When Home Ain’t Home; Or, all Racism Isn’t Intentional

If the world is made white, then the body at home is one that can inhabit whiteness. — Sara Ahmed
The truth is, there is no real “safe” place for black people in America. — Ijeoma Oluo
Motel manager pouring acid into a pool of black swimmers

Many black people have experienced the phenomenon I like to call “clearing out the pool.” It’s that interesting experience when, on a hot summer’s day, a black family heads to the pool and, as soon as their feet touch the water, white folks scatter like roaches. All of a sudden, the water has gotten too hot or too cold, or people just don’t want to swim anymore. For those of us who have experienced this before, many of us might feel the particular joy in having the pool all to yourself — I certainly did.

But at the time, I wasn’t aware of what I’m aware of now: clearing out the pool was akin to someone defecating in the pool. Afraid of the little piece of brown excrement contaminating everyone, the lifeguard would shut the pool down for cleaning. While the lifeguard didn’t shut the pool down when black people got in (we no longer live in segregated… nope, I’m not gonna finish that thought), there was a similar effect — people didn’t want to swim with the brown entities that had shown up in the water.

Earlier this week, I had a similar experience in my own apartment building. I was headed outside to read, and, upon opening my door, there was a group of what looked to be white people in the hallway. They were laughing and giggling, enjoying each other’s company. But when I appeared, and when they saw me, they cleared out — all of a sudden, “it was nice to meet you” and “we’ll have to get together again sometime” started filling the air of the hallway. The joviality ceased; the people dispersed.

I live in a beautifully rehabilitated factory. In fact, the rehabilitation is so recent that they’re still making final touches to the building. So many of the tenants — myself included — moved in at the same time. I haven’t been here long, but none of the tenants have said more than “hello” to me. I get along well with the people who built and manage the building — the property developer, property managers, and construction workers (many of whom are white, and wonderful) have all been more than polite — but to the tenants, I’m an oddity, a peculiar entity in this beautiful space in a part of town that is being revitalized.

I bring that up to say this: the white tenant meeting consisted of people who had just met each other. There’s always a bit of discomfort when meeting new people, but here they were, hyucking it up as if they’d known each other for years. And here I was — on the other end of the hallway — leaving my apartment, walking in the opposite direction, and they disappeared quicker than my bae’s food on my plate (she can put her foot in some vegan food).

I’m at home, mind you. In a space where I should be comfortable, where the beauty and history of this building speaks to me, I found myself out of place, uncomfortable. And this discomfort had me reflecting on the nature of home, and what it means to be at home — especially when you’re black in America.

This week, two things happened that also made me think about home — and racism:

  1. 45 apparently called the White House a “dump.” Upon the news getting out, 45 did what he usually does: he lied. But multiple sources confirmed it.
  2. I read a piece by Ijeoma Oluo entitled “Facebook’s Complicity in the Silencing of Black Women.”

At the surface, neither of these things reveal anything new about home. 45’s comments about the digs at his housing project aren’t really interesting, and could just be chopped up to him being him — which is a whirlwind of unconscious drives that cannot seem to be placed under control.

Oluo’s piece has nothing to do with home; in fact, it has to do with the deceptive brand of liberalism Mark Zuckerberg and his company promote. Oluo’s main point had to do with the frustrating nature of a social media platform that supposedly attempts to create safe spaces for everyone. But, as she so beautifully states at the beginning of her piece, there are no safe places for black people in this country — digital or otherwise. Her point was about the broken algorithms that would punish her for chronicling the rampant misogynoir she experienced. Written clearly and passionately, Oluo’s piece exposed the worst of racism and the worst of the racists.

But, if we take a deeper look, both of these pieces say something crucial about home, and how home is inextricably connected to race and racism in this country. 45’s comments are particularly interesting, not particularly because of what he said but the comfort with which he said it. It takes a considerable amount of comfort with oneself and one’s surroundings to call arguably the most important building in this country a “dump.” That’s not something someone says when they’re thinking; that’s something someone says when they’re not thinking — which is to say, when they’re comfortable, when they’re at home.

Martin Heidegger once said that people who are at home don’t reflect on what they’re doing or why they’re doing it because they don’t have to. Home supports you; it holds you up and keeps you secure in and certain of the validity of your existence. While at his resort with his golfing buddies, 45 was comfortable; he was relaxed and had no reason to reflect on his words. To be this comfortable is to be at home; it is to let one’s hair — or in 45’s case, hairpiece — down, take a breath, and not worry about the pressures of the larger society. 45 was at home geographically and linguistically, semantically and spatially comfortable in both his word choice and demeanor.

In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that 45 is at home everywhere. A rich white man who stole the presidency on some really shady rules (that electoral college should’ve been done away with), there is no place in this country — physically or digitally — that does not validate his existence. Twitter won’t censor his lies, his invective, or his preoccupation with women’s blood. The secret service is working overtime to let him play golf on the weekends. Every institution, structure, and environment is geared toward securing and supporting his existence — and before we go, “he’s president,” two things: 1) he was treated this way before he stole the presidency; and 2) we need only to go back a few years to the birther movement — a movement he started that called into question whether or not BHO even belonged in the country, let alone in the White House. So yeah; the dude is at home everywhere.

