Human Rights

An Important Lesson White People Must Learn If They're Serious About Fighting Racism

There's a difference between feeling uncomfortable and being unsafe in black spaces.

Photo Credit: cristovao

One month ago, the nation’s consciousness around race relations was awoken abruptly following the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  For many people, this awakening was a sharp reminder that the victories of the Civil Rights era aren’t so far back in the shadows of the past and that we still have many more battles to fight to ensure that that we don’t backslide into the racist behavior of previous generations, whether those behaviors are overt or dangerously subtle and therefore hard to recognize.  For others, this awakening was a shock that prompted deep self-reflection about the reality of being a white person who wants to fight for the equality and dignity of all people while living in a country built on a multigenerational legacy of slavery and racism.

For those white people wanting to take action toward fighting racism but not knowing where to start, I offered 12 Things White People Can Do Now Because of Ferguson.  I received hundreds of emails and comments from people all across the country. One email asking for advice has weighed on my heart and stuck in my head for the past couple of weeks. The sender wanted to become a stronger white ally so she requested advice on how white people can work toward fostering integration in segregated communities even when they are afraid:

I have a few questions that I hope you, as a woman of color, can give me some advice on. I am a 24 year old white female who moved to St. Louis, Missouri  two years ago. Moving here made me realize my privilege in being 1) white and 2) from an upper middle class family, and I've been trying to be a better white ally since realizing my own privilege and my ingrained patterns of racist assumption. As part of that, I've been trying to do more of my errands and such in the areas with a high black population, both because they are close by and if city is segregated I should be trying to fix that on an individual level. However, I found that some places made me feel very unsafe: catcalls, aggressive begging, looks of displeasure when I enter a business. Sometimes the same location is fine one time, but not fine the next time I go in. I was wondering if you had advice for how white people, in particular white women, can stop perpetuating de facto segregation by avoiding "dangerous" areas with a high black population, but in a way that doesn't seem condescending (which I assume is the reason I got looks of displeasure? not sure), and doesn't endanger the individual. Any advice or thoughts would be appreciated.

This is a delicate and tricky operation. First, let’s acknowledge the courage it takes to identify one’s privilege and then push back against that privilege by making conscientious choices to negate a lifetime of being influenced by negative stereotypes and assumptions about blackness.  That is a good foundation for building a sense of strong allyship with people of color against racism.

Second, let’s examine the scenario that’s being described. The young woman wants to be proactive about bringing her business to black neighborhoods, not only to give them an economic benefit but also to challenge what she identifies as her “ingrained patterns of racist assumptions.” There’s so much clarity around the goodness of her intention to resist racism because of the deeply introspective realization that she has privilege based on skin color and economic class.  That combination of intention and realization is powerful. But contemplate the descriptive words she used to name her experience of being white while visiting a black neighborhood: unsafe, aggressive, dangerous

Although she didn’t choose these words for the purpose of maligning the neighborhood or supporting racism, words like these are the heart of the negative narrative about the nature of black communities that we hear every day in the media, in the news, and around the water cooler at work.  These three particular words are often used in specific contexts to uphold institutionalized white supremacy in our communities and to create apprehension in white people:  black neighborhoods are unsafe; black women are aggressive; black men are dangerous.  We’re all familiar with these false constructs and many of us are starting to understand the kind of damage this creates in our communities. This understanding begets the question: is this white woman actually unsafe because she thinks she encounters aggressive people in a black neighborhood that the community perceives to be dangerous?

Even though the woman’s feelings of fear are very real to her, it seems possible, even highly likely, that her physical safety is not in jeopardy when she visits this black neighborhood.  Even if she is being catcalled by men or approached by beggars, the wellbeing of her body is not at risk if they maintain some distance and she keeps moving along.  Her feelings of fear are probably unfounded because she might be confusing safetywith comfort.  

Confusing a lack of comfort with a lack of safety because of feeling upset or worried is very common, especially when a person doesn’t often find themselves in locations or social settings where they might look noticeably different from virtually everyone around them or don’t understand the general customs and norms of the area. Merriam Webster defines comfort as “a state or situation in which you are relaxed and do not have any physically unpleasant feelings caused by pain, heat, cold, etc. or a state or feeling of being less worried, upset, frightened, etc., during a time of trouble or emotional pain.”  Safety is defined as “freedom from harm or danger.”  The woman’s physical safety is not actually in danger; rather, she's feeling uncomfortable because she is in unfamiliar territory where her whiteness is not the norm so she can’t relax and she's been socially conditioned to associate this discomfort with fear of blackness and fear of violence or harm, especially related to black men.  

