Photo: Joshua Resnick/Shutterstock

Traveling While Black Is a Radical Act

by Alyssa James Dec 20, 2016

A GOOD FRIEND OF MINE is studying to be a lawyer. I said to her yesterday that I was surprised she’s going in such a ‘corporate’ direction — not because she shouldn’t be, but because her side projects are strongly oriented towards social justice in the Black and Indigenous communities. I just assumed her decision to study law was founded in those same convictions and she would go down a path that led to human rights or criminal law. She looked at me seriously and said something like:

“Occupying spaces in which I am not welcome is resistance.”

I was like, wooo preach!

The results of the U.S. election made me realize how much social media and the people we choose to surround ourselves with are just echo chambers of our own beliefs and ethics. Everyone I know was shocked Trump won, illustrating the liberal bubble we live in. None of my American friends posted (publicly) that they were happy with the result. Similarly, no Facebook friend of mine (that I have seen) has written #AllLivesMatter. We join groups that match our interests; we unfriend and unfollow people whose opinions we disagree with; universities admit, and companies hire, those who ‘fit’. Most of us have built our lives around never having to be confronted by people who hold different world views and lived experience from our own.

So it should come as no surprise that we’re all intolerant, no matter how liberal we believe ourselves to be. We don’t just stick with what we know, many of us actively belittle those who disagree with, or have different interests from, us. Whether you get to be considered a ‘good’ intolerant person or a ‘bad’ intolerant person depends on who or what ideas you denigrate, and the people in your social circle.

It is not our job to educate the privileged about our struggles or their privileges (particularly in the advent of books, libraries, and this crazy open access space called the internet). That said, we — socially aware, ‘conscious’ types — don’t always hear out people who think differently from us when we have the opportunity. That’s not to say we should listen to a raging and overt misogynist or that we shouldn’t pull a Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie when necessary. But there is a time for listening to where people’s views are coming from and respectfully engaging with their understanding of the world. Check out my second note at the end of this post for an example.

Basically, I think Trump won and Brexit passed because the marginalized are divided. There are a lot of people who don’t feel heard or represented in our society rife with runaway identity politics. Some people might look at a white man and decide he is the problem without accounting for the intersections of identity that beget oppression — class, citizenship, able-bodiedness, and more. I think the time has come where we stop playing the ‘Who’s more oppressed?’ game and recognize that oppression is oppression. No more of this “I’m not gay so it’s not my fight” business. The (sad) reality is that very privilege* means you will be heard more clearly, leaving you a responsibility to speak up (without speaking over) and to advocate (without taking over). Justice and equality is everyone’s battle and we all have to be allies to each other.

Okay, I’ve gone slightly off topic. What does this have to do with traveling while black (or any other non-hegemonic and intersectional identities)?

If a space makes us feel uncomfortable, that is where we need to be.

Why? Because very little progress is being made when we spend all of our time in places we feel comfortable, where our opinions are commonplace, and/or where our lived experience is shared. What good are we doing by preaching to the converted? That is not to say there is no need for safe spaces where you can be recognized in all facets of your identity. And it does not put the onus on anyone to educate others. The way I see it, occupying space begins the process of building bridges and creating connections with potential allies.

Your movement is part of THE movement.

I went to a talk a couple weeks ago and the speaker brought up the video of a black university student accused of harassment while waiting for an appointment. The speaker also talked about the shootings of black people by police in America and other acts of racism, but this particular case incensed me. I had (still have) a visceral reaction to it — and I haven’t even watched the video. My stomach tingles, my chest feels heavy, and tears form in my eyes. I think: Why can’t I simply walk through the world (or wait for an appointment) without thinking about how I’m being perceived? Without trying to see myself through the eyes of another, trying to figure out whether I might be coming off as threatening, inferior, or confirming negative stereotypes about black women?

My rage arose from an incredible feeling of helplessness (and a similar personal experience), the sudden realization that this problem is huge and so deeply ingrained that many erase its existence: e.g. “What’s the problem? don’t see race.” It made me feel like I am doing nothing. I should be doing something else, something… more! My future lawyer friend helped me see that seemingly mundane acts can be revolutionary.

Traveling to places where people don’t look like me, and encouraging others to do the same, may be small, but it is part of something bigger. We need the large-scale, militant movements and I am grateful they exist. But there is also room for small acts of change — and I mean doing more than sharing an article on Facebook with people who already think like you. It means making our presence known; it is dealing with the challenges and the other challenges; and most importantly, it is sharing triumphs and blowing minds.

We must take up space where people do not want or expect us to. Yes, to show them that we are here and we exist, but mostly to show ourselves — and people like us — that we CAN and we WILL occupy that space. You may not be marching, but don’t let anyone tell you your movement isn’t transformative.

* * *

* And most of us have some form of privilege. I may not be a white, middle class man, but I (will soon) have an advanced degree, I am cis-gendered, able-bodied, straight-presenting, and (technically) Christian.

** After I finished writing this post, I spent more time thinking about why this particular experience evoked such a strong reaction. I connected it to a similar experience I had and the residue of the feelings I felt that day. Back in 2009 I was attending a conference in Ottawa with the VP Equity of my university’s student union. I was her associate at the time and we went shopping at the Rideau Centre for the evening meet and greet.

While she headed into a store, I sat on a bench in front of it to rest my feet. A woman — older, white — sitting on the bench looked at me with disdain and started shouting “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, YOU PEOPLE THINK YOU CAN COME HERE AND DO ANYTHING YOU WANT!” I didn’t move, I simply tried to ignore her. Still, my face became hot and tears streamed down my face — not because I was sad but because that is how the mix of anger and shame I was trying to suppress was finding its way out. As she continued this tirade, people stopped walking and employees stood outside their stores, staring, mouths agape. Yet no one said anything.

I look back on this in two ways:

One: Taking up space sure didn’t build any bridges with that lady, but I do wonder (perhaps naively) if my encounter served as a learning moment for the people who looked on; and,

Two: For awhile after, I regretted not slapping that woman to kingdom come. But now, with hindsight and a vague impression based on her belongings and how she was dressed, I could read her as homeless or in a precarious living situation. While it doesn’t excuse her behavior, it does give some insight into the way structural inequality works intersectionally. Perhaps she believed that because of my race I was given preferential access to a system of welfare benefits (which neither I nor my single mother have used) that she had been denied. This allowed me to be in the position (seemingly middle-class by shopping at a mall) she believed should be reserved for her as a white woman. She had ‘claimed’ that bench and by sitting there I was further encroaching on — ‘taking’ — what she was ‘entitled’ to. Who knows. I am simply trying to look at it from another point of view rather than my initial reaction, which was to simply paint her as a racist. She may have been disenfranchised by class or mental illness in ways that I was not. Again, it’s not an excuse, it’s an example of why we need to work together for social justice.

This article was originally posted at Alyssa Writes, and is reprinted here with permission.

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