The Art of Being Black in White Spaces

Lesson #1: “You black (and that’s a problem).”

Photo: piola666/Getty Images

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.

I tell a white boy in church that I don’t want to sit by a boy; he counters with, “Well, I don’t want to sit by a black person,” and runs away. I confess to a friend that I have a crush on her brother and she explains that, in her family, they don’t date outside their race. A kid from youth group who has never seen anything remotely resembling an actual ghetto proclaims my suburban apartment complex “the ghetto,” presumably because black and Latinx people are present and single-family homes are not. I attend a party at some random guy’s house with a coworker, and the host explains race to me by quoting Chris Rock: “There’s black people, and there’s n — — s.” Twenty years later, I still panic and urgently want to flee when white people reference stand-up or start telling jokes.

Backhanded compliments, often about my hair, prove another effective teaching tool. I straighten my hair before work. “You look so professional today,” my boss says enthusiastically. “You finally found someone to do your hair,” a colleague at my seasonal side hustle says when I show up with braids.

But the really fucked-up “compliments” come from white people who love you. My dad and I have both had close friends tell us some version of, “You’re not like the other black people,” or, with laughing approval, “You may be black on the outside, but you’re as white as me on the inside.” Because whiteness is aspirational and we are the black exceptions that prove their racist rule.

In some ways, Dad and I are lucky. We generally talk the “right way.” We have advanced degrees. We like stuff white people like, such as NPR, Mad Men, and expensive sandwiches. This means we have fewer hoops to jump through before white people feel safe around us. And make no mistake: The primary purpose of the Art is to make white people feel safe. Because when white people feel unsafe, they are unsafe for black people to be around.

Black Americans have always had to perform this balancing act: staying true to their identity while prioritizing the comfort of white people. In 1896, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote of “the mask that grins and lies,” which black people don to conceal the pain of their lived experience from white people. Later, Du Bois spoke about the “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” Anderson, in his 2015 article “The White Space,” refers to the “dance” and being “on” to describe assimilating to white expectations of appearance and conduct.

Being black in white spaces is a subtle and imprecise Art: performative, yet largely invisible to its intended audience. And code-switching is its bread-and-butter. Originally a linguistic term to describe how polyglots mix and match languages according to context, today, code-switching is more about changing appearance, behavior, and speech to accommodate the social norms of a specific setting. (Note: when white Americans do this, say, by living overseas or volunteering someplace poor, it’s an empathy-building, cross-cultural experience they can use to spice up college essays and wow in job interviews. Black and brown people spend a lifetime doing exactly the same thing and precisely no one is impressed, much less hiring us because of it. But I digress…)

Now I know that unless I switch up my code, keep my voice low and calm, I come off as the Angry Black Woman.

Black people code-switch to keep white people from associating us with negative stereotypes they absorbed from the news, pop culture, other white people, or their own imaginations. It’s how we avoid coming off “too black.” I first observed this with my dad. He talked differently when we visited Grandmommy’s house in D.C. than when he was with his graduate school colleagues. The way he talked at home was somewhere in between.

In addition to avoiding AAVE, black women are required to code-switch their tone and appearance, particularly in white workplaces. For years, I didn’t understand why white women in particular thought I was combative and argumentative, responding to me as though I were overreacting about everything. Now I know that unless I switch up my code, keep my voice low and calm, I come off as the Angry Black Woman.

Successful code-switching is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it affords access and opportunities to advance in white spaces, and white people are less likely to call the cops on you. The downsides: other black folks think you’re too white. Just ask Obama, Kamala, and Drake, whose “black enough” status is always under fire. More seriously, research associates constant code-switching with negative psychological effects, including performance anxiety, embarrassment when you get it wrong, and the stress of reconciling dual identities. This is especially problematic at work, because at work you have other shit to do besides fitting in.

I personally don’t find code-switching that draining. My personality is wired for variety, and I’m comfortable embodying different versions of myself. Also, apart from the odd in-person, part-time gig, I freelance, so I don’t feel the pressure to code-switch for acceptance or advancement. Ever since Trump got elected, the real emotional labor for me has come from maintaining non-professional relationships with white women, which any black woman will tell you is an Art in and of itself.

White people of the progressive persuasion seem to be talking about race more, and in different ways, than they did pre-Trump. Many are absolutely doing the hard work of examining their privilege and implicit bias. But there’s also this panicked, self-serving need to disassociate from the racism and bigotry displayed by the people running the country.

They’re terrified of being called racists, which results in virtue signaling — particularly on social media: hashtags like #notallwhitewomen and posts about cutting off racist friends and family abound. (Good thinking, white person! Cut them off and save yourself the discomfort of ever having to talk to them about race! I’m sure they’ll probably stop being racist on their own!)

I keep finding myself in conversations where white people denounce racists without actually embracing anti-racism. When I bring up elements of my lived experience or an opinion that diverges from theirs, I’m met with blank stares, dismissal, or defensiveness. If I share about a time I felt othered because of my skin color or hair, white women tell me about when they had “the same experience,” completely ignoring the fact that black bodies have been othered for centuries while their European features are nearly universally prized. Anti-racism requires white people to de-center their own thoughts and feelings — including their sadness and discomfort — and prioritize those of POC. Instead, POC are increasingly asked to be “racial confessors” and unpaid educators for well-meaning white folks trying to work through their own whiteness, unfair asks that force us to relive trauma for white people’s benefit.

I grew up in white neighborhoods, went to white churches, worked in white offices and, later, joined the expat community, a rarified white space made up primarily of North Americans and Europeans who choose to live outside of their country of origin. My dad is the only consistent black presence in my life, and we’ve never really discussed race, identity, and privilege in terms of our lived experience. As a result, I’ve only recently developed a vocabulary to unpack what it’s like to be black in white spaces. Isolated incidents that “just didn’t sit right” — e.g. casual use of the word “lynching” in conversation, my dental hygienist touching my hair while cleaning my teeth — were actually microaggressions. I got an art history degree without studying a single black (or POC) artist not because there weren’t any, but because white supremacy keeps our images and stories from being considered universal. (That’s erasure!)

White people feel safe around me. But I never learned how to be safe around them.

I can finally honor the truth that I live with trauma inflicted upon me by white people because of my blackness — as do all black people in America. Some have experienced blatant and immediate trauma, old-school racism like police brutality or violent hate crimes. My privilege is that I’ve mostly encountered #21stCenturyRacism like implicit bias, microaggressions, and white fragility. Still, these everyday injustices have cumulative psychological and emotional effects, especially in combination with intergenerational trauma. Sometimes, I’m drawn in and repulsed by the exact same white person who, in a single conversation, will follow a random act of wokeness with the n-word (yep, even inside quotes, it’s still problematic) or their thoughts on black poverty. This creates a push-pull dynamic that makes me feel brittle and tired.

I aced the lessons about not being “too black” for white people and turning microaggressions into humorous-yet-teachable moments. White people feel safe around me. But I never learned how to be safe around them. So now I’m teaching myself. I’m giving myself permission to say “no,” without explanation, to people and activities that sap my emotional bandwidth. I’m seeking out other WOC to confide in and gobbling up content by black writers and artists to counteract over-exposure to whiteness, particularly the unacknowledged privilege wielded by so-called allies. I’m challenging myself to unabashedly tell my truth, because it is my truth. This is radical self-care, and I’m learning that it is the real Art of being black in white spaces.

This story is part of The Art Of, an ongoing series that supplies you with instructions for living.

American freelancer in Istanbul writing about culture, mental health, race & travel. Bylines everywhere from Al Jazeera to Zora. Tw: @Ruth_Terry | IG: @ruth.ist

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