The Art of Being Black in White Spaces
Lesson #1: “You black (and that’s a problem).”
Learning the Art of being black in white spaces is a lifelong process that begins with a single lesson: “You black (and that’s a problem).” I got lesson number one out of the way in kindergarten when Daniel, the other black kid in my class, informed me, “You black!” I went home sobbing. “But Mom, I’m brown! I’m brown!”
Historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois also discovered his blackness — and its undesirability — at school. After a white girl refused to accept his greeting card during a class-wide exchange, “it dawned on me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others… shut out from their world by a vast veil.” There’s a beautiful, melancholy animation of this passage in CNN’s video “The First Time I Realized I Was Black,” a compilation of black people recalling how they discovered they were black, and what exactly that meant. The stories range from darkly comic — Baratunde Thurston swimming at a campsite and not realizing the white kid shouting, “There’s n — s in the water!” was referring to him and his friend — to heartbreaking, like news commentator Van Jones’ raw account of finding out that his white classmates, who he considered friends, had all spit into his Coke when he wasn’t looking. A common theme throughout these stories is the cavalcade of emotions that this new knowledge elicits: dawning realization, confusion, anger, sadness, discomfort.
White spaces can be defined as having an “overwhelming presence of white people and… absence of black people,” writes sociologist Elijah Anderson, though most are no longer explicitly anti-black. They are, however, fluid. Everything from desegregation and civil rights to upward social mobility and media portrayals of black people have recast the borders of white spaces and, in doing so, defined new ways that blackness is unacceptable within them.
That brings us to lesson two, in which we learn the myriad ways blackness can be undesirable. This is painful but essential to the Art of performing in white spaces. It took me considerably longer to learn than the first lesson, but hey — white folks are nothing if not patient when teaching this stuff.