The New York Times recently published, “Was that racist,” an article where Black men and women answered the questions: “Have you ever been left wondering whether an experience was an act of racism? How would you respond if something like that happened?”
The first reflection begins simply enough at a Starbucks where a barista calls out the order, “tall, Black Marques.” Marques, indeed a tall Black man, who works for a demolition company based in Colorado, who was waiting for a drink, was confounded by what appeared to be a racially charged incident. But he laughed it off and defused the situation with a joke: “That’s me, tall black Marques!” the Times writes.
But it’s not a joke in my view because the incident reeks of plantation nostalgia, or what some Black people experience everyday as microagressions, you know “behaviors or statements that do not necessarily reflect malicious intent but which nevertheless can inflict insult or injury.”
To my point, the second reflection, “Power Play,” by Greg Howard, a reporter for the Sunday Metropolitan section of The Times, reflects on what it means to walk down crowded sidewalks in New York City. He writes, “In seven years of living and walking here, I’ve found that most people walk courteously — but that White women, at least when I’m in their path, do not.”
Though I tend to agree with Howard, who wrote the piece, I raised an eyebrow as I continued reading: “So I acknowledge other pedestrians, and reroute,” he writes. “White men and all people of color do the same to me. They offer some form of acknowledgement that we are in each other’s path, that I am there at all.”
For me, a fellow New Yorker, walking the sidewalks—usually in Midtown—I find that White people, including White men, women, and children, refuse to move their bodies or negotiate space with me when we are in each other’s pathways. I have been shoulder bumped really hard by White men rushing to meetings, White women trying to get past me to get into taxis, and even by groups of White children, who from birth are taught to not see or respect Black people.
White people across genders push and shove my Black body; knock me over to grab seats before me; and often demand that I move my body and become uncomfortable so that they are comfortable. This is what whiteness does—it demands recognition, at all costs, even if that means that Black people must suffer or even die.
My Black body, my personhood, and my humanity are discounted, and they render me invisible. And even in spaces such as the subway, where we are forced to look at each other until we reach our respective stops, White people across genders push and shove my Black body; knock me over to grab seats before me; and often demand that I move my body and become uncomfortable so that they are comfortable. This is what whiteness does—it demands recognition, at all costs, even if that means that Black people must suffer or even die.
I was struck by other words in the piece. Toward the end of his reflection, Howard notes, “There have always been White women in my life, and I’ve counted them as friends and sisters, mothers and lovers. Whenever I ask White women I know why they don’t reroute for Black men, they invariably express ignorance.”
These words—in two short sentences—are full of complexity, but one facet sticks out: Black people living in an anti-Black, White supremacist society continue to demand that White people view us as human, when in reality, White people will only view and treat us as slaves. Falling in love with White people and by extension, whiteness, will not save us from white supremacy.
I intently sat with the two above stories in more detail because they came explicitly from Black men, and I am a Black man. The last two stories, however, are rich in other ways, in that they show the various day-to-day struggles that Black women and Black heterosexual couples deal with in an allegedly post-racial society.
The second to last story recalls how a Black woman was referred to as “Hello Black” in a company email. Yes, she is Black but her name is not Black. The last story involves an instance of anti-Black racism by Mexican restaurant employees to a Black couple out for dinner. The only set of Black people in the restaurant, a waitress, unsolicited, told them “they were out of chips and that she therefore could not give us any as they usually do.
“Yet a short time later, a Latino couple was seated, and their waitress brought them chips. Same thing with another group after that,” the report says.
Microaggression or nah? Whatever your take, the incidences recounted in the Times article raise three significant concerns for those of us committed to deconstructing whiteness. One, anti-Black racism is a part of the fabric of American society and culture. Black people are at the bottom, and everyone else steps on top of us to get where they are going.
Two, the question “Was that racist?” gaslights Black people living in this anti-Black world. It is used to give grace to and humanize White people, even as those same White people dehumanize us with impunity.
Three, anti-Black racism is not confined to White people, and commonly, non-Black people of color, who face racism, are also anti-Black. The question, then, is one of ontology: Why are they racist?
Such a query necessitates critical attention to the ways the past and present are blurred; and how history intersects with our daily realities. I believe White people yearn to be like their White racist forefathers, even as Black people look to our sacred ancestors for psychic guidance and political fortitude amid unrelenting anti-Blackness in America.
Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a doctoral student in the Departments of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. He also currently serves as an inaugural cohort fellow of the Just Beginnings Collaborative (2016-2018), where his project, Children of Combahee works to eradicate child sexual abuse in Black churches. Follow him on Twitter @_BrothaG.