I recently wrote about enjoying being invisible in Black majority spaces. Here’s how it feels in the opposite case:
Being a Black person moving into predominantly white spaces is like exiting warp and finding you’re surrounded by the Borg (yes, I’m a Trekkie). You don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but you strongly suspect it won’t work out in your favor.
One way I’ve experienced this is when traveling from the Caribbean to the UK or the US. The shift can start the minute you board the plane. It doesn’t much matter which airline it is (as I’ve said many times, anti-Blackness exists among Black people too). You may find that the cabin crew’s smiles are a little less welcoming, and their service a little less prompt or willing when you’re in the wrong skin. That dismissive gaze can be pretty discomfiting.
But it’s when you step off the plane that the “fun” begins. I’ve experienced this in many countries, including the UK, which is my birthplace. Sometimes it’s an absence - for example, I’m almost never the one plucked out of the line and sent to a shorter queue. But sometimes it’s more active, like being “randomly” selected to be questioned further by the authorities.
I’ve talked before about the microaggression of being asked where I’m from. That doesn’t just happen in the workplace, and it takes on a whole new sinister turn when it’s being asked by an immigration officer. After all, they have the power to make your life very miserable indeed.
Another question I once got as I was flying back into England from the officer who was scrutinizing my perfectly legal passport was “where did you learn your English?” I recognized that he thought that as a Black person I likely wasn’t British. As we know, that idea pops up pretty regularly, When I replied that it was my native language, he eventually gave up.
Even after that, you can’t relax till you have collected your luggage and successfully left the airport. There’s always the possibility of another “random” luggage check before you make it to relative safety. After all, you’re Black and coming from the Caribbean so you must be carrying some contraband. Laughable, really, as I’m the last person in the world to even KNOW where to get illegal substances.
Once you’re out of the airport, the visibility begins again. At least if you’re at the cab rank, you’re likely to end up with a cab, though occasionally someone will refuse you, claiming he’s already been booked. Since I don’t want to get in a cab with a racist, I consider that a lucky escape.
And if you’re picking up your car and driving home, then the unwelcome visibility starts again, especially if you’re a Black man. I personally have never been stopped and searched in the UK, but I know people who have been. And when I’m driving on my own, I try to be careful (though there, at least, I’m not afraid of dying).
As you move through the rest of daily life, you continue to be visible and sometimes to attract unwelcome attention. That might be when people cross the road to avoid you, grab their stuff in case you steal it, follow you around shops, or cast aspersions on your character.
And in the workplace, you may be subjected to the usual microaggressions, even though some of them are disguised as compliments. It’s a strange feeling to be singled out for something you absolutely take for granted, like being able to string a few sentences together.
Everywhere you go you feel the weight of the white gaze and of people’s stereotypes, positive and negative, about Black people. For example, some of my colleagues in my first job in the UK believed that as a Black person, I had to be a fabulous dancer, which really isn’t true, but was at least positive.
But so often through my life I’ve come across the opposite: my French landlady who assumed Black people weren’t that clean and were fundamentally untrustworthy. My upstairs neighbor in Southampton, who thought Black girls would be playing loud music all the time. My colleague in Warwickshire, who saw me as a charity case (and didn’t like it when I no longer needed her help). The many people who withdrew offers of accommodation when they saw my face. The list goes on.
It’s exhausting - Blaxhausting, even - and it’s constant whenever you leave your house.
So, what can you as a white anti-racist do in these cases? I’ll boil it down to one sentence: disrupt the racist narrative. Notice the way your Black and brown colleagues are being treated and call out racism and microaggressions. Let them know they’re not alone.
Thanks for reading my perspective,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.