I recently read a Facebook post in which a woman of color lamented how often she is forced to step aside on the sidewalk to make way for a white person.  After describing several recent instances, she complained of how galling she found such behavior – offensive in its entitlement and disturbingly reminiscent of a time when there were codes requiring her to make way.  When she spoke of refusing to step aside in the future, several white people chastised her for encouraging rudeness.  Ironically, even the space on her Facebook page wasn’t immune to white encroachment.

Her remarks prodded me to examine my behavior.  In many situations, when I encounter other white men on a sidewalk, I too have experienced this game of chicken, where men assert their dominance, forcing me to step aside. Though I don’t understand my masculinity in such terms, I do find their behavior irritating.  It never occurred to me that, if they behave this way with another white man, they would most certainly expect deference in their encounters with women or people of color.  Nor did it occur to me that my irritation at having to step aside for another white man might be the result of how rarely I’m placed in such a position.

Closely observing my own behavior, I’ve discovered an entitlement of which I had been unaware.  I often walk in public spaces with little concern for or awareness of those around me, assuming they will make way for me.  When this assumption is challenged by another person, I step aside, but often with either irritation or a sense of superiority.  They were either rude or I was being gentlemanly, graciously allowing them to proceed through my space.  As a white male, I unconsciously expect deference in public space.

While some of this self-absorption is probably universal, white people are especially prone to the assumption that the space we inhabit belongs to us.  We look at our neighborhoods, organizations, businesses, governments, country and even the world as “white space.”  They are places created by and for us.  All others are interlopers and invaders, free to remain as long as they behave properly and respect our ownership of the space.  When this expectation is violated, we quickly assert our prerogatives.

This assumption of white space drives the repeated instances of white people calling the police on people of color. Swimming pools, coffee shops, parks and golf courses were once exclusively white domains.  Though legally free to all, many white people – consciously or unconsciously – still claim those spaces.  When a person of color irritates them in any way, even by their presence, many white people feel entitled to request their removal.  When people of color walk through our neighborhoods, even if they are doing political canvassing, selling a product or delivering the newspaper, we feel justified in challenging their right to be in our space.  We often rationalize this as a concern for safety, but it is driven by a racist defense of our space.

Whether most white Americans recognize it or not, we define this country as white space, created by and for us.  While we’re irritated by the presence of blacks in our space, we know as some deep level that we brought them here against their will.  Latinos are a different situation.  They are invading our space, speaking their language, asserting their culture. The rhetoric around illegal immigration is driven by a defense of white space.  Trump says he is protecting us from MS-13 and Mexican rapists, but most of us know this isn’t the chief concern.  His recent statement that “immigrants are destroying European culture” is far more honest.  Trump rode this fear of non-white encroachment into the White House, replacing a black man who many thought did not belong there.

For many white people, the election of Barak Obama was a wake-up call.  If they had to share the “White House” with a person of color, what else would they have to share?  This was especially threatening to non-educated, working class, white men – the men who so often assume they own the sidewalk.  As in the days of Jim Crow, they were willing to accept the dregs of the American economy as long as they still felt they owned the country. Social and economic inequities within white culture were tolerated as long as they experienced countless examples of their special status as white.  For them, becoming a minority in the United States is an existential threat.

And rightly so.

This understanding of our nation must end. The United States of America is not inherently white space.  Four hundred years ago, it was solely inhabited by people of color. Two hundred years ago, large portions of the southwest were largely populated by Hispanic people.  Ironically, the space many white people are defending from invasion is space we once invaded. White people are experiencing precisely what we inflicted on others, though in a far less violent manner. We are being challenged to accept an alternate reality, where the space we inhabit it shared rather than owned.

Space is always open to renegotiation. As strident and ugly as the present tensions around immigration and race have become, they are probably necessary to this renegotiation. The days when white people could demand people of color leave a space is finally being challenged. Those who attempt this as individuals are being arrested, fired, censured and shamed. Hopefully, in the near future, those who extol this in public office will also be rejected.

More and more people of color are not standing aside on the sidewalk or in society.

This is not rude.

It is long overdue.

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4 thoughts on “White Space

  1. Cogent. We white people need to look, with eyes wide open, at our little irritations and anxieties, to see what are the seeds that give birth to them.

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  2. As always, Jim, very well done. Having been married to a black man, I experienced some of these situations. I (we) were treated differently when I was with him in public to how i was treated when I was in public alone. Sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle. In talking with a black friend a number of years later, she helped me gain recognition, that I still had not felt the total experience, even being with my husband. I tried to be acutely aware of this for my daughters’ sake, but they also had to face society alone. I cringe when I hear the stories they tell me, even decades later, that they experience. I want for more, faster progress when I think of how long the fight for equality has been and we’ve come a long way, but it’s still taking too long. My thoughts are that it takes education and awareness individually and for younger generations to get it more quickly and many more of them and for the ideas to spread. The cause is won one person at a time. Jim, thank you for all you’re doing to spread the word.

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