Black bodies in white spaces in 2018

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. – James Baldwin

Some years ago, I sat in a discussion panel and posed a question to the racially mixed audience: “How many Black people over the age of 40 in this room have been diagnosed with hypertension or are pre-hypertensive?” Every Black person in the room raised their hand. This event took place in Cambridge, Mass., and the majority of Black folks in that room were college-educated professionals.

While hypertension can strike anyone, it disproportionately affects Black Americans. There are the stated risk factors, such as inactivity, smoking, family history, high dietary intake of salt and low intake of potassium. There is also what I have come to believe and that science is increasingly backing up, and that is that the stress of being Black in America takes a toll on the physical body and it plays out in higher rates for things such as hypertension and diabetes. Researchers are just starting to look at the link between racism and maternal health but we need to start looking at the cumulative effects of racism over the course of a lifetime.

A few recent news stories really brought home just how racism is woven into the daily fabric of life for Black folks and other non-white people.

A 14-year-old boy gets lost and decides to go to the nearest house to ask for directions. Instead of getting directions, the homeowner grabbed a gun and shot at the child because in this white person’s mind, a Black child knocking on his door could only mean trouble. So rather than using one’s words, the homeowner decided a bullet would be better. Thankfully, the homeowner missed and the child is OK—or at least as OK as one can be when you wake up late, miss the school bus and get lost trying to walk to school only to be met with gunfire.

If that story wasn’t enough, the second story of the week will definitely get the blood pressure elevated. Imagine arriving at a coffee shop early to meet a friend—you get there first so you decided to sit at a table and wait for your friend to arrive. You figure you will place your order once your friend arrives. This type of daily event is truly the minutiae of life. Except when you are two Black men waiting for a business acquaintance at Starbucks, where it was decided that you are a threat. So the police are called and the next thing you know, you find yourself being arrested despite the protest of fellow patrons who loudly proclaim that you are doing nothing. To add insult to injury, your colleague arrives and tries to explain to the cops that they were meeting with you but the cops have already cuffed you, phones are out recording the incident and what should have been a random coffee meeting has become a trip to the clink and hours worth of detention. Your crime? Waiting while Black.

While it’s easy to blame the individual homeowner and the Starbucks employee for bad decisions, these situations are larger than certain individuals. These stories are about how Black bodies in public spaces are always deemed suspicious and that is because suspicion of Black bodies is deeply embedded in our collective psyche. When we (that is to say, mostly white people) see Black people outside of the “socially acceptable” spaces (serving people or entertaining them), suddenly their right to inhabit the space is  questioned. This is why Black CEOs and executive directors can regale us with stories of being assumed to be the help at dinner parties and why we had a Black president and Black attorney general who could tell us stories about being seen as suspicious.

It’s why I passed down to my kids, the same wisdom that was passed on to me: Don’t touch things in public, keep your hands visible, don’t use the bathroom at an establishment without buying something there—and the list goes on. The idea being that if we can be respectable enough to the white gaze in public spaces, it will keep us safe, or at least safe-ish. It’s why I have bought more unwanted items in small shops than I really want because in the end, I don’t want to be seen as suspicious. It’s a shitty way to live and at middle age, I am tired of it.

We can’t discuss racism without acknowledging how it plays out in our daily lives and how for Black people, it’s not always about the issues that make the news but the daily blows and assaults that sit in your soul and start to fester. It’s also about the times when white folks are complicit and don’t do enough. In the case of the Starbucks situation, it seems white folks did speak up but at that the same time, it’s a reminder of how fucked up it is that we must be grateful that people are starting to do the right thing. Doing the right thing should have been a given for decades now, and yet it’s still not the default. Because for every white person who will speak up, there are far too many more who will freeze up or simply stay silent.

We also have to ask ourselves why when white people feel uncomfortable in the presence of Black people, either the police are called or guns are brought out. What is it about white comfort that negates the existence of everyone else?

After a decade-plus of writing about racism, I am getting tired and yet, I keep on keeping on because I can’t depend on others for my liberation.

However I leave you with this thought: Think about how you interact with non-white bodies and particularly Black bodies in white spaces and be honest with yourself about what you see and feel in those moments. If you are a non-white person, how do you stay healthy in those moments when you feel your existence being questioned? Do you release the pain or is it settling in your body?

Our work is dismantle this system but we can’t do that until we are honest with ourselves.

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Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash


13 thoughts on “Black bodies in white spaces in 2018”

  1. I always buy something (a bottle of water, chewing gum, a pack of cheese crackers, a few dollars of gas, etc.), not because I don’t want to be seen as suspicious, but because I respect that it costs businesses something to provide them, so I feel obligated to pay for using the facilities. If I don’t want to buy something, then I’ll look for a rest stop or town hall, someplace where bathrooms are free to the general public. If I meet someone at a coffee shop I might wait a minute or two if I’m going to offer to also buy a drink for the friend I’m meeting (it makes sense to make only one trip to the register). However, if I have to wait more than a few minutes, I’ll go ahead and get in line because I do feel self-conscious taking up a table without having bought anything. Again, it’s because the tables are provided for customers, not for the general public. If I didn’t want to buy anything, I can meet in a library or other public space or at one of our homes. That being said, both of these incidents disgust and sadden me. WTF is wrong with people?

    • You do realize that Starbucks is a “Third Place” – by corporate policy – and as such, even if those men had been sitting there for 30 minutes, (and not the 2 minutes we now know it took before the call to the police was made), that they were not in violation or “loitering”?