This leads to feelings of being worried, upset and frightened.  In America, whiteness and white culture are the norm, the default standard against which everything else is measured and judged. This black neighborhood is clearly not the upper class area where she grew up but that doesn’t necessarily mean that her presence is endangered simply by being in the neighborhood.  Being assaulted with catcalls and accosted by beggars is never a pleasant experience for a woman, but there’s a distinct difference between having an unpleasant experience and having a dangerous experience.

There’s no such thing as absolute safety or absolute comfort when it comes to fighting racism by using your own body and mind to break down the physical barriers and social boundaries that separate our communities and prevent us from claiming each other as friends, neighbors, allies, people who belong to each other and who belong to the community together. Though, that’s okay. Discomfort forces us to make a choice: we can retreat back to the familiar and maintain the status quo, which is a white supremacist status quo in America, or we can advance and be brave as we battle our collective racist demons. 

We might get hurt if we advance, but we will definitely perish if we stagnate because our society can’t survive like this much longer. The best advice for this situation is to try to honor and accept the tension of using discomfort as a motivator to examine internalized supremacy while rejecting feelings of being unsafe around blackness when there is no actual physical threat present. Obviously, this isn’t an easy skill to master and requires practice, concentration and a full commitment to unlearning a lifetime of racialized social conditioning. Nevertheless, there’s a whole frontier of new experiences and new relationships to be discovered when a person leans into their discomfort as they forge forward to stand on new ground.

Sometimes, however, even when a white person whole heartedly believes in racial equity and desegregation as principles to uphold in a community, the issue remains that perhaps not all community spaces should be integrated by including white people. One unpleasant experience described by the young woman involves receiving “looks of displeasure” when she enters a business, which she thinks might be because her presence in the neighborhood comes off as “condescending.”  Another explanation could be possible- the black people she encountered were signaling that her presence, her white presence, was unwelcome because she had entered a space that was purposefully carved out and reserved for people of color.  Her whiteness disturbed the refuge for blackness that the space was trying hold open in the neighborhood, which is part of the broader St. Louis community that is a hotbed of simmering anger bubbling up from decades of housing discrimination, lack of economic opportunity, intergenerational poverty, unrepresentative community leadership, and tense police-community relations. Even though this young woman might want to fully integrate and have the purest of intentions, there are times or places where her white presence might not be appropriate.

Sometimes spaces of color need to remain exclusively spaces of color. This is not reverse racism because, generally speaking, almost every space in America is a white space by default.  Whiteness is the dominant culture so most public spaces, schools, businesses, media institutions and government are places where people of color do not have power, social standing or the benefit of the doubt.  In worst case scenarios, people of color are subject to the infliction of emotional distress and physical violence simply because they aren’t white. This means that when people of color choose to create spaces where they can be their authentic selves and share community with each other, free from the restraints of white dominance, then those spaces should be held sacred and not interfered with by white people.  These spaces might take different forms, like churches or perhaps a nail salon or maybe a nightclub, but they all share one thing in common: these are some of the rare spaces where black people can feel comfortable and safe in a society stained by racism. These spaces should be protected as sanctuaries for blackness in America, and they should be protected as such but not only by people of color but also by people who consider themselves to be white allies.

Of course, all of this sounds contradictory. White people, be okay with feeling uncomfortable when trying to integrate your community, but don’t overstep your bounds by interloping where your presence is unwelcome by the black people you want to embrace!  However, consider for a moment that people of color are compelled to negotiate these kinds of relationships and community settings every single day.  Most people of color live in places where whiteness is the default so their inherent blackness, whether it be marked by skin color, culture, or tradition, is always at odds with the community norms, whether or not people in the community realize that those norms are in place.  Even though the experiences and situations described by the young woman’s email don’t accurately mirror the lifelong burden of living under systemic racism as a person of color, they are a crucial starting point for unpacking emotions about embracing diversity as a white person and feeling some connection with the experiences of black people.  Racism isn’t going to disappear because one white woman chooses to make a conscious effort to visit the black neighborhoods in her city, but it’s a big step for her and another small battle won for everyone who values equity and dignity for all people but recognizes that the struggle is far from over yet.

Janee Woods is a former attorney who is working for a nonprofit focused on supporting community engagement, strengthening democracy and fostering racial equity. Follow her on Twitter @janeepwoods.
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