400 years of racism affects how many navigate space in America. Some who identify as white may be blissfully unaware of this reality. They feel at home in public spaces and enter commercial establishments with comfortable entitlement. Most would not expect a security guard to challenge them with a stern, “May I help you?” – a phrase many Black shoppers know as a warning, not hospitality.
Most whites would resent being suspected of shoplifting, something many Black friends experience regularly. As Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker, “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.” As sociology professor Elijah Anderson notes, most Black citizens “take this sort of racial profiling in stride.”
Anderson documents the moments of “acute disrespect” in the office, restaurants, or other public spaces that cause a thousand psychic wounds. Black people in white spaces, especially if casually dressed, can be “challenged in restaurants, in their cars, in their buildings, on the golf course, in a fancy hotel lobby, or even arrested for ‘breaking into’ their own homes.” Remember Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrested at his own front door thanks to a neighbor’s 9-1-1 report of a suspected burglary.
Prof. Anderson is particularly concerned about younger men who are targeted by “aggressive police,” inclined to “keep blacks in their place.” Authorities have tracked the movement of Black people for centuries. Before the Civil War, an enslaved southerner “off the plantation” without a pass from their “owner” was a threat to be returned to bondage or killed.
Today there are few “safe spaces.” Even what Anderson calls “cosmopolitan canopies” – “pluralistic spaces where people engage with one another in a spirit of civility” – are not welcoming to all. Even a Starbucks can feel off limits, as it did for Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, who in April, 2018, were handcuffed and escorted out by police for requesting to use the restroom.
So it’s no surprise that some people of color report having their “radar on” all the time, particularly in public spaces. Or how, when arriving at an event, they scan the room to count the other people of color. Or preferring to stand along the perimeter of crowded rooms so they can watch more easily than be watched.
Consider these actions. Do they seem reasonable and/or effective examples of anti-racism activism?
Action #1: Root out suspect real estate practices that continue a long pattern of redlining and discrimination, resulting in segregated neighborhoods.
Action #2: Explore your own implicit bias. (Try this Harvard project) and moderate how it affects your interactions with people of other races in public spaces.
Action #3: Consider how your workplace or public spaces you use could be more welcoming to people of color, from something as simple as whether the artwork on the walls represents inclusion and multiculturalism.