      So, although you are ‘disgusted’ and ‘saddened’by the two incidents, your ‘explanation’ sounds as if you are attempting to justify why they treated they way that they were. You’re presenting a a specious argument, that has no basis in fact. Next time, #DoBetter.

      • My response was actually prompted by this line in the original post: “It’s why I have bought more unwanted items in small shops than I really want because in the end, I don’t want to be seen as suspicious.”

        I’d teach children to buy “unwanted” items not because they don’t want to been seen as suspicious, but instead because it costs the business owner to provide the very restrooms and tables they are entering the establishment to use. Buying anything respects this investment / helps defray the expense of the facility provided.

        I am a small business owner. Building codes make it actually pretty expensive to provide a toilet for the public. If people continuously use the tables and restaurants without buying something, a business can’t stay open. That’s why I support them by buying something when all I really wanted to do was use the restroom or meet a friend or client. And that’s why I’d teach children to do the same.

        One can teach their children to buy something out of respect for the for-profit business providing the “third space”
        and at the same time be outraged by a fellow patrons being hauled off from not making a purchase within two minutes. Go there with me.

  2. As an older white woman, I feel myself failing daily at helping bring fairness to our society. I played with black children as a child and was mystified why they stopped playing with me at about age 10, I now understand – it wasn’t safe for them, and it breaks my heart. Every day in the news it is more of the same. Please, keep up your great work.

  3. I was at Harvard Law School to hear the historian, Jeanne Theoharis and her Harvard colleagues debate her newest book. “More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History (Beacon House: 2018)”. It exposes the mythology of the American civil rights movement as an end -all to racial injustice in the United States …..and details the essence of the struggle that must be continued on !

  4. I so often hear white people say something like, “Well the same thing would happen if the situation were reversed.” I want white readers here to know that when the situation is reversed, the outcome is not the same at all. I am a white woman living in the Atlanta area and am frequently the only white person – or one of very few white people – in a Black space. I have been the only white person among otherwise all Black customers in grocery stores, movie theaters, medical facilities, classrooms, car repair shops, and Starbucks. The responses to my presence are varied. Most pay no attention to me outwardly, although they are certainly aware I’m there. Sometimes a few appear resentful, some are openly curious about why I’m there, and many seem genuinely happy to see me and engage me in conversation. But regardless of how people feel about me being in their space, I am never treated with disrespect nor am I concerned for my safety. And I know plenty of white men who have the same experience as I do in Black spaces. This may be because of the white privilege that follows us everywhere we go, or it may be because Black people – in my personal experience – do not seem prone to treating us the way we’ve treated them. When I am in white spaces (which is easy enough to do by driving just a short distance from the city in certain directions) and I see Black bodies moving through these spaces, I seek out opportunities to make eye contact and try to communicate my solidarity without being disingenuous or fawning. But at the same time I know I will never be totally free of my biases and my racist conditioning; I pray that if I’m ever in a space where Black bodies are being threatened, I will have the courage to rise up fearlessly in their defense.

    My gratitude to Black Girl in Maine for your willingness to continue putting yourself out there in spite of how exhausted you must be.

    • Phyllis — just to let you know that I have had the same experience . As a white woman in black spaces — I have got nothing but respect and kindness from those around me. Sometimes, I get side way glances but I open up the conversation depending on the audience. I have had the same experiences of respect in brown, yellow and orange spaces, too. That is Latinx, Asian and Native American communities . However I am totally cognizant that it is the black body in the United States that has / is bearing the most burden of racism here. And if anything it is the southern states that are moving much faster in its resolution — than northern cities and states !

      • It seems that way to me too, although what do I know? One thing I’ve learned – the hard way – is that racism can be happening all around me and I can simply fail to see it. The white lens is very good at doing what it was designed to do. Thanks for sharing your experience Viola. It’s definitely encouraging to hear from other white people who are actively engaged in truth-telling.

      • And to verify this — I would like to post a video of my niece — the white kid with the charming accent and glasses setting in the corner and gives biscuits a 10/10 rating . A Lucky Day Scholar at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is attending one of their many events. This is how black and white kids get to learn so much from each other— especially since they are housed together in their own dormitory space. This vido should be viewed in correlation with the just now video coming out of Harvard — whereby a black student was manhandled by Harvard and Cambridge’s “Fine Officers”.

  5. I remember meeting and playing with 2 African American boys my age in Library Park in my hometown of Monrovia, CA. I suggested we go to my Grandparents to continue playing. We were running around the yard and having a great time when my grandmother called me to the back door. “Mike, you tell those boys to go home! You’re grandfather will be home soon!” With that I told my new friends they had to leave. I’ll never forget the look they gave me. I felt miserable, but I understood even then that I was enabling a racist attitude that has always existed in America. I was ashamed of my grandmother, someone I loved more than anyone else in the world. I was ashamed of myself for doing what she told me.
    For the rest of my life, I have paid attention to the different treatment African Americans receive in this country. I challenge and even mock my colleagues when they say things like “everything is so much better for blacks today!” I notice when statistics show that by percentage that African Americans are shot and killed by police at a far higher rate than white citizens. And I am disgusted when they are arrested for waiting in Starbucks waiting for a colleague.
    I try to live my life as not racist, but as the writer of this article points out, it is not enough. Yet, I resolve to continue to speak out at injustice. To post incident such as the one at Starbucks, and no longer patronize this company’s stores. I will try my best to remind people I know that things must change; we must accept our fellow citizens as our equals and treat them that way.

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