Existing While Black

People of color stand out in white spaces.

When the white, female Central Park dog walker recently called the police on the African American birdwatcher, she was enforcing her “white space,” a perceptual realm that often works to keep people of color (POC) in their place. 

White spaces are all around us, public and private places where white people predominate and to which black and brown people have some entry. It could be a place of work, it could be a public park. But, “while operating in the white space, [POC] can be subject to social, if not physical, jeopardy,” writes Elijah Anderson, Yale University sociology professor, in a paper titled, “The White Space,” published in 2015. This is true of the black jogger who was shot dead in Georgia, to cite another example.

While navigating these spaces, POC “risk a special penalty – their putative transgression is to conduct themselves in ordinary ways in public while being black at the same time.” In other words, “existing while black.” 

According to Anderson, the most tolerated POC in a white space is one that is “in his place,” that is, performing a job or function such as server or janitor that doesn’t feel out of the ordinary to white people, a POC who is likely to maintain the racial order, with whites as dominant and POC as subordinate. 

The white space forces POC to perform a kind of dance, Anderson explains, that states “I am nonthreatening.”

For example, not wearing a hoodie. For professional women, it may mean not braiding their hair or wearing it natural. I navigate the white space by ditching a large purse when I enter a retail store lest a salesperson think I’m a shoplifter. When we go out I tell my husband, who is black, wear the mask but not the baseball cap. 

POC navigate the world in this and other ways. It helps if white people understand and/or acknowledge the accommodations that POC make every day just to live ordinary lives. 

Recommended reading: “The White Space,” by Elijah Anderson of Yale University.

˜˜María T. Padilla, Editor

Published on Facebook June 7.

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