Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 5

So far, this series Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) has focused on who and what is not represented in the book Season of the Witch and the panel discussing the book which I attended in early November. In this part, I was to talk about dynamics which may have caused the book to be biased in the way that it is.

The first is the black-white binary. Shortly after I attended the panel, I read the post “Asexual and Asian American” which mentions how the white-black binary of American racial consciousness excludes Asian-Americans. This made me think about the conversations about race I’ve heard at offline ace meet-ups, of which the most common theme is “When people talk about race, they often mean black people, and some of that does not apply to Asian-Americans like us” (quite a few of the people who go to SF Bay Area ace meet-ups are Asian-American). It is clear that Mr. Talbot made a effort to include non-white people in the book, but a disproportionate (compared to the San Francisco population of the time) of the non-white people he features, particularly in chapters other than the ones focused on non-white people, are black people. If someone thinks that ‘racial diversity’ means ‘represent both white and black people’ they might write a book like Season of the Witch.

The other dynamic, which I am naming “Neighborhood Tunnel Vision,” is harder to explain, at least to people who have not lived in San Francisco. One time, a cousin was visiting from New York. He asked us, what is the center of San Francisco. He wasn’t talking about Twin Peaks, he was talking about the social center of San Francisco. My mother replied that there is none, that San Francisco is a set of villages which all happen to be next to each other.

I also remember, as I was walking around Naha (Okinawa), I ran into somebody from San Francisco who had moved to Naha just months before. However, it became clear, as we were talking to each other, than though we were both from San Francisco, we were not from the same San Francisco. I did not recognize any of the things which he considered the highlights of his San Francisco, and he did not recognize my San Francisco. It was as if we were from different cities.

Many cities have distinct neighborhoods, but no other city I have ever been to has such socially isolated neighborhoods as San Francisco (even ‘neighborhood’ is not quite the right word, but it is the best I can do for now). One could easily spend decades in one neighborhood of San Francisco and be oblivious to what is happening in most of the other parts of the city. If you ask me anything about Pacific Heights, India Basin, Telegraph Hill, Crocker-Amazon, Sunnyside, Noe Valley, etc. I am not going to be able to tell you much. Furthermore, we tend to assume that the San Francisco we know is the San Francisco, when, in fact, it is merely a San Francisco.

As you might have guessed by reading the previous post, I grew up in one of the western neighborhoods. I grew up having Chinese-Americans as next-door neighbors (I mean that literally), seeing lots of Asian-Americans inhabit the homes around mine, and attending public schools with lots of Asian-American students.

If I had grown up just a fifteen-minute walk *east* of where I did, and if my parents had, like most white affluent parents in San Francisco of that time, sent me to overwhelmingly white private schools (though the affluent white ‘liberals’ of San Francisco love to speak about how much they support public education and racial integration, when it comes to their own children, well, they often don’t practice what they preach), there would have been a lot fewer Asian-Americans in my youth, and I would probably be much less aware of Asian Americans, their cultures, and their issues.

This background is why a large gathering in San Francisco about San Francisco history with very few Asian-Americans present feels ‘odd’, and why a book about San Francisco history which speaks so little of Asian-Americans is also ‘odd’. It’s not just me. My dad, who also went to the panel, commented on the lack of Asian-Americans in the audience before I did. If I wrote a book about San Francisco history, there would be Asian-Americans (and white people) running all over the place, whereas including other racial groups would require a higher level of conscious effort on my part.

However, as you may also have gathered, I grew up on the edge of the neighborhood, and I have significant ties to the neighborhoods over the border, which are not ‘western’ neighborhoods (Haight-Ashbury and Cole Valley to be specific). For example, the closest library branch is in the Haight-Ashbury, and we are in the ‘service area’ of the same police station which ‘serves’ the Haight-Ashbury and is featured in Season of the Witch multiple times. The fact that I grew up near the border between these neighborhoods may make me more aware of just how different the neighborhoods of San Francisco can be than the people who live well within the borders of their neighborhood.

What of David Talbot? He lives in Bernal Heights. Though I can recognize the appearance of Bernal Heights Summit with its radio tower, it’s one of those San Francisco neighborhoods I know almost nothing about, so I had to go to Wikipedia to find out about its racial composition. I learned that it is a white-majority neighborhood with a significant population of black people. No mention is made of Asians, nor do I ever recall seeing Bernal Heights on lists of San Francisco neighborhoods with large Asian populations, so I presume there are not many Asian-Americans there. Given that that is where Talbot lives, it is not surprising that wrote a book about a white-majority San Francisco with a significant African-American minority which under-represents everyone else. It is his San Francisco. He must know about the large Asian-American populations in neighborhoods other than Chinatown … but knowing that they exist is not the same thing as having lived there. And I am guessing that he also has not lived in Chinatown.

I cannot read David Talbot’s mind, but my guess is that a combination of the white-black binary and the fact that he lives in Bernal Heights, and possibly seeing San Francisco through Bernal-Heights-tinged lenses, led him, when making an effort to include non-white people, to focus more on African-Americans, not Asian-Americans. And he felt that by including African-Americans (and including a token chapter about Chinatown) he has fulfilled his duty to racial diversity. Of course, the book is mostly about white people, to a degree which is out of proportion with the racial composition of San Francisco recorded by the 1970 census. I want to make this clear – it is white people, not African-Americans, who are over-represented.


2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 5

  1. Interesting series. What you said about “neighborhood tunnel vision” reminded me a bit of what people hereabouts say about Berlin, which is literally comprised of a number of former towns. (Not that I live there.)

    • It would not surprise me at all that some European cities with long histories would have similar phenomena.

      Actually, I may have misspoke that I have never been to a city with such socially isolated neighborhoods – I have been to London, and I know that the high cost of intracity transportation there leaves a lot of its residents stuck in one area. Perhaps if I got to know London better I would better appreciate the differences between its neighborhoods.

      San Francisco is also a city where travelling even short distances within in the city is not easy (due to geography), which I think explains a lot of the isolation of different neighborhoods, and is the best explanation I can think of why San Francisco would have greater diversity in its neighborhoods than a city like, say, Kyoto, which has been a continuously inhabited urban area for a much, much longer period of time. It’s impressive that a place with terrain as difficult as San Francisco’s ever became a major urban area, and the books I’m reading now about San Francisco city said that in the early years many questioned whether the area where the city is was inhabitable at all. However, it’s in a strategic location for both military defence and seafaring commerce, and the people involved in those economies had to live somewhere (especially since there isn’t any site nearly as suitable for military/seafaring commerce purposes in over 500 kilometers in each direction along the coast).

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