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Erasure: Demeaning, Devaluing, Dehumanizing

While reading the article about a Black couple whose home was valued at $500k more when their white friends pretended to be the owners, a wave of sadness came over me. A bit of deja vu. I’ve had this experience, I thought. An alert from my phone swept me away into my own memories of buying and selling homes as a Black human.

My phone dinged for the third time that day with a message from our realtor.

“You missed your diplomas. They can look you up on LinkedIn.”

“Can you take them down, put them in your back room?” I replied. Surely these won’t be that big of a deal.

“Everything has to come out - you know how people are.”

And so for the third time in a matter of hours, I returned back to the house we were trying to sell to finalize the erasure of my family from our home. I thought I had grabbed the last of everything personal in the previous two visits that day (the family pictures obviously had to come down, the second trip was for my husband’s fraternity memorabilia), but I hadn’t considered I would need to hide our collection of diplomas.

Because, as our (white) realtor and each one in the years before her explained to us, people don’t buy houses from Black people. Well, they never use those words, of course, but the message is the same.

So everything that told the world who we are, what we’ve accomplished or what we hold dear had to come out. Not just down and tucked away but out because people like to snoop while looking at houses. We are seasoned home stagers now and know better than to take the risk of someone stumbling onto something we had hidden away.

At best, they would offer hundreds of thousands less than the house is worth. At worst, no one will buy at all.

The realization that you have to stop being a person of color in order to sell your home breaks something in you. I feel it in the tips of my fingers as I take the pictures off the wall. I feel the tension throughout my entire body as I lift each object to place parts of my life, my identity, into its hiding place. There is no process or preparation for this dehumanizing ritual. Knowing this is how things are only adds to the pain. What planet are we living on where you cannot be who you are and find people willing to live in the same house you once lived in? What planet are we living on where my mere existence in a home makes it worth less to others?

Erasing our identity isn’t just part of the selling process, either. In my lifetime, we’ve had contracts on homes that seemed like a done deal, not realizing we were making the mistake of buying a home while Black, and suddenly the sellers changed their minds about moving. Each time, the house we thought could be our next home would be taken off the market within a day or two, only to mysteriously be relisted a couple weeks later.

Once - I swung by what we thought would soon be our new home to measure something for furniture I was picking out. The owners were home and said it was fine. They changed their minds at some point between me pulling into their driveway and reaching their front door.

A second - the owners reviewed the footage of their security system after we had toured the home, wanting to know more about who would potentially live there. Shortly thereafter we got the call. Something came up, they said. The house wasn’t for sale anymore. It wasn’t to be ours, after all.

I wish my frustration could be confined to a few ignorant biased people. I wish I could say it’s just these particular homeowners. They are an anomaly. It was a one in a million event. But I know too much. They do it for a reason; it’s built into the system. If you have neighbors that you care about, you wouldn’t sell your house to a Black family. Selling your house to a Black family takes down the property value for the whole neighborhood. That's how the system works. It's still rigged to keep people of color out of some areas and confined to a certain zip code.

I’m avoiding the words “always” and “never” because I know there are many neighborhoods where things are getting better, but it certainly happens a lot.

Finding the right home should be a choice that is free from the effects of bias and prejudice, but that bias still exists in many places. But of course this is just one element of life.

How many moments of valuation, or devaluation, of our homes and our lives - in job interviews or performance evaluations, in raising money for a new business, in doctor’s visits, in interactions with police - exist in every Black life? And what are the aggregated consequences across generations?

What is the impact on our wealth, on our health, on our futures?

If you’ve had similar experiences, or have heard of them from friends, I would love for you to comment here and share them with me, and send this to others who may have as well. Our experiences cannot change until we call them out whenever and wherever they occur. We can dismantle the systems put in place that cause disparities for our Human race, but we must be willing to speak out when the inequities appear. For those who might find the story that’s been in the news recently to be unbelievable: I hope my experience makes it more real for you.

In the words of MLK, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

Sharing our stories is how we shine a light into the shadows.

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