Staying Alert to Racism
A day in the life of a hypervigilant Black woman
Hello friends, last year, I wrote about a day in the life of a Black person. In thinking about it more, I realized that there are even more concerns when you happen to be a Black woman. Here’s a snapshot of what that can feel like:
Staying Alert to Racism
As a woman, you're used to doing a certain level of threat assessment whenever you walk into a space. That goes double or triple for Black women.
As a woman, you want to assess your chances of leaving upright and unassaulted. For Black women you have to add avoiding racism into that whole equation, and the deck is stacked against you. Here's a typical day in the life…
You wake up in the morning and you watch the news. Depending on where you are, you might find that another Black person has been shot and killed by the police (in the US), or another Black person is complaining about being stopped and searched (in the UK). This is unfortunately part of the normal background to your life, so you absorb the visceral pain, and continue watching the news.
As you leave the house, what happens next depends on how you're getting around. If you're driving a car, then you know you have to be extra careful not to exceed the speed limit. And you also have to make sure that everything on your car is working correctly. That way, there's no excuse for anyone - the police - to stop you. That doesn't mean they won't, but you want to reduce the chances.
If you're on public transport, there's a fair chance that you might be groped or assaulted. This is true for all women, not just Black women. But as I've said before, when it comes to Black women, white men can feel an additional sense of sexual entitlement.
As you walk the streets, you're constantly aware of the spaces where you might be at risk. If you're in the US, you're definitely not going to be approaching the police, because you have no idea how that interaction could go. (Well, actually, you do have some idea, and it might not end well for you.) You're also constantly scanning the area to see whether individuals or groups of people might make your life difficult.
We always talk about stereotypes about Black people. But stereotypes exist about white people too. And so, if I'm out walking, and I see a group of young white boys with closely shaven heads and tattoos, I might cross the road in case they turn out to be young neo-nazis. And yes, I know it's wrong to let stereotypes affect your reaction to people, but there are so many ways in which Black people are at risk that I consider this a safety measure.
You're always aware when you go into a shop that you might be followed around, or that security will be watching you. And the sales assistant might hover, too, not to help, but to check that you’re not a thief. It’s pretty tiring.
When you’re ready to eat out or grab a drink, you also have to be aware of the atmosphere and the crowd as you enter a restaurant, coffee shop, café, or bar. Most Black and brown people can instantly judge whether a place is safe (in other words, unlikely to result in outright racism, or more subtle microaggressions). And we know that it matters a LOT whether we’re on our own, in a group of Black people, in a group of people with mixed ethnicities, or with a white partner or friend. All of those factors are weighed up in an instant assessment.
This constant calculation becomes even more acute when you're also looking out for children. You're obviously alert, as every parent is, for anything that might cause harm or threat to your kids.
As a Black or BIPOC parent, you don't want your children to have to deal with the evils of racism any earlier than they have to. Even if you give them the information and have “the talk” to keep them safe, you still hope to delay the day when they have to experience it for themselves for as long as possible. And so, you make your choice of spaces where you're going to take them based on that constant threat assessment. It's wearing, because it happens all day, every day, whenever you’re in white majority spaces outside your own home.
I won’t recap all the microaggressions that happen in the office, but every woman knows about that office colleague that tends to get handsy, and which spaces and situations to avoid. There’s an extra layer to that with Black women, because of many ingrained assumptions about their intelligence, capability, and sexuality.
Finally, once you leave the office, you have to do it all again in reverse, running the gauntlet of cold stares that tell you you’re unwelcome, assaults, and outright aggressions.
This is just a snapshot of what Black women can go through on a typical day, but what can you as an antiracist ally do to help? It depends on the situation, but here are some suggestions.
If a Black women is facing an actual physical threat in the workplace or elsewhere, and you can help to minimize or deflect that threat, then do so. Sometimes all it takes is to make it clear that you have a zero tolerance approach for harassment of your colleagues of any ethnicity.
Make sure you have enforceable policies that support that. There’s little point in having toothless rules that nobody adheres to.
If you know any strategies for staying safe in threatening situations, share them with colleagues who might be in danger.
And most of all, believe Black women when they tell you they feel threatened and help make them feel less so.
As always, this is only a starting point. You’ll know more about what your Black women colleagues experience and how you can support them by actively seeking them out and talking to them.
Who knows? Maybe one day we Black women in white majority spaces won’t have to be hypervigilant every time we leave the house.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.