race and space

Volume of Color

Photograph taken from webinar advertisement, "Whiteness at Work," by The Adaway Group

Ten years ago, I sat at a Fourth of July party being berated for talking too much. Fastforward to a meeting in 2018. I had arrived at the council dais when it was open for entry, before the lights were raised. My name was first, and a White woman demanded that she be allowed to usurp my position, which I declined. Decipher City had prepared a presentation and planned it to last only the three allotted minutes for public comment, with maps. I listened to a 10-minute statement about how the Historic Landmark Committee was dedicated to racial equity and how the process was going to change. When the topic for which I had signed up was being discussed, the city staff spoke first, but when it was time for public comment, city staff kept denying me the opportunity to speak. Again, I was told that I would “get my chance,” but when the fifth person–after the city staff–who had not signed up ahead of me was allowed to speak and present before me, I left in frustration.

There is a common theme within spaces where Black people are not expected: quiet. These spaces are deemed “civil,” “professional,” and “desirable.” Picture what is considered to be a desirable location; what is the image that appears? Most often, that location is a location where many of the structures look the same and no one has an expression other than a smile. In that location, there is often an artisan food retailer, a microbrewery, and a cafe that is being used as if it is a public library. Moreover, at almost all of these locations the clientele is predominantly White, mostly quiet, and considered nonthreatening. Any person of color is seen in racial isolation, and the general consensus of those in attendance is that the presence of few people of color is proof that the space is comfortable for all people.

Often at those desirable locations, there are organizations who meet, and there are few people of color present and/or participating. While there is a great deal of deference paid to racial equity, often the people of color participating have very little to do with the actual meeting mechanics, and say little. There are smiles when they speak, but the conversation rarely addresses their issues, often delaying them to an indefinite time. The person of color may raise a contentious issue, but usually a White person speaks over that person in a way to suggest that nothing should be done until the predominantly White group agrees. The person of color falls silent and begins to recognize that joining that group was not about empowerment, but legitimizing the White general consensus.

Being in public has become an increasingly scary endeavor for those who are neither a part of nor participate in the dominant narrative. Too frequently, whenever a group of people of color, especially Black people, are in public, we are there by the grace of the dominant narrative. The consensus in public is that White is the default. If any of us dare to demand our humanity in public, we are told that we are trying to “force” people to reckon with our existence; the undertone of that statement is that we are not allowed to demand anything and force is for us to endure, no one else. Until we are allowed to be in public without harassment, the consensus must admit that there are no truly public spaces.

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