Excerpt: Behind the White Picket Fence, by Sarah Mayorga-Gallo

Behind the White Picket Fence: Power and Privilege in a Multiethnic Neighborhood, by Sarah Mayorga-GalloBehind the White Picket Fence: Power and Privilege in a Multiethnic Neighborhood is the study of a multiethnic and mixed-income urban neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina. In this book, I discuss diversity ideology, which captures the contemporary ways that whites reconcile a national emphasis on egalitarianism with pervasive racial inequality. I argue that diversity ideology focuses on an individual’s intentions; being in favor of diversity aligns one with the humanist principles of equity and justice. Diversity ideology maintains that as long as one is interested in inclusion, s/he is inclusive; no specific actions or outcomes are otherwise demanded. I contend, however, that focusing on good intentions can obscure issues of inequality. If we are interested in equity, we must also focus on inequitable outcomes—even if they are the product of well-intentioned actions. In Chapter 2 of Behind the White Picket Fence, I identify the five ways that Creekridge Park residents define diversity and discuss how these uses, by failing to acknowledge power differentials and focus on outcomes, reinforce the race and class privilege of White homeowners. In this excerpt (pp. 45-48), I discuss how the commodification of Black and Latino/a residents in Creekridge Park is a product of diversity ideology.

A note on terminology: I use the capitalized term “White” to refer to individuals who are White and non-Hispanic. I use the lowercase term “white” to refer to a set of power relations that systemically (i.e., socially, politically, and historically) privilege European descendants and disadvantage racial others. I discuss this distinction a bit more in Chapter 1 of Behind the White Picket Fence. Throughout the book I also use three terms to designate how long residents have lived in the neighborhood: newcomer—less than five years; established resident—more than five and less than fifteen years; and longtime resident—fifteen or more years. For ease of reading, I have omitted identifying each resident quoted in this excerpt as a White homeowner. Unless otherwise noted, the reader may assume each individual discussed below is a White homeowner.

—Sarah Mayorga-Gallo


Diversity as Commodity

In Creekridge Park, White residents also perceived diversity as a commodity. In this white, urban, middle-class habitus, one of the normative responses to non-White bodies was a commodification of their otherness. By commodification I mean that non-Whites are treated as objects rather than people and are used by Whites for their own benefit and satisfaction. In Creekridge Park, what was most often commodified was the presence of non-Whites. The presence of Blacks and Latino/as in Creekridge Park is attractive to some White homeowners because it facilitates the definition of this multiethnic space as desirable. Philosopher Shannon Sullivan’s work on whiteness identifies similar patterns. She writes, “Forbidden longings for contact with the non-white other that are generated out of habits of white domination paradoxically receive an expression that renders them invisible because they are consciously experienced as a wholesome desire for diversity.”[1] So while inequitable power relations are at the root of commodifying practices, because of the diversity ideology these roots are obscured and the desires are framed positively by Whites. This is a great example of the “naturalness” of whiteness—Whites do not see themselves as oppressors and do not interpret their commodifying practices as such. As a result of the privileged position of Whites, the narrative that explains their desires and values as normal and universally beneficial becomes dominant.

Julie, a homeowner and newcomer who lives on Cardinal Street, mentioned her appreciation of the diversity in Creekridge Park:

So what I love about, like, the Creekridge Park, like, most of the people around here, um, and most the people I know, like, love the fact that we have such a huge Latino population. Like, they love the restaurants, they love that the Food Lion [a regional grocery store generally located in lower middle-income neighborhoods] is stocked with, like, spices that you wouldn’t normally get at a Kroger [a regional grocery store generally located in upper middle-income neighborhoods], and . . . that’s like, a neat part about living here and not a drawback. And that most people in this neighborhood think that’s fun.

The use of the word “fun” to describe the existence of the Latino/a communities in Creekridge Park is an excellent example of commodification. Julie and “most people” in Creekridge Park are pleased by the presence of Latino/as in the neighborhood because they influence what products are available at the neighborhood grocery store. Creekridge Park Latino/as provide both literal and figurative spice to the neighborhood.

The use of non-White bodies by Whites to designate neighborhood space as distinct from racially segregated suburbia is an important commodifying and classifying practice of this white, urban, middle-class habitus. Important to note here is that in Creekridge Park very few White residents have relationships with their non-White neighbors. Whites did, however, regularly refer to non-Whites during our interviews to signal neighborhood diversity and interracial interactions. For example, Ruth, an established resident who lives on Harris Street, listed several of her neighborhood friends by name throughout our conversation. When I asked her about interracial interactions, she responded that they occur around the neighborhood. I followed up by asking for specific examples of where she saw these interactions, and then she clarified:

RUTH: Well there’s an interracial couple that lives right next door, so there’s that. Um, I don’t really see, no, I don’t see it. I have to say I don’t see it.

SARAH: So you don’t see it, okay.

RUTH: I mean, I think it’s, um, yeah that’s an interesting thing to me. That, that’s always been interesting, that there isn’t that much mixing really, I guess. Well, there is some, um, my friend, our friend, here’s another friend up the street—of course I keep coming up with more. Jill Lewis, who is African American, she’s a good friend and comes to the parties at Kathleen’s and then with Deena and um, but, none of the other. There’s Hispanic families, you know, there’s interaction in that, you know, I talk to Mr. Cameron across the street and these guys over here, and Kathleen, but not—I wouldn’t say so much socially, other than Jill.

After she tried to remember more examples of interracial interactions, she identified Jill Lewis as her friend. This is not a question of whether Jill is actually Ruth’s friend or not, but an example of a larger discursive pattern where non-Whites are used by White respondents to denote neighborhood diversity. This commodification of the presence of non-White residents allows White residents to positively classify themselves within the bounds of this white, urban, middle-class habitus by affirming that they live in a diverse neighborhood. This also happened when I spoke with Seth, an established homeowner, who described the neighborhood as diverse and immediately named the two African American women he knew on his block as evidence. I argue that the commodification of Blacks and Latino/as occurs when non-Whites are viewed as evidence of diversity in an environment that values diversity, such as the one created by this particular white, urban, middle-class habitus in Creekridge Park. This is troublesome because non-Whites are then seen as objects and symbols that represent an ideal (e.g., neighborhood diversity) rather than as individuals with varied interests, needs, and ways of being who may connect with White residents across a multitude of points. Commodification is a product of diversity ideology and its insufficient conceptualizations of diversity. In current discussions of diversity, non-White presence becomes the measuring stick rather than reciprocity, power-sharing, and other benchmarks of equity. By idealizing diversity without understanding power relationships, I argue, we objectify blackness and Latinidad, simultaneously valuing and devaluing them.


From Behind the White Picket Fence: Power and Privilege in a Multiethnic Neighborhood, by Sarah Mayorga-Gallo. Copyright © 2014 by The University of North Carolina Press.

Sarah Mayorga-Gallo is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati. Behind the White Picket Fence is now available.

  1. [1]Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness, 126.