The Empty Seat Next to Me

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A few days ago, I went to a conference and something itchy happened that I can’t seem to deconstruct well. I was one of two Black women (actually, two Black people) at a recent conference about racism and no one sat beside me or her. So, eventually I moved and sat next to a friend.

But, I’ve seen this happen a lot.

Like yesterday, when I went to an American Red Cross class. This time, I was one of three Black people at the event. After, I went and sat down, every single person walked past the other two Black people until the seats beside them were the only ones available.

Or anywhere – really. Sporting events. Movie theaters.

Lunchrooms. School classrooms and cafeterias.

Nobody seems to want to sit beside the black person.

And it feels awkward/uncomfortable to demand an explanation. But, here I am – demanding an explanation.

It seems to me that at the end of the day, plenty of people are anti-racist performative.

Everyone seems to have advice. Everyone seems to be progressive and friendly.

Everyone wants the safety-pin, the Black lives matter t-shirt, the cornrows and the disclaimer: I voted for Obama twice.

Everyone seems to be just performative with their #blacklivesmatter pins and bumper stickers and their #alllivesmatter behavior.

As a Black woman, it is not lost on me the ways in which society goes out of its way to correct my behavior. I am used to folks telling me about my hair, my skin, my clothes. I am used to people walking up to me on the street to comment about my hair, my skin, my clothes. I am used to my body being policed, weaponized and sexualized.

In the words of Kimberly McLarin, author of Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life:

In the face of dehumanization, any expression of one’s humanity is both resistance and reinforcement….In America, telling Black women what’s wrong with them is always good for a cheap laugh (DL Hughley), political advancement (Clarence Thomas) or a bestselling book, movie and bewildering-successful career (the execrable Steve Harvey).

Policing Black women’s bodies has always been an integral part of America’s history. When I talk about race, I am seen as the angry Black woman. When I attend anti-racist conferences, I am seen as unapproachable. When I wear my hair natural, I am seen as militant. When I wear my hair in a weave, I am seen as overly sexual.

Learning to navigate white feelings in order to maintain credibility and validity remains an integral part of Black womanhood. And yet, here we are: with me on a bench and you over there with your white folk. Even in spaces which I have long frequented, I often find myself alone.

Let me be clear: I have no problem being alone.

Many of my friends don’t.

But when we refuse to investigate the underlying reasons for this social segregation we refuse to name how white supremacy maintains and dictates socialization. We refuse to name how white supremacy dictates and maintains socialization in our progressive liberal spaces. We refuse to name how white supremacy dictates our ability to think radically about welcome and justice and equity. We refuse to name how white supremacy infiltrates and dictates our own behaviors.

Dare to dig deeper. Dare to investigate.

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