The recent arrests at a Starbucks in Philadelphia as examples of a troubling notion that is near-invisible to most white folks, even as we participate: That many (if not most) public spaces are self-evidently white – and socially “policed” as such.
“When the anonymous black person enters the white space, others there immediately try to make sense of him or her—to figure out “who that is,” or to gain a sense of the nature of the person’s business and whether they need to be concerned.” – Elijah Anderson, “The White Space” https://t.co/i3F7gg6cNC
— b-boy bouiebaisse (@jbouie) April 13, 2018
You don’t have to be ideologically or casually racist to participate in this; doubtless people who are appalled by blatant hatred participate in this kind of social policing all the time. I doubt the Philly Starbucks manager thought of himself as racist. It’s not necessarily ideological; prejudices burrow deep to the amygdala, and remain invisible to those who continue to harbor them. This stuff is hard, and stubborn: Just “being right” doesn’t necessarily count for much.
Renée Graham notes with fatigue (emphasis mine):
For black people, this video has been viral forever. This is what we live with every damn day.
This isn’t a Starbucks problem. It could have been a fast food restaurant, a mall — or a street in Cambridge. Last Friday police responded to a report of a naked man on Massachusetts Avenue. A video shows Selorm Ohene, a black 21-year-old Harvard student, being struck several times after he was already pinned to the ground by three Cambridge police officers and an MBTA transit cop. Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern called the incident “disturbing.”
Everything black people do is weighted by irrational white fear. It’s mentally exhausting to always be on guard, even during mundane moments like waiting in a coffee shop – or asking for directions.
Boston has made itself a “white space”, not just by blatant racism in policing, home lending, schooling, and the like; but in this more subtle but suffocating way of policing “white spaces”. And these supposed subconscious “micro-aggressions” can turn, under stress, into mega-aggressions, even leading to wrongful use of police power.
“Personally, I’ve never seen much difference between the South and the North,” comedian Dick Gregory wrote in a 1971 issue of Ebony. “Down South white folks don’t care how close I get as long as I don’t get too big. Up North white folks don’t care how big I get as long as I don’t get too close.”
Well, what if we didn’t care about how close?
My fellow white folk in MA: Let’s invert our internal conversation here. Can we tell ourselves a new, more positive story? Can we envision something more aligned with our stated values? Can we accommodate making an easier time for our black friends, neighbors, and colleagues? Doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it?
Black people belong.
- Black people belong in the coffee shop. In your restaurant. In your store.
- Black people belong in “your” neighborhood; on the sidewalk; in their cars; in a cab; on the T.
- Black people belong in your schools, in your classroom, at your gym, at the library.
- Black people belong, dressed nicely, or shabbily, or meh. They belong in short hair, long hair, dreadlocks, or whatever. And they don’t require your approval.
- Black people belong at Fenway Park, at the Strand, at the MFA, at Symphony Hall, at the Middle East.
- Black people belong, in Milton or Mattapan; Brockton or Boxborough; Roxbury or … West Roxbury. In “nice” neighborhoods. They belong on your street. In your apartment complex. As your roommate.
- Black people belong at Harvard, and Bunker Hill. They belong at Tufts, Wellesley, and UMass. As your high school valedictorian. As not-valedictorian. They don’t have to be exceptional to deserve your respect.
- Black people belong in your family; in your church; in your circle of friends.
- Black people belong in your office; as your employee; co-worker; as your boss; in the corner office.
- Black people belong, as your doctor or lawyer; as your loan officer; as your contractor; as your handyman.
- Black people belong in your political party (and the other one); in City Hall; on the school board; in the Oval Office.
It’s not a special thing to ask; it’s the privilege of being not special, not particular. Of being anonymous in public. Of being normal.
Can we do this?