The Burden Of Being Black In A White Space

“When you know that you did nothing wrong, how do you really react to it?”
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the two men arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks earlier this month, tell their story on AB
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the two men arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks earlier this month, tell their story on ABC's "Good Morning America," April 19, 2018.

After long Sundays in one of our North Carolina town’s many Southern Baptist churches, my great-grandmother, Muss, and I would venture to Dollar General. It was the highlight of the Lord’s Day for me, a time to frolic in the store’s toy section while Muss focused on picking up household supplies. My objective was simple: find something I liked and convince her to buy it.

One hot Sunday when I was 8, I was digging through the school supplies and investigating my typical vices — toy makeup kits and cheap action figures. The pens and toys occupied different aisles, and I happily bounced back and forth between the sections, comparing items to decide what I wanted. The mission was going as expected until Muss walked over. She instructed me to put the toys down. It was time to go.

This was uncharacteristic. Typically she’d ask if I had made my decision and was ready to check out. I protested, loudly, wanting to know why this Sunday was different. But her usual tolerance for questions was nowhere to be found. “Let’s go. Now,” she said, grabbing my arm. The bass in her voice told me she was serious. As she dragged me out of the store, I started crying and shifting in my clothes as I tried to free my arm.

“Stop moving,” she said. “Don’t go in your pockets either.”

We got in the car and I again asked her what was happening.  

“You ain’t see that woman following you around?”

I hadn’t noticed her.

“She was following you because you black,” she said. “You can’t just run around and pick stuff up. They think you stealing.”

“But I’m not,” I said, choking back tears from the back seat.  

“It don’t matter.”

Muss explained that my blackness had consequences beyond my control, and that there was a certain way I needed to conduct myself in public for my own good. I didn’t have the privilege of running around in a store and innocently comparing products with my hands, she said. I couldn’t put my hands in my pockets. I would always be seen and treated differently because of my race.

I prodded her for answers. I wanted to know why, and if it would always be this way.

Her face fell.

I knew the answer.

I tweeted about this exchange and how it relates to the recent racial profiling incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks. On April 12, at about 4:35 p.m., Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson walked into the coffee shop in the city’s Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. They were there to meet a friend, who hadn’t yet arrived. Nelson asked the manager if he could use the bathroom, but was informed that restrooms were for paying customers only. Nelson “left it at that,” he later told ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and joined Robinson in waiting for their friend. The manager approached the men a few seconds later and asked if they wanted to order something. They declined.

At 4:37 p.m., the manager called 911. Police arrested Nelson and Robinson soon after, a moment that went viral when a customer recorded it on her phone.

“When you know that you did nothing wrong, how do you really react to it?” Nelson pondered in an interview with The Associated Press.

It’s a question black folks have struggled with our entire lives. How do you handle these situations once you’re in them? What can you do to avoid ending up in such predicaments? How do you navigate a society that criminalizes you even as a child, and only deepens the stigma as you age? And how do these experiences shape you? How do they change you?

My own experience completely changed how I operate in stores. I quit running between aisles. I no longer pick up items unless I am buying them. I’m hyperaware of my body language. I don’t put my hands in my pockets. I don’t linger after I pay. I buy things I don’t want, to prove I don’t need to steal. I tense up when I walk out of stores, always worried I’ll be accused of stealing. I fear the cops being called. Even at 25, I’m still reduced to that little girl in the Dollar General.

In response to my Twitter thread, many black people shared similar experiences. Here are some of those tweets, along with personal anecdotes others shared with HuffPost that have been edited for length and clarity.

Brandon, 28, Chicago:

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of decisions I make when shopping:

  • I don’t put my hands in coat/pants/sweatshirt pockets.

  • I take my hood off outside the store before entering, even if it’s snowing or raining (the times when I really want to be wearing a hood).

  • I don’t wear headphones.

  • I don’t wear sunglasses.

  • I very deliberately put items into shopping carts or baskets.

  • I try to always use a shopping cart or basket, even if I’m only buying one item.

  • I never use my reusable bag instead of a cart or basket.

  • I make sure to say “hello” to employees, and smile profusely.

  • I wear baseball caps backward while shopping so you can see my face.

  • I don’t sample fruits or veggies (like I used to snack on grapes as a little kid when I shopped with my mom).

  • I try to always buy something.

  • I make sure I’m well groomed before shopping.

  • I’m gay, so I play up my “gayness” whenever I can. It disarms people. “My boyfriend and I are looking for...” often gets a nicer response than “I’m looking for...”

  • I write a list on paper and carry it with me.

  • I walk fast, but not too fast.

  • I walk slow, but not too slow.

  • I use the main entrance/exit even when a secondary exit is more convenient.

My partner is white, and our nieces are blonde with blue eyes. They live in a different Midwestern state than we do. Once, we were visiting for a fundraiser at the girls’ school. It was one of those yucky Midwestern carnivals with a beer tent, a polka band, and a thousand games for kids to play and win “prizes.” There was a cop car stationed there. Generally, I’m more aware of my race when we visit family than I am when I’m in Chicago. This is especially true at a Catholic school fundraiser where I’m probably the only non-white person (and one of two gay people). I stood out. My in-laws were volunteering at the beer tent, so my partner and I were babysitting the girls and keeping them out of trouble at the carnival. If he and I were together with the nieces, we got some extended stares. Nothing too serious.

Every time I did something one-on-one with one of our nieces, I got the look. If I had to walk one of my nieces to the bathroom, or go get more tokens for the games, or ask if they could have more junk food, it felt like every person at the carnival was watching me. Without a white person escorting me through this white space, I lost all trustworthiness and suddenly became a suspicious black guy. At a fundraiser for a school! I’m here spending money!

