As someone who isn't quick to label every slight, snarky comment or ignorant impulse where someone doesn't think before speaking as "racism", I must say Solange Knowles' recent essay hit a nerve because it's something most black people can relate to. You walk into an unfamiliar space and immediately size up the room to see who looks like you. Are there other black people here? Are we safe? Do we belong here? These were some of the questions Knowles found herself asking before being harassed while attending a Kraftwerk concert this past weekend with her family.
Knowles posted a series of tweets on Friday (now most of which have been deleted) explaining an incident in which she said four white women demanded she sit down while dancing to one of her favorite songs at the electronica concert. After a brief exchange and her refusal she felt something hit her back, which her son later revealed was a half eaten lime that the women had thrown. It was an action that many would take to imply a message of, "This is our music. WTH are you doing here? How dare you be black and enjoy OUR music."
After both concern and criticism from her Twitter followers, Knowles took a moment to address the incident in detail in an article called, “And Do You Belong? I Do” which she posted to SaintHeron.com on Sunday. In the piece, she recounts the discomfort that many African-Americans experience in everyday situations where people make assumptions about their sense of belonging on race alone:
“It usually does not include 'please.' It does not include 'will you.' It does not include 'would you mind,' for you must not even be worth wasting their mouths forming these respectable words. Although, you usually see them used seconds before or after you.
You don’t feel that most of the people in these incidents do not like black people, but simply are a product of their white supremacy and are exercising it on you without caution, care, or thought.
Many times the tone just simply says, 'I do not feel you belong here.'
She begins by recalling the incident from start to end, beautifully transporting us through her point-of-view of her night out with her husband, her 11 year old son, and his friend. She starts to walk us through the pivotal moment of disrespect shoved onto her by a stranger, "Imagine" once again acting as a prelude:
...you hear women yell aggressively, “Sit down now, you need to sit down right now” from the box behind you. You want to be considerate, however, they were not at all considerate with their tone, their choice of words, or the fact that you just walked in and seem to be enjoying yourself.
You feel something heavy hit you on the back of your shoulder, but consider that you are imagining things because well….certainly a stranger would not have the audacity.
Moments later, you feel something again, this time smaller, less heavy, and your son and his friend tell you those ladies just hit you with a lime.
You look down only to see the half eaten lime on the ground below you.
Maybe it's some residual emotions left from the days of Jim Crow and our generation's knowledge of the fact that African-Americans weren't always able to use these same bathrooms or enter in the same doors, but what hurts me most is that music is supposed to be the great mediator. Do you know how many Drake concerts I've attended where Alison and Cody are going harder than me and can recite all of the lyrics to "Worst Behavior" better than most? And even at a concert where most people are too busy dancing themselves to take issue with someone blocking their view, you can’t help but wonder if these women couldn’t see past Solange or their own narrow-minded privilege.
Knowles goes on to note how the media will undoubtedly misconstrue her message and paint a false picture of what it means to be a black woman in a "white space":
"You constantly see the media having a hard time contextualizing black women and men as victims every day, even when it means losing their own lives.
You realize that you never called these women 'racists', but people will continuously put those words in your mouth.
What you did indeed say is, “This is why many black people are uncomfortable being in predominately white spaces,” and you still stand true to that."
Whether you believe the singer overreacted or not, the essay reveals just how conditioned many of us are to believe that there are some experiences that might be denied to us in the first place solely based on race alone. If anything, Knowles brings to light a part of the black experience that is looking for the "safety in numbers" in these spaces even tweeting, "We are 4 of about 20 black concert goers out 1500 here. 4 out of maaaybbe 20 out of 1500." Makes you wonder, do white people enter most spaces counting how many people that look like them are present?
The last time I had this feeling was when my husband and I tried out a new movie theater about 40 minutes outside of Philly. We were in the suburbs, the kind of town where great high schools are hidden and the median household income is $70,000. We drove by Range Rovers, and an ice cream parlor patio where families sat with their golden retrievers and newborns. We instantly found ourselves looking for the black folks. And eventually we found a few in the forms of interracial couples or a token teenager skateboarding with his friends of fairer complexions with their matching Van sneakers.
Did we feel like we'd by lynched if we were the only ones? No.
Did I feel like if we were the only ones that would automatically male us a target for harassment or bigotry? Yes.
What I think most of us are looking for in safe spaces is representation, diversity and freedom from the responsibility to represent all of us. We wear Vans AND Jordans, we too can afford this $13.00 popcorn, and I'm not coming to see the latest Kevin Hart movie just because I'm black. We came to see Sully, dammit.
[Tweet "We all have a right to feel comfortable in an experience and enjoy it."]
It's something I subtly notice as I find myself in an elevator with white men in business suits and backpacks as I head to my job in a nonprofit with my purple hair and graphic tee. When I first started three months ago, even though I was only a mile from my old job where valets, hospital professionals and other non prof pros would hold doors for one another and greet each other while getting coffee. I now enter a world of investors and IT techs who will push past the women to get off the elevator or not hold the door in the first place almost as to say, "I'm making six figures and my job is more important than yours."
But that's the thing about safe spaces. It's not about feeling like we can only feel comfortable or relate to members of our same race. It's about people sharing an experience whether be an elevator ride or a rock concert and recognizing that we all have a right to feel comfortable in that experience and enjoy it. When I used to teach teen parents one of the things that hurt me most is when they would say why they wouldn't visit the art museum or take their kids to the clean playground with the safety pads on the ground. "That isn't for us," they would plainly say denying themselves of anything different and failing to break the cycle of never going beyond their own neighborhoods.
At the end of her essay, Knowles notes her decision to remain blessed in the moment and to not let the haters get in the way of her family’s good time. She writes:
“We belong. We belong. We belong.
We built this.”
So what can we do to create a sense of belonging or to claim it when others try to make you believe that these experiences are exclusive?
Believe in your right to be there. Sometimes folks are racist, entitled idiots but sometimes we have no one but ourselves to blame. And unfortunately a part of white privilege is the belief that wherever they go, they belong. Whether it's Christopher Columbus staking claim to an already inhabited country or Kylie Jenner being credited with making cornrows “cool”.
Tune out those who are offended by your presence like Solange did in a now deleted tweet in which she writes, “Now back to me & my husband’s favorite song “Autobahn” ….& not giving a f--k about you lovely ladies…” Remind yourself that they're ruining their own time trying to make you uncomfortable.
Get out of your comfort zone, and when you get to your destination, call out entitled people. I decided to not let those ignorant investors bring out my inner angry black girl. Don't be self-conscious and own your right to be in the room. We have to truly believe that we have a right to partake in certain experiences just like anyone else.
The essay serves as a reminder that no matter how much progress we make as a society in breaking racial barriers, it is still up to us to create and maintain our own safe spaces individually. To make us feel like outsiders robs us of the life experience that we are all entitled to.
[Tweet "To make us feel like outsiders robs us of the life experience that we are all entitled to."]
You can read "And Do You Belong? I Do" in it's entirety here.