Contrast this to Oluo. Throughout the piece, she’s never at home. At the Cracker Barrel, her head was on swivel, her #blackwomanmagic spidey sense perpetually tingling. And, in an attempt to ease this sense of not being at home, she discussed her discomfort on another unsafe space: social media. Neither at home physically nor digitally, Oluo received death threats and other forms of invective that attacked her well-being and made her even more concerned for her own safety. Here are her own words:

I have received death threats and rape threats. I’ve been called nigger, monkey, cunt. I’ve been told time and time again that my expression of nervousness around a large group of white people in an establishment known for it’s racism is the most racist thing they’ve ever seen (I’m not exaggerating).

And then she concludes this section with the following:

Because I expressed nervousness about being surrounded by white people, I was given enough reasons to never, ever, ever want to be around white people ever again.

In contrast to a world that supports and secures 45’s existence, Oluo found herself even further alienated from this world — to the point where, as a biracial woman, she doesn’t want to even be around white people. Unlike 45 who doesn’t have to think about what he’s saying or doing, Oluo has to think about everything she says and does — to the point where going out to eat is an existential conundrum. Nervousness is the result of concern, which is the result of having to think about one’s surroundings. And if this is the case, then Oluo was never at home — neither in that Cracker Barrel, and certainly not on the Internet.

I can imagine some might respond like Stacey Patton did — namely, by claiming that Oluo should’ve never went into the restaurant.

From Ijeoma Oluo’s piece

But here’s the truth: there is no place where black people would be fully comfortable. Sara Ahmed’s quote at the beginning of this piece makes it clear: in a world that is already figured as white, any body that cannot inhabit that whiteness can and will be rendered suspect. Which means — as Oluo herself stated — ain’t no safe spaces for black folk in this country. There is no place — not any place — that a black body can escape the threat and fear of antiblack racist violence or neglect.

Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Korryn Gaines, and Charleena Lyles were killed in their homes.

Trayvon Martin was killed on his street.

Mike Brown was killed in his neighborhood.

For black folk, home ain’t never home. And for black folk, racism doesn’t always end in death threats or death itself. To clarify this, we’ll return to my beautiful apartment in my beautifully rehabilitated apartment building.

What was interesting to me about the people clearing out in the hallway was that I’m almost certain they would say they weren’t clearing out because of me. They were having a good time, chuckling and laughing, they might say; and the conversation just naturally came to an end. In other words, they were comfortable — and they comfortably ended the conversation in the context of their own homes. If I were to push the point further, they would probably get defensive, and say that I’m playing the race card.

Here’s the thing: the non-existent race card notwithstanding, I don’t think they’re personally racist. They’re probably wonderful people, if they ever stuck around me long enough for us to have a conversation.

But I do think they’re mired in racism. The mere fact that they were comfortable in this space and cleared out as soon as I appeared means something: it means this space that I live in is not race-neutral. It is undoubtedly, irrevocably white, and they, being white, were comfortable in that whiteness — and made uncomfortable at the presence of blackness.

This building is not racially coded as white because the developer rehabilitated the building that way. Neither is it white because somebody claimed it as a white-only space — clearly it isn’t because I live here. But it is a white space because I have to think about where I am, and they do not.

It is a white space because the security guard did a double-take when he saw me reading on the steps of the building.

And it is white space because that group of people did not have to think until I emerged. And truthfully, they didn’t have to think then; clearing out was an instinctive reaction, an almost reflexive response to the presence of someone who shouldn’t be there. There was no possibility for me getting to know them; even if I wanted to be social, they were gone before I hit the stairs. Joyous laughter turned to quiet departure; and all because this building supports and secures their existence and not my own.

Why bring all of this up?

Because it is scenes like the one at my apartment building that are the most dangerous — not because my life was threatened, but because these kinds of scenes lay the foundation for the uglier ones that Ijeoma experienced (I hope she doesn’t mind me calling her by her first name). She had to think at the cracker barrel; the white people did not. She was booted off of Facebook for sharing the injustices; she couldn’t even report white people who said things like this:

From Ijeoma Oluo’s piece

She expressed her nervousness about being in a cracker barrel, and she was called a racist.

White people are incredibly comfortable threatening her on twitter and Facebook, and she’s put in Facebook jail as a response. In both of these cases, Facebook and Twitter are home for white folks (black twitter seems to be its own thing), supporting their existence and securing the perpetuation of their digital lives.

And we know this is the case because 45’s Twitter account should’ve been blocked — long before he started living in the projects. He’s not at home everywhere simply because he’s president; he’s at home everywhere in large part because he’s white, rich, male, and straight. And everything in this country supports that form of human existence.

My point in all of this is to say: Oluo’s experience is propped up by experiences like mine — small, unintentional, structural and transpersonal forms of racist affect, policy, and economy. And so is 45’s ability to say the White House is a dump. BHO would’ve never been able to get away with saying that — let alone lie about it. Racism is far more widespread and far less intentional than so many of you think.

So please stop reducing racism to the most egregious of personal encounters and experiences.

Stop thinking that racism only exists when a person uses a racial slur, or when someone explicitly advances a white supremacist thought or organization.

Stop thinking that you’re not racist because you have black friends, or you married a black person, or you fight against antiblack racism. I am thankful that you are on your way to being woke, but you’re able to do that because you’re at home.

I’m just staying here. And so are the millions of other nonwhite people in this country.

Be well, beloveds.

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