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When I purchased my home, the inspector said that everything was in near-perfect condition. It seemed miraculous, really: a beautiful home in pristine condition that I was astonished I could afford. Two weeks later, my roof began to leak. And leak. And leak. I called someone in to check it out. Another inspector came. I was waiting when he climbed down from the roof, looked at me sorrowfully, and said: “I wish I didn’t have to tell you this. But you need a new roof. It’s a mess up there. I can’t believe they did this to you.”
I spoke to a number of roofers whose various estimates were all high until I found one who looked me in the eye and told me he could wait a few weeks for me to pay.
The home inspector had been up on the roof. He saw it was in disastrous condition, and yet he told me it was in great shape. He lied. I had a major expense that I couldn’t afford. I borrowed the money. It was a major setback. And over the following years, a succession of what should have been very apparent problems with the house revealed themselves. I’ve spent a lot of money repairing things that a decent inspector would have caught. In fact, I believe he probably was a decent inspector—he just behaved indecently.
I don’t know why the inspector deceived me. Perhaps he thought he was doing my Realtor, with whom he often worked, a favor. Maybe it was sexism, racism, or resentment of an upper-middle-class Black divorcée? Maybe he was just a jerk. I’ll never know. What I do know, quite well, is that sinking feeling in my stomach when I learn I’ve been deceived, or misled, or blatantly lied to. Every once in a while, I get swindled due to my ignorance (perceived or projected). I pay for my good faith and fair dealing, for assuming people are dealing with me fairly. I believe I also pay for having a soft voice and a small frame, and not being especially litigious. I pay for not having enough energy (I’m busy, I’m a parent, I’m chronically ill) to pursue a remedy in every instance.
One of the things I’ve been talking about while I’m on my book tour is the multigenerationally earned skepticism that African Americans in the South (and elsewhere, for that matter) often have toward white Americans. It isn’t a posture of retaliation for racism, or emotional damage. It’s quite simply a wise form of self-preservation. Having one’s guard up is essential business in a context in which one might be subject to violence, deceit, or just simple old bigotry. To be skeptical is smart. It is also exhausting and sometimes bewildering.
When we talk about inequality and how to remedy it, people often speak of learning to trust across lines of difference. But in this instance, a greater sense of distrust would have saved me thousands of dollars. I tried to be affable and good to work with, and I let myself “get got.” Years ago, Patricia Williams wrote brilliantly about how, as a Black person, she was diligent about contracts and details to establish her trustworthiness, while her white male professional counterpart proved himself trustworthy by being casual. Implicit in what she said is that, one way or another, hypervigilance becomes standard for members of discriminated groups. Whether proving oneself trustworthy, protecting oneself, or solving problems that come about due to being treated unfairly: All of that requires hypervigilance. You’re always having to watch out for mistreatment, work around it, and figure out how to correct the inevitable problems.
Anyway, I need a kitchen contractor now. I’ve needed one for at least a year. My cabinets are falling off the wall and the handypeople who have come in to fasten them back up by hook or by crook can only do so much. But I have stalled. Hiring the wrong person could make things worse. It certainly did with my last general contractor, who stopped working midway through the project and disappeared, leading to a flood of other issues. I know this kind of thing happens to everyone. I also know it happens to people like me more often. So, I hesitate. What if the person comes in and doesn’t simply see someone who values their skills and plans to pay fairly? What if they see someone who they think isn’t worth the work? So the cabinets tilt lower, and I worry every time I look at them.