This week has been an emotional ball breaker for me; I’ve been stuffing down my feelings and not wanting to give words to what I was feeling for fear of being seen as a whiner. The danger in writing and talking about race so often is that after a while people stop listening; they truly believe race does not matter when it in fact it matters more than most white people can ever imagine.
I talk about race, as a Black American woman living in a very white state and partnered to an even whiter man, most of my race talks center on Blackness and Whiteness. However as I was recently reminded, being non-white in a culture and space where white is the default is no great shakes either.
Living and working in spaces where there are few people who look like you and where whiteness is the default is hard. When you are privileged with whiteness, the greatest gift of that privilege is that there is so much you never have to see. To be white is to see people of color as exotic beings, it is to assume that afro textured hair is a fad; hell, you don’t even have to know what an afro is…tee-hee. It is the privilege of saying the tackiest and most thoughtless things and knowing that society gives you a pass because you are white. It is to read in spaces such as this where I lay my soul bare in hopes of reaching that other person of color trapped in a white space, in hopes that they will know they are not alone. But whiteness allows you to go on a cultural tour from the comfort of your home, office or mobile device where you get to clutch your pearls about the glimpses of non-white life that spaces such as this allow you to peek into and to be upset over such injustices when it comfortably fits into your life. Whiteness allows you to disconnect when it’s all too much without nary a bit of effort because our culture is designed for the comfort of people like you.
Nonwhite people particularly in all white spaces are watching you avail yourself of the comfort and privilege that this culture affords you. What most of you never see is the high price that we pay to inhabit such spaces. In recent years as the media spotlight has shone negatively on my hometown of Chicago and the issues of violence, whenever someone learns that I am a Chicago native, I hear one of two things “Do you know the Obama’s?” and “I bet with the violence, you are glad you are not in Chicago now” I won’t even address the former, but to the latter, I often think how privileged and myopic to believe that I wouldn’t want to be in my hometown. Truth be told, we would back our bags and leave tomorrow if we did not have a school aged child. Raising a brown child in a space with few people who look like her can be just as dangerous as living in a community with drive-by shootings. One space takes your life in mere moments with a bullet and the other space will slowly rob of your person-hood if you are not diligent and taking precautions to guard against the trauma of being in all white spaces, all the time.
To be a non-white person occupying white space over time takes a toll on the body, mind and spirit. It is quite possible to even lose yourself because you can never be yourself. To be yourself is to allow yourself to be vulnerable with someone who is probably not equipped to see what your life is like. Instead you end up comforting the people who are supposed to comfort you because they have never stepped out of their silo of privilege and what you lay bare to them is too much. Occupying white spaces is to have allies who after a while start to feel like burdens because they simply cannot help carry the load. It is to have people confess to you as if you are their personal therapist that they have racist tendencies and thoughts and watch them dance for your approval cookie and pat on the head.
Occupying white space as a non-white person is to know that my anger and frustration is too hard for many of you to read and knowing some “unprivileged” soul will tell me to suck it up, stop being angry, or some other variation of words that are used to deny non-white people our humanity.
18 thoughts on “Occupying white spaces with a nonwhite body..a very raw piece”
I think it so important to write about this. This idea of occupying a white space is so unreal. People see you as the poster child for making it this far and are constantly finding ways to “shut” you down. I agree that without caution these emotions will consume you. This is the first time I have “operated” in white space and I’ve had my own slap in the face. The job is hard. The task is tiring but the work must go on. Having high school daughters has taught me to be stronger and was a black man who is constantly trying to find a place or refuge in a downright rugged system is draining. It is truly mentally exhausting but I will continue to fight the fight for my little girls.
Thank you for this. As a young black girl I can tell you that your daughter is super grateful that you are even aware that such struggles exist. I now have faith that in some small way more like-minded people will start seeing this too and rid the Black community of automatically thinking White is better. But not just stop there, to take it a step further and stop the continuation of generational oppression which is now what is eroding our communities from the inside out. In South Africa we still have a really long way to go in terms of understanding this but with more and more media attention about issues of race and the impact it has socially AFTER reconciliation I now have hope.
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