I’ve been only once to Baltimore, just spent a few hours there. It was in November 1998, I had been living in the US for just about four months. We had a small road trip with a few French friends and coworkers. Sure, I can’t really have an opinion of the city, being there less than a day and all, but it left me a strange impression.
We mostly visited the Inner Harbor, it was a very nice and quite touristy place, but really the kind of urbanization I really like in a big city, especially because I’m a sucker for nice looking neighborhoods and buildings by the water.
After a nice stroll in that neighborhood, we decided to explore the city a bit further. This was the day I learned that American cities can have very strange layouts and that America was way more segregated than I had ever suspected. Little by little we ended up in a Black neighborhood, without even realizing – did we even know there was such a thing?
What’s ironic is that we got attracted to those streets because they were lively as opposed to the other streets before where there were almost nobody. At first nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Yet, the more we walked, the more looks were being insistent upon us. At some point there was a tangible uneasy feeling. We didn’t belong, and people were showing that to us more and more.
I was still not sure what to make of that, but the girls with us were getting scared, especially when we started being interjected and when an empty bottle crashed near us (it could have been an accident, but somehow I doubt it). We quickly left and returned to the Inner Harbor. I’m not exactly sure where we were, looking at the map now, it may have been around Howard Street. I don’t know.
So, yeah, it is in Baltimore that I experienced that racism was well and alive in the United States, and also where I experienced being the victim of racism for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware that my “people” (the Whites) are the biggest perpetrators of racism on this planet, and I won’t act all uptight because I have been its target once in my life (I can’t recall it happened again, at least not that openly) the same way I’ve read and heard some other White people being all shocked to be on the wrong end of that nasty stick during a trip or something.
An interesting detail happened shortly before entering the neighborhood. We were at a McDonald’s, to get a coffee I think (we were still fresh out of France and as such, we were also very confused by not finding cafés in every corner of every street). We were probably the only White people in the McDonald’s, I can’t remember, but what I remember was the guy at the table next to us, giving us those nasty looks clearly meaning “you don’t belong here, you should get out of here soon” and suddenly, he heard that we were not speaking English. He simply walked to us and asked where we were from. Upon hearing our answer, his face suddenly lightened up, he became really nice and started small talking with us (you know the usual “how long have you been here? is this your first time in Baltimore? etc.)
I found it very interesting that once he knew we were French, we stopped being “Whites” to become “French people.” And now that I think about it, I have seen the opposite happen in Paris. Black Americans not being perceived as “Blacks” but simply as “Americans” by French people.
Well, this post is much heavier than I meant it to be, but truth is that after deciding to write about this day spent in Baltimore, this is really the only memory that came back. Hopefully, one day I’ll return there and have much lighter anecdotes to tell afterwards.