Elijah Anderson on the burden of being Black in white spaces

Anderson discusses his new book on the challenges facing Black people as they navigate overwhelmingly white settings and struggle to overcome stereotypes.
Elijah Anderson

Elijah Anderson

Since the end of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, large numbers of Black people have made their way into settings previously occupied exclusively by whites. They have received mixed receptions.

Many neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, universities, and other public spaces remain overwhelmingly white. Blacks perceive such settings as the “white space,” which they often consider to be informally “off limits” to them, said Elijah Anderson, Sterling Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Yale and winner of the 2021 Stockholm Prize, the world’s most prestigious prize in the field of criminology.

The challenges Black people face while navigating white spaces are the subject of Anderson’s latest book, “Black in White Space: The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life,” (University of Chicago Press, 2022), which draws on his 40-some years of qualitative fieldwork, including many interviews with local Black and white people, his previous four distinguished books of urban ethnography on race relations, as well as his lifetime of experiences as a Black man in America.

In the book, Anderson documents the unique challenges facing Black people as they navigate “white space” — a perceptual category, defined by the overwhelming presence of white people and the relative absence of Blacks — and their struggle to overcome stereotypes that continue to stigmatize them.

He explained that despite the growth of an enormous Black middle class, many whites assume that the natural Black space is what he calls the “iconic ghetto” — the symbol of that destitute and fearsome locality so commonly featured in the media.

White people typically avoid Black space, but Black people are required to navigate the white space as a condition of their existence,” Anderson said. “When an unfamiliar  Black person enters the ‘white space,’ often the people there immediately try to make sense of him or her — to determine ‘who that is,’ or to figure out the nature of the person’s business and whether they need to be concerned. Stereotypes can rule perceptions, creating a situation that can estrange the Black person. 

In these circumstances, almost any Black person can experience such distance, especially a young Black male — not as a measure of his merit as a person but because of his Black skin and its indication of ‘outsider’ status in the white space. Thus, such a Black person is often burdened with a negative presumption he or she must disprove before being able to establish trusting relations with others.” 

Anderson recently spoke with Yale News about the lived experience of Black people and the structural underpinnings of racism in America. The interview has been edited and condensed.

How do anonymous Black people try to overcome “the negative presumption” they often encounter upon entering white spaces?

Elijah Anderson: In my study, I found that this negative presumption may be minimized or tentatively overcome by a performance, a negotiation, or what some Black people refer to derisively as a “dance,” through which individual Blacks may be inclined to show white people and others that ghetto stereotypes do not apply to them personally; in effect, they may feel the need to perform for credibility or for acceptance. This performance can be as deliberate as dressing well and speaking in an educated way or as simple as producing an ID or a driver’s license in situations in which this would never be demanded of white people. Around predominantly white college campuses, especially when ghetto areas are nearby, Black students often wear school paraphernalia to distinguish themselves from ordinary Black people from the local ghetto. With this strategy, college students try to avoid being profiled, but on occasion, they get stopped by campus security nonetheless.

Do white people wittingly treat Black people this way? 

Anderson:  Yes and no.  In white spaces, white people dominate, and compared to their Black counterparts, enjoy an implicit power along with a degree of moral authority that Black people fundamentally lack. Moreover, white people tend to take their white-skin privilege for granted, and to be dismissive of the complaints by Black people, or they show incredulity and “horror.” In this context, it is very hard for white people in general to understand and appreciate the experience of being Black.

What’s at stake for Black people during these awkward encounters?

Anderson: Black people typically want to be treated the way they assume white people are treated, without racial animus, without being regarded as “suspicious characters” on the basis of their skin color while navigating civil society, and especially when they navigate white spaces. They want to be able to get through their day uneventfully, without experiencing arbitrary treatment based on their Blackness. 

How does this “dance” typically unfold?

Anderson: Almost by definition, the Black person performs before a distant, judgmental, and unsympathetic audience of gatekeepers, such as security guards, salespeople, fellow patrons. They are distant because of the extant racial divide, and judgmental and unsympathetic because their minds are typically already made up about the Black person’s “place” and the threat they believe he or she poses to the white space, and perhaps to some of the people standing in judgment. Depending on how effectively the Black person performs or negotiates, he or she may “pass inspection.” But there are no guarantees, for some members of the audience are inclined at times to weaponize their prejudices, to put the Black person in their “place.” Moreover, others in the white space may require additional proof on demand.

