Skateboarding, watermelon and stereotypes about Detroit

Jul 11, 2012

Most of what people think they know about what poor people look like and what their problems are is clouded by stereotypes.

I met a group of young journalists in Midtown Detroit looking to paint a more accurate version of what life in a low-income community is really like. They write for a project called “Our life in the D.” Most of them are in high school and from neighborhoods in Detroit that don’t attract much money or attention.

These are neighborhoods people might have written off. But these reporters are covering the good things that happen in their neighborhoods-that’s their beat. They are all relentlessly positive about their city.

“When I hear negativity about Detroit, I always have our back, because I’ve been working in Detroit since I was in the seventh grade, and I’m going up for a senior now," says Kaelin Austin, 17.

I wanted these young journalists to tell me what it’s like to grow up in a place people might think of as a “bad neighborhood."

They brainstormed questions they could ask each other and then interviewed each other about growing up in Detroit. Kaelin Austin interviewed 15 year-old Donald Gibson.

Kaelin: “Donald, what were you brought up to expect from yourself?”

Donald: “I was brought up to expect academic excellence, excellent morals and a good sense of self-worth. Knowing who I am and where I came from.”

Kaelin: "Growing up, what did you consider a struggle?"

Donald: "A huge struggle growing up for, well, not just me, but anybody was bullying. Because we come from places where it’s all about what you wear and how you look instead about how smart you are and who you are as a person.  So, you know, I used to get bullied around when I was 11 for being really, um, skinny and shrimpy, I guess. And that was a real struggle. That’s something you have to cope with everyday…until it stops."

Kaelin: "What is the most important part of your identity?"

Donald: "I would like to say that it is my music, but in reality, it’s my faith. Because everything I believe in is based off of who I believe in."

As we talk about identity, there is frank discussion about stereotypes. All of the writers are young and black. Most of them grew up in families with limited financial means. They often have to break down misperceptions people have about them.

"A lot of people at my school, they would try to skateboard. And some of the kids from the suburban communities would come to my school and try to skateboard with us," says Champagne Peterson, 17. "And they would be like, 'I didn’t know you all kids in Detroit could skateboard.' And we were like, 'yeah-we like a lot of the things you all like too.'"

These ideas we have about who likes to skateboard and what it is like to grow up in and around poverty tend to come from the media.

Research shows two things about the way the media portrays poverty. Martin Gilens is a politics professor at Princeton University. He says during a recession, there are lots of sympathetic stories about poverty, and there are lots of white people featured in these stories.

"But, when times are good, and portrayal of poverty is more negative, and poor people themselves are blamed for their condition the proportion of African-Americans in these images increases," Gilens says.

In reality, there are always three times as many white people as black people living in poverty. And what all of these people do with their lives-that is all over the map.

But stereotypes don’t budge easily.

Even Champagne Peterson, the aspiring skateboarder and Our Life in the D reporter can be tripped up.

"It was hot outside, and my friends had bought watermelon that day-- stereotypical Black person food. But it’s really not, because you can find people everywhere who really like watermelon," says Champagne. 

"I hate watermelon," chimes in Jazmin McMullen, immediately.

"I hate watermelon," echoes Jaman Coleman.

The Our Life in the D reporters continue working to break down misconceptions of watermelon’s popularity. And they work on higher stakes issues, like perceptions about Detroit and the abilities and character of its residents.