The Limiting Factor
About three weeks ago, my girlfriend and I met with our real estate agent to view a house. The house is on a beautiful, canopied stretch of road in southern Maine, only a few miles from where we’re currently renting. My girlfriend liked the house because of its large backyard and living room, its fully-powered shed, and its finished basement. I liked it for those reasons, too, but the most compelling detail about the house, to me, was its current proximity to where we already live.
I don’t want to shake things up too much. I don’t want to have to acclimate myself to a new climate of simmering racial anxiety. I don’t want to familiarize myself with yet another police department: Yes, I’m nearly home, officer. Yes, I commute home this time of night regularly. Yes, this is what my car looks like, so if you could make a note and pass it on to your colleagues so we can – uh huh, yes, thank you, officer. Have a good evening. Thank you, officer. Thank you.
I’m very new to house hunting, which is half of why I like it so much. The other half of my joy comes from getting to live out all the clichés of my favorite reality-adjacent show, House Hunters. For the dozen or so uninitiated, House Hunters is a show where a couple looks at three houses and chooses either one home or two divorce attorneys. From its playful narration, to the fixation on open concepts, to the music cues associated with the critical moment of choice, the show is pure comfort food.
And it’s all true. Not the execution of the show, but the tropes of the hunt. I really do value a picture window above my kitchen sink! I really do want a place for my dog to run around! Backsplashes matter!
Early in our search for a new place to live, I was annoying my girlfriend by shooting down towns and cities that she would suggest. She would name a town, and I would pull it up on a map to see how far inland it was. I would check its demographics to see if it was any less diverse than where we live now. I would look at county-by-county data to see who its residents voted for in 2016. Through this kind of unscientific process, I joylessly wrote off large swaths of the state. I became the limiting factor. If my girlfriend lived alone, she could buy anywhere she wanted. Before me, her only limits were her budget and having a commute under 30 minutes or so. And now, beautiful parts of her home state are off limits to her.
I watch House Hunters differently now, sometimes. We recently watched an episode wherein a married couple was moving out of a Philadelphia rowhouse and into the suburbs. One of the towns they were interested in moving to is called Wallingford, and I looked up information on Wallingford while watching their search. I was so charmed by the look of it on the episode, but my mind reeled with thoughts of whether I would be happy in a place like that. The nut of what I struggle with is this: I want the same things that those house hunters want in a neighborhood, but so many of those qualities are upheld by various social and institutional accoutrements of whiteness. How does anyone disentangle that desire for comfort or security in a broad sense from the comfort or security of whiteness? And once those things are uncoupled, how do we redefine the standards of comfort or security to include people who look like me?
I doubt the couple in this episode of House Hunters thought deeply about the racial makeup or politics of the areas where they looked for homes. I’m sure, after years of living in Philadelphia, they knew that Wallingford was simply the place to go when you’re ready to move to the suburbs. It’s been vetted for hundreds of years. They only had to decide whether they could live without a finished basement, if they could figure out how to arrange their furniture around an unwanted fireplace.
That’s why – this week – I can’t be mad at Kanye West. I don’t think he rejects his blackness, or hates his fans, or even that he aspires to be white. I think he sees himself as a very special person, and that he draws unjust criticism because people regularly fail to see all the ways in which he is special. And, unfortunately, he is drawn to some of the most visible people (and presidents) who fit that same bill. For Kanye, it doesn’t especially matter that this current president is a white guy. What matters is that he routinely succeeds at doing things that smart people told him he couldn’t do.
I can’t begrudge someone for aspiring to have no concern greater than an unwanted fireplace. We should all be so lucky.
When we left the open house, I followed unfamiliar roads all through the suburban and rural towns that surround the town where I live. Winter was long, and this was one of the first Saturdays with a genuine spring breeze. We rolled down our windows and listened to Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer while I tried in vain to permanently fill my lungs, my nose, my brain with the particular sweetness of acre after acre of freshly cut grass – a smell so simultaneously cool and warm and evocative of fresh bread that I swore for months after moving to Maine that it had to be wheat, and where were all these wheat farms with these fragrant amber waves that were always just out of sight?
I drive slowly when I’m on these roads, especially on days with perfect weather. Rather, I drive the speed limit, which is the slowest speed I think I can get away with while trying to soak in this experience. But locals, who are already familiar and thus unimpressed with the sights and smells of their neighborhoods, resent my speed, and tailgate, or honk, or pass my car at the earliest opportunity. I make a kind of impotent gesture with my left hand, to the passing scenery or to a speed limit sign, encouraging them to pass me. What else can I do? They have places to be, and I’m already there.
We had been driving for about twenty minutes when I saw signs for the town where our real estate agent lives. Approaching an intersection, I noticed a house across the street with an oversized Confederate flag. I turned right to loop back towards our own neighborhood, towards the familiar. But the flag was so destabilizing, it tainted the second half of our drive. I suspected every pickup truck, and the dive bar down the road from the flagged house, and the bikers pulling in to the bar’s parking lot. I don’t want to say I have a sixth sense for impending rebel flags whilst country driving, but I did think we were about ten minutes overdue for such a sighting. In Maine, even more so than in my hometown in Central Florida, the flag has only one meaning. It confirmed for me that I was right to rule out so many dozens of towns in mine and my girlfriend’s house hunt. It confirmed that house hunting, which is generally fun whether its vicariously on HGTV or in person, is an exercise in negation for nonwhite people. Crossing places, whole communities, off lists. That so many of us see the limits that smallminded people and malicious institutions put on us, and we limit ourselves even further.
When my girlfriend mentioned the flag to our real estate agent, she was shocked and upset. I wish the flagbearer’s neighbor had been upset enough to shame them into not displaying it. That’s the task of a neighbor. That kind of vetting hasn’t gone on for hundreds of years, but this is a good year to start.
I turned down the music. I rolled up the window. I couldn’t smell the grass anymore, anyway.