It's Getting Harder for People of Color Like Me to Inhabit White Spaces
Given everything going on in the world today, the likelihood that a thoughtless remark uttered by a person of privilege will drive me up the wall is higher than ever. And I'm not alone.
Still of Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out (2017)
I feel aggravated all the time. More annoyed than usual when people repeat my name back to me with a question mark. Anxious and restless when I look around a room and realize I’m the only person of color in it.
It’s been like this for over a year now. I never used to be this kind of person.
Most of my friends are white; a lot of them are men. They’re not used to seeing me this way and don’t really know what to say. For a while, I even struggled myself to pin down what exactly accounted for this shift in my personality, even as the obvious answers continued to pile up, almost 24/7.
The Muslim ban. The border wall. Charlottesville. Palestine. Puerto Rico. Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein and Woody Fucking Allen. Loud talkers and manspreaders and make-room-for-me-on-the-sidewalk motherfuckers.
White supremacy and toxic masculinity are nothing new, but today, America is in the midst of a reckoning. Every headline feels like a new saturation point, but the spigot just continues to run. And more and more, I find it difficult to wring myself out and get on with everyday life. It feels like I’m suffocating. Especially when I find myself in spaces and rooms dominated by people who are white, straight, or otherwise privileged.
Friends of color I spoke with for this story agreed this is a conversation we’ve been having more lately than ever before. We’re of various backgrounds, and each of us experience our otherness in vastly different ways, but we’re all accustomed to being among the minority in most settings. And all of us agreed to feeling some heightened sense of anxiety and defensiveness in majority-white spaces.
Overwhelming resentment like this is new territory for me. Though I grew up as one of few minorities in an affluent suburb, my attitudes toward our cultural difference weren’t always acute. My parents, who emigrated from India in the 70s, made it their mission to make my brother and I feel like we belong here. The fact that my home life felt worlds away from the America I navigated at school and saw on TV didn’t carry much more weight than my desire for boys over girls. Any way you looked at it, I didn’t fit in.
So I made white friends. And when I finally had the opportunity, I made queer friends, most of whom are also white. For better or worse, I have always felt thoroughly assimilated into white American culture. I think it made life easier for me in a lot of ways. But it’s beginning to backfire.
“That anxiety is never far from the surface,” said Thomas A. Parham, a psychologist, adjunct professor, and vice chancellor of student affairs at University of California, Irvine, who has written extensively on minority psychology. “All you have to do is be reminded through social circumstance that things are the way they are. That’s why the social climate is forcing people of color to confront it every day.”
Parham stressed that these feelings aren’t new for most minority groups, but they are being exacerbated in a new way. “The emotional reaction that most people of color are having is not ‘anxiety’ in the clinical sense,” Parham said. “It’s more a reaction to specific instances where they’re dealing with microaggressions, microassaults, or microinvalidations”—especially so in a climate where people feel more emboldened to make them.
Here’s one example.
I was at a cocktail party, milling around with more than a dozen gay men, all of them white. When another brown face approached and introduced himself, we recognized each other as South Asian and said as much. When another guest asked how we knew, I looked at him and deadpanned, “How do you know you’re white?” I said it was nice to have another person of color in the room, referring to the obvious makeup of the group. The same white guest looked around as if to find some proof I was wrong. “Well, it’s not like being white comes with some big prize,” he said with a smirk as he turned back to us.
Was he joking? I honestly couldn’t tell. I felt the back of my neck prickle. I wanted to scream and throw something. “Except for… extreme privilege?” I half muttered with a question mark, as though cautious not to offend him, before I turned and walked away.
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“I’ve just seen such crazy shit happen that it makes me nervous to be around that many white people,” said my friend Zoe Jackson, a TV producer who is black, of scenes like the one I experienced. “More so for my own emotional protection. I’m just waiting for someone to say some stupid shit to me, and for it to put me in a bad mood.”
I knew exactly what she meant.
“I’m more apt to count all the people of color in the room, which I didn’t always do,” said Nadia Brittingham, a TV editor whose father is white and mother is Taiwanese. She said that if and when she gets into conversations about race and gender with white people when she first meets them, she ends up “being more on the defensive." “I start to question myself, actually,” Jackson said. “Because I’m like, ‘Why am I in a space like this? Did I make this choice or was it made for me?’”
“There are assumptions that come into play whenever I walk in a room,” said Marcus Barnes, a bank vice president who is black. Before moving to Switzerland last year, Barnes spent his life in the US. “My default tendency is to turn it in on myself,” he said, describing a cycle of negative self-talk that it took many years to let go of. “Like, if nobody else like me is here, then they don’t want people like me here. They don’t want people like me here because I’m too dark. My nose is too big, I don’t dress well enough, my hair looks a mess. If only I were more respectable, etcetera.” He said he feels much more welcomed living abroad than he did in America.
Parham said he tries to help patients, students and other minorities he works with employ strategies derived from cognitive behavioral therapy to cope with increased identity-based anxiety. “We try to to help people focus less on the eight out of ten things they don’t control, and more on the two out of ten that they do,” Parham said; in this way, they can “reframe circumstance in a way that it doesn’t all become bad, or that everybody doesn’t become racist.” Those are strategies people I spoke with for this piece seemed to be turning to subconsciously.
“I get myself back to the reality of, ‘I don’t actually know what these people are thinking of me,’” said Barnes. “The more time I spend up in my head, the less time I’m actually focusing on the people around me.”
“You can’t live your life from a place of fear,” Jackson added. “But I also don’t bite my tongue. I don’t mind making other people uncomfortable if I’m right.”
Listening to her made me wish I had a more clever clapback for my rude party guest, but I was too shocked. I was at a party, for fuck’s sake—I couldn’t muster the energy in that environment to have a productive conversation about why what he said was so upsetting.
Brittingham said she's had "more intense conversations” with white friends of late just to gauge their reaction. But “at the same time, I tend not to, because I’m just othering myself further.” I’ve felt the same way over and over—that pointing to my difference only sets it in sharper relief, when I may be the only one constantly preoccupied with it. “I’m like, ‘If I have to think about this so much, why don’t you?’” Brittingham said.
At the same time, we all agreed to feeling fortunate for the white friends who’ve proven themselves incredible allies, if just by listening and acknowledging the limits of their understanding.
In just coming together to talk (and in some cases vent), we rehearsed another strategy Parham pointed to in coping with some of these feelings. “Part of what you want to do in putting people in groups and having them talk through these issues is to let them know that they are not in it alone,” Parham said. As obvious as that may sound, it’s easy to feel isolated when, whatever the circumstance, you find yourself among the only POC in the room.
Carving out space and time to specifically address these experiences can be invaluable. “Keeping those conversations going is really important and really therapeutic for me,” Jackson said. “Finding ways of just sharing and talking about it and supporting each other—I think we need it. It makes it easier to get out there.”
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