Practically, this meant I was a less attentive babysitter than normal. This might have been different if my partner wasn’t with me, but he was, so I let him take the lead. I didn’t hold on to my younger niece’s hand, even though she’s the type to run off excitedly. I made sure to say sentences like, “Make sure you tell UNCLE Brandon where you are going.” In my normal life I would never say that sentence. I would say something like, “Hey! Before you run off somewhere, you have to tell me. OK?”  

Harry, 26, Atlanta:

When I was around 9 years old, I was at a store with my dad. I recall it being either a gas station or a CVS Pharmacy. I was paying for something small, maybe a Gatorade. When the cashier asked if I wanted a receipt, I told them no. My dad quickly corrected me, and said that I needed one. When we got to the car, he told me that I always needed a receipt when I left the store to protect myself. I didn’t understand it at the time, but that moment always stuck with me, and it wasn’t until I got older that I understood what that meant.

Then there’s the whole routine I learned to go through when getting pulled over. And even when I go through my routine of music off, hands on the wheel, take my hat and sunglasses off and tell an officer where my license and registration is at before I reach for it — I still shake with nerves. It’s just one of those things we’re taught that a lot of other people don’t have to think about. It’s a method of security and, in some cases, survival. For a lot of people, they’ll hear these things endlessly, but will never believe them because it’s just not something they’re going to experience.

West, 34, Charleston, South Carolina:

I was purchasing music equipment at a store, and there was just a single white woman running it. Here I am, an average-sized black man trying my best to make her feel relaxed and calm. I could feel the tension subconsciously bubbling out from within her. It’s interesting that it is usually the store’s responsibility to make the customer feel comfortable in purchasing, but as a black person, that role is always reversed. I purchased a significant number of large items, and I had to carry each one out individually. This area was mostly a “white” space, so I’m anxious that someone will think I’m stealing from this store if they see me loading up my vehicle one box at a time.

I didn’t have “the talk” when I was younger, because my parents were big on integration and wanted me to fit in. I only had white friends, and when I suggested that I’m being treated differently — “Oh, it’s all in your head.” But one time in college, I was carrying a small block of wood to a class, and a public safety officer stopped me and told me there were reports that there was someone holding something suspicious — the R-word never came to mind. I had to learn how to deal with being “an other” everywhere I went.

This anxiety and the stress was so potent that I literally had bouts of paranoia and psychological damage. I went to see a therapist. That’s when I had my wake-up call. And can you believe there were no black therapists in Charleston, South Carolina? I found a Jewish therapist because that was the best I could do. That Jewish man essentially gave me the talk that your grandmom gave you at 8 years old. Then all the dots connected. And it was like my consciousness morphed and I finally accepted my blackness. I wasn’t aware that I had to learn this. After all, before that, “I’m not black, I’m an American” was my mindset. The real world teaches you that’s not the case in the harshest of ways. That’s why it’s a blessing you got the talk early.  

Zina, 27, Newport News, Virginia:

My most recent memory involves me wearing a Princeton T-shirt to high school. Upon getting to my AP Spanish class — and there were only seven black folks in there — this white girl walks over to my desk and blatantly says, “You know you have to be smart enough to get in, right?” I felt my temperature rising because of the disrespect. So I politely said, “Yeah, I’m sure my 4.4 GPA will help with that.” I was polite because I felt like as a black teen, they already had an expectation that I’d get out of character at the slightest insult. I didn’t want to give her that satisfaction.

The teacher did not reprimand her in any way. It felt like she condoned that shit. I told my mom about it and she went into a talk about how being black means you have to work twice as hard to be half as good. Then she marched down to the dean and told her if that girl harassed me again and it wasn’t addressed, she’d be escalating it.

When white students display microaggressions that go unchecked by white faculty, at some point you have to get others involved. Those microaggressions are one way we start developing mental health issues, social trauma, etc.  

Erin, 18, Las Vegas:

My whole life I attended predominantly white institutions. I was always one of the only black kids in my class, but I never really realized I was different until one day on the playground. I was running with my friends and I had a race against this white boy in my class. I beat him, and he wasn’t too happy about it. He screamed in my face that I was “just a stupid black person.” I told my teacher and they did nothing but slightly reprimand him.

I went home, looked in the mirror and I saw that I was different — and that I always would be — for the first time. I didn’t tell my mom because I felt ashamed, and to this day I still haven’t. From then on it was hard to exist with the white kids all day, every day, and not feel like I was nothing. It’s taken me many years to find my own self-worth, especially as a black female, and every day it’s a struggle.

Laura, 25, Gaithersburg, Maryland:

I was 6 years old, and I distinctly remember I was playing on the playground at after-school care. A girl who I thought was my best friend told me she couldn’t play with me anymore because I was black. I was very confused. It was difficult for me to comprehend why someone would suddenly want to end a friendship over something I could not change. I was black the entire school year, so where did this come from?

I was distraught and told my mom once I got home. My mom told me to ignore it, and that it was safe to assume that the girl had been repeating what she had heard from an adult. It was most likely a sentiment expressed by her parents. But I’ll never forget what my mom did next. I was at another classmate’s birthday party, playing in her backyard, when I saw my mom go up to the girl’s mother. I had never seen her confront another adult. I don’t know what the exact exchange of words was but, allegedly, her mom did not know where her child got that idea from and my former friend apologized.

The apology didn’t really matter. The damage had been done and I was still confused. There are actually people that feel this way? My elementary school was predominantly white, and I wondered if other kids felt the same. It baffles me to think about how I knew this was problematic at that age. I hadn’t even lost all of my teeth yet. My biggest concern in life was which toys I wanted out of the Toys R Us catalog for Christmas.

It’s sad to think that there was a pivotal moment in our childhoods when we learned we couldn’t be as carefree as all the other kids. From then on, we would live with a fear that because you are different, you won’t be accepted.