The Art of Being Black in White Spaces – Human Parts

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

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 ObamaKamala, 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.


Igrew 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.

Source: The Art of Being Black in White Spaces – Human Parts

This Week on OUR COMMON GROUND ll “Getting the Whole Village to the Movement: #BlackLivesMatter, Please Call Home”

“Getting the Whole Village to the Movement: #BlackLivesMatter, Please Call Home”
09-19-15 BLM FBSaturday, September 19, 2015 10 pm EDT

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The cry of #Black Lives Matter rings throughout the nation. It stands in the wake of a new movement and awakens our national consciousness to the persistent system of white supremacy and structural racism that penetrates each of our institutions. By placing violence against black bodies at the center of the movement, BLM has demanded dignity and respect for those who are often disregarded as disposal.

The Black Lives Matter movement was born out of the pain and injustice of Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012 and gathered momentum in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and far too many others. The significance of this emergence was not so much the movement as it was the cry of our people declaring that “Black Lives Matter”. A cry for a need for a new liberation uprising for Black people in America. #BlackLivesMatter as a slogan met the need of Black people to declare its pain, loudly and precisely. Moving that slogan as the undergird of a movement is the hard part. Figuring how we ignite political and social transformation — not just marches, Twitter feeds and shouting matches on- and offline is the real challenge.

More teaching, training and strategic action is needed. More poor people, experienced organizers and on-the ground development is required to create a movement. Too often, meetings and community conversations are held in order to delay progress and to give the illusion of progress, all while the community remains broken. The Black Lives Matter Movement has the potential to turn this very moment into a movement, but must expand in depth and breadth to accomplish the task of justice and reconciliation. #BlackLivesMatter has to be the talk on the “block” across America.

There is no doubt that the “#BlackLivesMatter” movement is a critical opportunity to engage community interest groups in conversations about race and privilege. The movement issued a call to action for people everywhere to recognize the reality of institutionalized racism. But to whom is it engaged?

We must get as excited about policy shaping as we do about protesting. Systemic terrorism needs also requires Black redemption; and that work is little, slow and fueled political bickering on the left, long meetings and little relationship building. Who is teaching the history that brings us to the street proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter ? A slogan is cry for a need for a new liberation for Black people in America, but within the village, is there a depth of understanding beyond the pain – understanding of the Empire which presses us? “#BlackLivesMatter” as a slogan meets only a small need. Moving that slogan as the undergird of a movement igniting political and social transformation — not just marches, Twitter feeds and shouting matches on- and offline.

But here is the rub. No movement can be sustained or make significant change if it falls to co-opting by the same systems which rule the Empire that designs, control and maintains the structures of institutionalized racism and system of white supremacy. It cannot be vulnerable to take-down and huge vacuums of community disengagement. If #BlackLivesMatters is to be a true moment, the whole community is required to build the walls and fortify a strategy that moves forward on objectives targeting goals for all Black people.

The whole village must understand where and when they enter. If not, it is merely another group attempting to advance a narrow agenda, important, but narrow just the same. How do we infuse the slogan with a movement?


You are invited to bring your thoughts about the pressing issues facing our community. Come listen and learn. SHARE please.

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