The Construction of Whiteness in Ypsi

Whitewashing “Ypsilanti Proper”

In a racially imperialist nation such as ours, it is the dominant race that reserves for itself the luxury of dismissing racial identity while the oppressed race is made daily aware of their racial identity. It is the dominant race that can make it seem their experience is representative. –Bell Hooks (1981)

Most people don’t believe it when we tell them that Ypsilanti is in Washtenaw County. The long-standing image of Ypsilanti as “abnormal” has been so entrenched in the American consciousness that it is impossible for people to fathom that people of color live here. Those who style themselves as aficionados of high culture, especially (until very recently) academics, scoffed at the tacky, Hip-silanti, overdone image of Ypsilanti. Others have difficulty containing excitement at the chance to indulge in the kitschy, Ypsi Real, extravagant image of Ypsilanti. We who live here have a repertoire of responses to these passerby, ranging from the equally scoff-ful “I can’t explore south of Michigan Avenue, the blight makes me sick,” to the defensive “Northwest of Michigan Avenue are normal residential neighborhoods,” to the gleeful “from my backyard I can see the Big House, the Water Tower, and the Yankee Air Show every summer!”

Regardless of how one ends up analyzing Ypsilanti, people seem to start with an analysis of what it is not, and it’s not normal. What is most telling in these constructions of “the normal” is the invisibility of race. Listening to ourselves and others defend and define “normalcy” in and around Ypsilanti make it clear to us that there is a whitewashing of Depot Town, a decoloring of downtown Ypsilanti, that is evidence of racial stratification qualitatively different from (but inseparable from) the surface visibility of gender stratification. In this rant we will review a few ways Ypsilanti is whitewashed. The first is in how we, both residents and visitors, construct “normalcy” around and in opposition of Ypsilanti. The second is the iconography of the university town and the ways that it constructs itself both around and against “normalcy” in order to make visitors feel more comfortable. The third is how the iconography constructs woman (kid and the working class) and how women (young people and the working class) of Ypsilanti construct themselves in and against this image.

Behind the question of how analysts, visitors, and residents construct “normal life” in Ypsilanti, a city fraught with contradiction and bedlam, lies deeper questions of how one constructs identity in a race-, class-, and gender-segregated society. In struggling to forge an identity against the image of Ypsilanti, we found ourselves equating certain experiences to the boundaries of “normal.” As our project, k:yb, progressed, it became increasingly apparent that the ways in which we initially conceptualized Ypsilanti and how we defined “being normal” in this environment were largely contingent upon racial stratification, or more specifically upon being White. The “normal” was constructed by “Othering” or distancing ourselves from the experiences of those not like us. These “Othering” dichotomies not only reflect material segregation; they also hide and ignore issues of race and ethnicity.

Likewise, we began to look closely at the iconography of the Ypsilanti eateries and bars, it became clear that while it defined “normalcy” in a different way, it too was predicated on “Othering” people of color. This is especially evident in the aesthetics of most hole-in-the wall establishments.

Beyond just being eurocentric, these hole-in-the-wall establishments allow us to enjoy the fruits of colonialism without the guilt of imperialism. The images beckon the passerby and university student to revel in the “feast and plunder” side of the hedonistic desires of the flesh. It is the indulgence that is based on the exploitation of the nonwhite world. Relatively few of the hole-in-the-wall establishments/eateries/coffee shops embody Western European aesthetics without the theme of colonizing the Third World; exceptions include Dos Hermanos Market and Restaurant, Fatou’s African Caribbean Market, Maiz Mexican Cantina, Dalat (and a few others).

The other predominant motif in Ypsilanti besides the Wild West, is that of the Great War –The Bomber, B-24, Haabs. Such a theme also evokes freewheeling, lawless days when men returned home heroes, and the only women were passive, housewives. Hedonistic in their very root, is the United States’ own internal colonialism, the taking of the wilderness of the North and the West, through succession of manifest destiny, massacre and “Othering” Native and Mexican Americans.

While Ypsilanti is inflicted with racial segregation, somehow it seemed more evident in Ann Arbor. According to the Ypsilanti Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, in 2010, 79 percent of visitors to Ypsilanti were White. The images of colonization become all the more stark in contrast to figures that show less than 31% of people serving these tourists are White. Perhaps capitalism is the answer–in Ypsilanti everybody’s money is the same color, green. However, based on conversations with people of color and upon our own observations, this also does not appear to be the case. While money is certainly important, the color of money does not erase the color of one’s skin (treatment is qualitatively different).

The vast majority of people of color work in the invisible occupations, the non-tip work, maids, kitchen workers, table bussers, gardeners, and so on, while white employees tend to be the most visible, waitresses, hosts, managers, directors, and the like. The structure of blue-collar and grey-collar work promotes the image of a white Middle America. The maintenance of this image hides the guilt-inducing trappings of the Third World, poverty and exploitation, making the Ypsilanti service worker the quintessential invisible minority.

The invisibility of ethnic minorities in Ypsilanti contributes to the whitewashing of Ypsilanti iconography and subsequently to the dismissal of significant issues surround racial and class inequality. Even organizations attuned to exploring and eradicating segregation have played to the tendency of normalizing the white experience while ignoring the experiences of others.

The Construction of Whiteness in Ypsilanti is an adaptation, originally entitled, “White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America.” The above piece afforded k:yb site administrators an opportunity to discuss themes highlighted in the text above, and will serve as inspiration for future postings, here at