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July 3, 2019

Should I Confront My Landlady Over Her Racist Decor?

Hey, Bonita…

Heyyyyy Bonita,

I live in a very reasonably priced garage apartment in a neighborhood close enough that I can easily walk or bike to work. The location is safe and comfortable, the apartment is updated, and the landlady is friendly enough but keeps her distance. She is super responsive if there's ever a problem with the apartment, but otherwise, I don't see her much, despite her living in the house right in front of me.

She has a large backyard that I often walk through in order to get to the driveway, although I can also go through the garage itself. The backyard is a really beautiful patio with serious landscaping and outdoor furniture. She made it clear when I first rented the apartment that the backyard is her space, not common space, which is fine. She has no problem with me entering and exiting through the yard—I just don't hang out there. Going through the garage is also fine, and I often do that, but it takes a little longer and is less scenic.

The problem: Among the landscaping, outdoor furniture and decorations in the backyard is this little statue. I think it's what's often called a "lawn jockey." I don't even know how to describe it in a sensitive manner. It's an image of a black…boy? man? with exaggerated, stereotypical features. My landlord is a white woman in, I would guess, her early 60s. I'm a white woman in my 30s. It's her backyard, and it's hard for me to imagine how I would suggest to her that this item is problematic.

The real problem: I don't want my friends to see it. To be honest, if white friends notice it, we usually share an uncomfortable moment over how awkward and awful an item it is. If friends who are black come over, I always make sure we enter through the garage so we don't walk past it. This is a little clumsy, but I don't see a better way around it, and I really, really would not want them to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. I've thought about "accidentally" breaking it, but I'm not sure I could convincingly make it look like an accident. Any thoughts on how to handle this?

Between a Rock and a Lawn Jockey

Between a Rock,

That sounds like a nice living situation—walkable from work, privately owned (here’s to not dealing with property management in this town), a well-maintained back garden—but there’s a well-known piece of racist imagery in full view of anyone whom you’d walk through her backyard. 

It’s 2019, and this woman has to know that people of color really don’t wanna see that shit, regardless of historical value or any myths and legends that surround jockey statues. If you decide to confront her about it, be prepared to hear either some revisionist history about them being used as signal posts on the Underground Railroad—only, like, one historian in the entire world claims this ever happened—or a statement about how she doesn’t give a damn if people don’t like her jockey. I truly hope that I am proven wrong—that she sees the poor taste in her decorative choices and decides to make her yard and her home more welcoming. 

It’s a real gamble to confront white people about casual racism nowadays, because anyone doing anything casually racist probably already knows it in these modern times. Pretending to dig racism is the worst contrarian move to make, but holy moly, do I ever hope that I am barking up the wrong tree here. The only way to find out is to ask, but I don’t envy you in that task at all. 

Still, you need to check in with yourself about your values surrounding this situation. Your behavior is a great example of how small actions by well-meaning people can help to perpetuate ideals that no one should support. You literally have a “colored” entrance to your home because of a statue—do you realize that? You’re being a bad ally by treating your friends of color like second-class citizens in an attempt to shield them from your landlord, and that is simply not OK. 

Need advice? Email advice@flagpole.com, use the anonymous form at flagpole.com/getadvice, or find Bonita on Twitter: @flagpolebonita.

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