When Your Neighbors Think You’re Moving Weight

People don’t see a teacher on a summer-break schedule — they see someone who’s around at strange hours and up to no good

J. Cole. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

J.J. Cole is a millionaire many times over, but despite fame and fortune, his neighbors still made him feel like a criminal. His song “Neighbors,” he has said, was inspired by a real-life SWAT raid on his house — the result of nearby North Carolina residents assuming he sold drugs and calling the police. And ever since I moved into North York, a so-called “more established” part of Toronto, I have a newfound appreciation for the track.

After growing up in Scarborough, a somewhat notorious part of the east end of Toronto, I moved to North York smack in the middle of summertime. Since I’m a teacher, the timing was perfect; I didn’t have other obligations and could move in and get settled on my own schedule. But since I’ve been living in this new location, I’ve begun to sense a peculiar vibe from the new neighbors I can’t shake.

In the elevator, my “Good morning” and “What floor?” courtesies have been met with cold responses and no eye contact. When I go downstairs to the condo gym around 10 in the morning — again perfect for my summer-break schedule — I feel subtle, incessant stares. I get part of the curiosity. Condos in my city are like neighborhoods of their own, so it’s only natural for people to wonder about me, the “new guy.” But from my perspective, these staredowns continue longer than they should. I feel like my neighbors are thinking, “Why is this guy working out at this time of day? Doesn’t he have a job?”

That experience has strengthened my empathy as a teacher. How and when are we making assumptions about children who we think are not trying hard enough?

I do my best to check my male privilege when I enter the underground parking garage with a woman. I create some distance or jangle my car keys so that she knows that I have a car parked down there, too. When I’m walking around other common areas of the building, I try my best to minimize my presence. Still, whenever I encounter someone else, especially during the day, when they feel that I’m supposed to be at work, it feels to me that I’m a figment of their imagination — and not in a good sense. So yeah, I think my neighbors think I’m selling drugs. I’ve encountered enough microaggressions in my new building that it’s safe to believe that they think I’m up to no good, even if that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I can’t necessarily blame their prejudices. Society has painted this image of me — and men who look like me — as some dangerous guy. They see a young Black man in and out of the condo all day with no routine, just working out in the morning and going out later in the evening. But I wonder if they have stretched their imaginations to think about the possible occupations that I could have. That I might just be a teacher on summer break.

That experience has strengthened my empathy as a teacher. It makes me reflect on how we consider, interpret, and make assumptions about the students we teach, especially Black ones. When a student comes in late to class, do we cast limited and limiting assumptions on their character? How and when are we making assumptions about children who we think are not trying hard enough? I have the cognitive ability to experience a situation and then critically self-reflect on all aspects of it: why I think someone treated me the way they did, why I feel the way I feel. I am an adult who has experienced both life and education from both sides of the teacher’s desk.

If I feel a peculiar vibe from my neighbors, I can imagine how students feel when they get judged by the very people who are supposed to foster their self-worth and validate their excellence. Actually, I don’t have to imagine. I’ve been there. As a teenager, I remember teachers staring at my clothing, hair, pigmentation, and presence. I was forced to endure the gaze within my classroom, in those hallways, and at that school.

Back then, I couldn’t flee from it. Now, I can. But I won’t. I wouldn’t even consider it. The reason is apparent: I deserve to be there. Is it uncomfortable for the time being? Yes. But what is the alternative? Move back to where I supposedly belong? I refuse to be continually boxed into the stereotypes and perceptions of others. And my only solution is to live there and hope they eventually understand that their opinions of me, of us, are not only inaccurate but abhorrently degrading. If I have to be one of the ones to make them realize, then so be it. Because ultimately, it didn’t start with them; it most likely started at their schools, as students. And it leads me back to the children I educate daily.

What do students think about their interactions with educators if I’m convinced my neighbors see me as nothing but a drug dealer? Do they realize that they are better and brighter than any stereotype, stare, or slur thrown their way?

I hope most of them are strong enough to. I hope they know, like me, that their worth resides within themselves — not in the heads of their neighbors.

Educator, blogger, speaker, and Anti-Racism activist. The blog, www.matthewrmorris.com speaks to aspects of race, culture, and education.

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