When the unfamiliar Black person can demonstrate that he or she has business in the white space, the defending gatekeepers may relax their guard, at least for the time being. The Black person may then advance from a “deficit of credibility” to a “provisional status,” suggesting a conditional “pass,” with the person having something “more to prove” on demand.

Are all Black people at risk of these encounters when they enter white spaces regardless of their socio-economic status?

Anderson: Yes, because racial bigotry is not social class specific. When venturing into or navigating the white space, Black people endure such challenges repeatedly. In white neighborhoods, Black people may anticipate racial profiling or harassment by the neighborhood watch group, whose mission is to monitor the “suspicious-looking.” Any unfamiliar Black male can qualify for close scrutiny, especially at night. Defensive whites in these circumstances may be less consciously hateful than concerned and fearful of “dangerous and violent” Black people “from the ghetto.”

In the minds of many white people, to scrutinize and stop a Black person is to prevent crime and protect the neighborhood. Thus, for Black people, particularly young males, virtually every public encounter results in a degree of scrutiny that a “normal” white person would certainly not need to endure.

A more subtle but critical version of this kind of profiling occurs in the typical workplace. From the janitor to a middle-level manager, Black people, until they have established themselves, live under the tyranny of the command performance. Around the office building, the Black male worker comes to be known publicly as “the Black guy in my building,” and if there are a few such “Black guys” working there who “roam” the premises, white workers at times confuse one with another, occasionally misidentifying the person by name. Given such racial ambiguity, the string of white people standing in line to witness the Black person’s performance, or “dance,” may encourage those who were once approving or convinced to demand an encore. Thus, as long as the Black person is present in the white space, he or she is likely to be “on,” performing before a highly judgmental but distant audience.

You describe the “iconic ghetto” as a major source of stereotypes, and the prejudice and discrimination Black people face when navigating white spaces. What is the iconic ghetto?

Anderson: My conception of the “iconic ghetto” is one of the most important findings of this study. It represents that netherworld to which prejudiced white people are inclined to relegate the unknown Black person in public places, and especially in white spaces.  In civil society, this iconic ghetto hovers over the anonymous Black person; always in the background of the most ordinary public encounters between the races and contributes greatly to the Black person’s negative presumption that they are required to disprove, erase, or neutralize before gaining even the provisional trust of their white counterparts.

How do Black people react to this kind of racial profiling?

Anderson: Surprisingly, many of my informants take it in stride, and treat it as a fact of everyday life. Many Black people understand that racism is deeply ingrained in the psyches of many of their white counterparts. So they often consider their treatment as part of the “Black tax” they typically expect to pay, and thus factor in to virtually everything they do.

When visiting a “nice” restaurant, driving through a white neighborhood, or trying to rent or purchase a home there, encountering a white police officer, visiting a white doctor, enrolling in a college class, applying for a job, or even when they negotiate with a white plumber or the white electrician for work in their own homes — essentially, they “live while Black,” for which they expect to bear some degree of racial burden; and they are pleasantly surprised if they do not.

Most Black people try to go on about their business each day, and to dodge the “raindrops” of white racism and hope to move through the world uneventfully. And most often, with the help of social gloss to ease their passage, they do so, but on occasion they “get wet,” experiencing blatant discrimination, which can ultimately leave them deflated and offended, and which they cannot ignore.

In the book, you discuss moments of acute disrespect, or what Black people sometimes call “N-word moments.” Please talk about that.

Anderson: Almost every Black person has encountered moments of acute disrespect on the basis of being Black, or what Black people call or refer to as the dreaded “N-word moment.” I’ve certainly endured them in my own life. For instance, here’s an experience of mine as described in the book:

About a decade ago, after I arrived at Yale as a new professor, the chair of the sociology department invited me to meet him for dinner at the Yale Club of New York City at 7:00 p.m. on a Thursday evening. Dressed in a blue blazer, I arrived early and took a seat in the lobby. Since it was dinnertime the space was busy, and I decided to go up to the club's library to read the day’s New York Times. As I approached the elevator, there was a crush of people waiting. When the car arrived, I entered and moved to the back to make way for other passengers. Everyone except me was White. As the car filled up, I asked a man of about thirty-five, standing by the controls, “Could you press the button for the library floor, please?” He looked over at me and said, “You can read?” The car fell silent. Suddenly his friend, another young White man, came to my defense and blurted out,I've never met a Yalie who couldn't read.” Now all eyes turned to me. Silence. The car reached the library floor. As I stepped off, I held the door and said, “I'm not a Yalie, I'm a Yale professor,” and went into the library to read the newspaper.

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