When I was 15 years old, my sister and I went on a trip to Europe. We went on scholarship because my mother didn’t have the money to pay the full fare for the two of us, which ran into the thousands of dollars. (My kids have since done similar teen academic programs, and they’re amazing.) On that trip were about a half-dozen of us from various public schools in Denver — two guys that I can remember (it was a long time ago) and three or four girls including my sister and me — plus around 15 girls from an exclusive private girls’ school.
While I can no longer remember most of the kids’ names and only vaguely recall their faces, I do remember one of the boys, Moises. He stood out in the group for some of the reasons my sister, June, and I did; we were the only African-Americans on the trip and Moises was the only Latino. He was tall for his age and big, a bear of a boy with deep brown skin and close cropped, jet-black hair.
Though brief, the moment was indicative of exactly the kind of everyday racism that remains a reality for minorities across America.
Moises fit into our little public school group just fine. He was funny, and he laughed easily at our dumb jokes (OK, mostly mine). But what stood out most to me was the first interaction between Moises and one of our trip advisers, an older woman with the approximate personality of Mrs. Lovey Howell from “Gilligan’s Island.” Though brief, the moment was nonetheless indicative of exactly the kind of everyday racism that remains a reality for minorities across America.
During orientation, “Mrs. Howell” was talking to a group of us with Moises standing nearby. Beaming, she remarked on how glad she was that the traveling group was so “diverse,” and that Moises was able to come along on scholarship — as if those of us on scholarship wanted it announced and pointed out. And she said of Moises: “He’s so grateful.”
My sister and I shot each other a look. “So grateful?” We couldn’t believe someone would make such a remark, or think it was a compliment. In order to get the scholarship, Moises had had to do what we’d done: write an essay explaining why the trip would be important to him. He’d earned that trip. We all had. And so even though the comment wasn’t about us, it burned. In part this was because we were embarrassed for Moises, and in part because we knew that it could have been about us.
If you’re black or brown in America and you’re lucky, it’s these small acts that stay with you, like a residual cough after a cold. It’s the clerk who persistently follows you through the store, as if you couldn’t possibly be simply browsing (even as your sister’s kleptomaniac, albeit white, former friend walked among store shelves unmolested.) It’s the college recruiter who sits just across from you for a half hour at the Village Inn, lifting her eyes at every young white girl who walks in the door, while you set a mental timer to see how long it will take her to ask if you are the student she’s looking for.
It’s the waiter with the sour expression who takes so long to come to your table it would appear he doesn’t see you and your party at all, only to snap to it when a white friend arrives and joins the table. It’s the cab drivers, often brown themselves, who switch off their ready light, click their door locks and speed past you to pick up the white person on a nearby corner. It’s the job that was available until you showed up, or the apartment, or the loan. Or the “compliment” on your natural hair that’s doubles as a gentle reminder that straightening it might look more presentable.
It’s the job that was available until you showed up, or the apartment, or the loan. Or the “compliment” on your natural hair that’s doubles as a gentle reminder that straightening it might look more presentable.
If you’re unlucky, though, that residual racial cough becomes a full-body fever that won’t go away. In this case it’s the cop who pulls you over for a minor traffic violation and then stands warily outside the driver’s side door with his hand hovering over his gun. And it’s the deep ache in the pit of your stomach that starts every time you see red and blue flashing lights closing in behind you thereafter, even when you’ve done nothing wrong. It’s the time you called 911 because you heard a noise in your house but were more afraid after the police arrived — and seemed to be searching your home for weed or guns instead of for a burglar.
And if you’re really unlucky, you’ve had the cops called on you for just being in a public space where a white person thought you didn’t belong. And in the worst-case scenario, you or someone you love doesn’t walk away from that interaction alive, whether because of the police or just some random civilian armed with a gun. Just ask the parents of Trayvon Martin.
To be white in America is to assume, with total self-confidence and little afterthought, the personal ownership of public spaces. To be white in America is to have the confidence to say, without a second thought: this space, this neighborhood, this city, this county, this country is mine. Myself and those who look like me have the right to decide who can be here, and even what language can be spoken here. It doesn’t even have to be intentionally malicious. These assumptions just are. They exist inside the American body.
From the moment black and brown people were imported into this country, not as citizens but as worker bodies, transgressing these “white-owned spaces” — from rail cars to restaurants to whole parts of town — could mean humiliation or persecution or even death. It still can today. What has changed is the scale.
We don’t see death for the transgression of white spaces on the level we did in decades past. But it still happens — ask Sterling Brown or the families of Philando Castille, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling or Stephon Clark. Meanwhile, the definition of white-owned spaces keeps expanding: from the Starbucks seating area to the Yale common room to the barbecue area of a public park.