In the 1970s the District’s population was more than 70 percent black, earning it the affectionate nickname “Chocolate City.” Today, black people are narrowly not the majority anymore in the District; in confectionary terms, the saying now goes, D.C. has become more vanilla.
Of course, the demographic shift started long ago and can’t all be attributed to what’s now perceived as only a recent phenomenon of gentrification. The District’s population, according to Atlantic Cities, actually declined by a quarter between 1950 and 1990 due to the growth of suburbs; many D.C. black residents moved to nearby Prince George’s County, the country’s wealthiest majority-black jurisdiction. In more recent years, young affluent whites have moved here, driving the cost of living up and spurring redevelopment and city amenities that didn’t exist when black residents had a strong majority.
That’s all to say that race is complicated in the District.
Now one white woman has captured a particular complication with one matter of etiquette: Is it wrong for a white woman to wear a “Chocolate City” T-shirt?
She wrote into The Root about the issue:
I’m a white female cyclist in Washington, D.C., and like many of the street cyclists in the area, I ride with members of several different cycling groups, including the awesome guys at Chocolate City Cycling. Recently I was given a CCC T-shirt, but I feel weird about wearing it in public, especially outside the context of group cycling. I like the shirt and the people it represents (and I doubt they’d have much of a problem with me wearing it on a ride), but it still feels odd and somehow wrong to wear a shirt that asserts something about a racial identity other than my own. What advice would you have on the matter? —Confused Cyclist
A writer for The Root, Jenée Desmond-Harris, provided a thoughtful response, which said it’s not necessarily racist, but asked if the woman really want to be invoking the questions that surround gentrification on her bike ride:
That doesn’t mean you can’t wear it. Of course you can. But if I were you, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so unless I was very clear about everything it could be interpreted to represent. I’d need to know what the term “Chocolate City” means to me. Where do I fit in this changing community? Where do I stand—personally and politically—on the issue of gentrification in D.C.? What are the policies behind gentrification? What’s the mission of the cycling club, and what does it mean to me to be part of that mission?
Or Confused Cyclist can more simply listen to Gawker’s advice: “If you have to ask, do not wear it.