from the second we stepped out of the airport until the night before we left, the ignorance was absolutely everywhere, and the inequality was absolutely astonishing. It probably helped (or didn’t help?) that Ferguson was still a war zone when we landed, filling airwaves with conjecture and everyone’s head with strong, if misinformed, opinions. Some examples:
- a bitter bigot of a Chicago cop, who “envied” us for living in a red state that wasn’t filled with lazy n*****s dependent on taxpayer money (so who pays his salary, exactly…?)
- another city worker — a paramedic younger than me — whose girlfriend has to “run inside” and lock the doors when the lawn service comes, because “all Mexicans are animals” who harass women (as though the world doesn’t still cater to the sexual desires of straight white men, or pretend wealthy men aren’t really rapists, and as though she could live where she does without the displacement of black and Hispanic service workers)
- Chicago neighborhoods with borders so clearly defined that at one El stop, the tracks divided filthy sidewalks and commuters of color from the city-swept streets and all-white families on the other
- a white woman who couldn’t show us a strip of Arabic restaurants without explaining why she “hates those Arabs” after 9/11 (our mouths watered for falafel, then fell open in disbelief)
- another one parroting Fox News (I only realized this later, when I heard a near-verbatim segment) comparing the victim of “that poor cop” in Ferguson to the gang members whose stray bullets killed a child in Chicago that week
- an old white man at a toddler’s birthday party, whose face twisted into alarming disgust at the opening credits of The Best Man Holiday when it came on TV, and his friend who echoed his disgust while violently grabbing the remote and screaming “what the hell is this shit?!”
- the gradual progression from squeaky-clean stations and manicured parks to government buildings so neglected they looked abandoned, as we rode the Metra from the far-western suburbs into the city
I could go on, but I feel my body temperature rising and my fingers going cold while all the blood boils up to my head. The lack of awareness and severity of hatred was just. so. nauseating, especially when we were surrounded by physical reminders of the inequalities that directly benefited the very same people.
Of course, economic and racial segregation is still very real in every single state, city and town in America (the economic divide between white and black families has tripled since the 80′s). But there’s a good reason that Chicago’s notorious for gangsters and gang members; it has always had a huge class warfare problem.
I kept delaying this post because I don’t have an answer, and I don’t really have any original insights either. It’s not my story to tell, and I didn’t suffer directly because of this prejudice. But it’s all just a microcosm of the disease that makes this country near-inhospitable for so many people, through no fault of their own. It’s no different from India’s caste systems or France’s aristocrats; it’s unsustainable, feudal, and it makes life so much easier for white kids who are born above the poverty line.
“Self-motivation” isn’t the recipe to bringing millions out of poverty, as so many people like to claim. Addressing racial disparity is the first step, and that starts with recognizing the systemic privileges that favor white names on job applications and ignore murder victims of color because of where they live.
A recent Citizen Radio podcast addressed the pratfalls of the “colorblind progressive”, someone who claims to be so fair and well-evolved that a person’s race doesn’t affect their perceptions at all. Stephen Colbert constantly parodies this, and Allison and Jamie put it pretty perfectly: it’s not the first thought that defines you, but the second. We’re conditioned to respond in certain ways to certain sights and sounds, and when we grow up as the majority and hear skewed statistics about the minority, it rubs off.
Despite the fact that I’ve had close friends from countless countries and backgrounds, I still grew up with shameful assumptions, and without any real concept of the fact that my safety, health, and housing were luxuries and privileges that most of the world doesn’t have. It took me the better part of 25 years to confront my own biases and see the doors opening for me while they slammed shut for others. But now that my eyes are opening — ever so slightly, I know — it’s difficult to stomach anyone who keeps theirs firmly shut.
So I guess the trip cemented something I’ve kind of always known: that I never really knew Chicago at all.
And through the steamy rain and itchy bug bites, I finally see one new truth: that Florida made me more self-aware than I would’ve been if we’d stayed, because I would’ve been surrounded by voices like those. It was a privilege to be so sheltered — to condemn inequalities that didn’t affect me or surround me, and weren’t very tangible at all — but it’s one that I refuse to ignore. It’s one that I will use to do something instead of pretending it doesn’t exist at all.
I still hate the weather. I still think the politics are counterproductive, the public education system penalizes poor kids and holds the whole state back, and the landscapes are ugly unless you’re on a rare empty beach. But I no longer glamorize the Midwest, because I realize that living amid ugliness doesn’t always mean swapping skyscrapers for swamps. Sometimes clamping your mind shut and dehumanizing entire communities is much, much worse.