What To Consider Before Bringing Black Children Into White Spaces
While creating a path for progression, we do still have to protect them.
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Two blondes walk into a bar in Harlem. What do they order? For the cops to come
The policing of black and brown bodies, especially those not welcomed in colonized white spaces has reached fever pitch that even Disney's fictitious and mythical Ariel isn't safe (#alwaysmyariel)!
As I was developing my college and career wayfinding mentoring program for middle school African American and Latino boys aimed at expanding their understanding of their potential and place in the world, I flip-flopped as much as Kamala Harris on healthcare. Would I be instilling the sense of confidence and worth that they deserve to take up space not made for or frequented by people like them OR would I be reinforcing generations-entrenched trauma of difference and othering?
Lower your voice.
Pull up your pants.
Take off your hood.
Make eye contact.
First come, least deserved. That's what it feels like for "the first" of any racial minority entering predominantly white spaces. You can be from New York City, Cincinnati, and Detroit or be an elected Congressperson and still be told to go back to where you came from.
"We're the only non-white table in here," one of my students said as we ate lunch at Sweetgreen. He's 12 years old and already acutely aware of how the color of his skin can become the most noticeable thing in the room (no shade to Sweetgreen staff though -- they were amazingly hospitable).
As a non-Black cis man, I'm often reminded about how differently the world saw me when I was a child compared to how the boys I work with are perceived. Before our tour of NBC Studios (partly led be an awesomely upbeat young Black Page, Dara), my boys and I browsed the gift shop only to have security hover over us each time a boy merely looked like he was about to touch an item. God forbid he was inspecting the price tag to pay for an item he wanted!
I'm sure it's scary. If people of color are projected to be a majority by 2045, where else is the white flight supposed to go? Because the four passionate, inspiring, brave Congresswomen who represent their districts aren't just four people (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar) -- they’re giving a voice and a sense of belonging to the millions of Americans of color right across the country.
If Denzel Washington, winner of two Oscars can still have your film misidentified as “Hidden Fences” (because who can handle TWO successful Black-led films at once?) -- what hope do my boys in Harlem and the Bronx have to fully believe they'd be taken seriously and be seen for who they are?
Walking the tightrope of being responsible or reckless in bringing my boys to spaces where the other grown-ups may not be ready, Reverend Kyodo Angel Williams' advice to me came to mind: infiltrated others’ spaces could be interpreted as an act of warfare. Why not focus on creating your own space?
That’s why despite how rewarding it has been to nurture feelings of being enough and deserving to be in white spaces -- my last trip with them this summer is to visit thriving Black and Latino owned businesses in the Bronx (Sano Wellness, Bronx Native, The Lit Bar and more). These boys deserve to see people who look like them charting their own course and to know that they don’t need to leave their neighborhood to find stories of wealth and success.
Here's what I considered to ensure the development and safety of the boys I work with every time we entered into predominantly white spaces.
Preview With Them
Life isn't an episode of Friends. Black people don't come off the conveyor belt from the “Michael Jordan School of Acceptability.” Taking up space is a big deal and it can feel uncomfortable, or downright threatening.
"That's because they have white people at their school," another boy said in response to why that particular school seemed less chaotic and violent compared to his own all-Black school (as based on their shared anecdotes). In sixth grade, these boys have already internalized what a group of boys represents and how it's perceived differently when it's a group of Black boys.
This opens the door to a discussion around self-censorship and code-switching. How appropriate is it? Why does it exist?
Own The Leadership Role
My program just launched. So parents aren't signing their boys up because of some tried and proven program model or outcomes. They trust me. The boys feel that if I'm around, they can be themselves. That's means they feel as though they can use all volumes of their voice, share stories of insecurity, play shadow basketball in hallways and take digs at each other.
This is a huge responsibility. I've learned that so long as I'm there, my boys will conduct themselves in the way they always would in my company -- the reassurance of my presence, the familiarity of a safe school setting.
I’ve learned when to step in and stop them in their tracks because just being them could get them kicked out or viewed unfavorably. I’ve also had to be mindful of occasions where I’m projecting my protectionism and what others are looking for really is for them to shine as their true uninhibited selves.
Unless you’re Spike Lee, Virgil Abloh or Tanahashi Coates -- being a “first and only” ain't that glamorous. Even in their positions, it’s hard. Abloh has said, "I was very well aware that as a fashion designer, I was a square peg in a round hole. It’s like someone who is really messy and tries to clean their place up to throw a dinner party. Everything is in order, but then you go to the bathroom and you’re like, Why is there a cereal box in the bathtub?"
There will be days where my boys don’t feel like banging their square head into the round hole. Wellbeing and sustainability are far too important. I’ve had to learn when to push them and when to accept that for now, enough is enough. We all want what’s best for our children, but even Rosa Parks needed days to just sit -- anywhere.