On Monday morning, as news spread across the nation about the arrest of two black men sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks coffee shop, Elon James White ventured from his home in search of a breakfast sandwich and cup of coffee.
But as White, a black man who lives in a predominately white neighborhood in another part of Philadelphia, walked up and down a nearby commercial strip, he felt a familiar unease — one he says black people often share among themselves about their fears and concerns when they’re surrounded by white people.
“You feel it in your chest, the hyper-awareness of everything around you,” White told me during a phone interview. “I’ve had so many white people say that they have anxiety, but they’ve never considered black people would feel the way I feel when I’m in white spaces.”
With the Starbucks issue dominating conversations about race and media, White tapped out a series of tweets which offered his followers a very intimate and revealing glimpse into how uncomfortable he felt that day. His narrative struck a viral nerve, prompting conversations across the Web and elsewhere.
I decided to make myself go outside of my home to work today. I live near a main drag in my neighborhood where a bunch of stores, bars and restaurants are. There’s a @Starbucks here which is where is normally go but obviously they are not an option.
— Elon James White (@elonjames) April 17, 2018
White — a writer, performer and founder of “This Week in Blackness,” a multimedia digital platform dedicated to bringing diverse voices and perspectives within media — spoke about the waves his threaded Twitter story made on social media in a column about the Starbucks situation for NBCNews.com:
On social media, many white people expressed shock. Who hasn’t ducked into a local Starbucks to take advantage of its bathroom or internet or electrical outlets? But this simply is not the experience of many black people, myself included, who know all too well the pressure to buy something unwanted or unnecessary in order to avoid added scrutiny — a Black Tax, if you will….
Looking beyond Starbucks, the mistreatment and subsequent denials of our reality aren’t simply frustrating. They hurt the black community in diverse and measurable ways, both psychologically and physically.
Struck by White’s candor and passion, I asked him to share how his perceptions of race in America veer so wildly away from the course of many white people, who often fail — or even refuse to recognize — what black Americans describe as their daily experiences as they move through white spaces.
You began your Twitter feed by saying you don’t talk about what happened most times “because it’s so normal.” What’s your normal?
I feel as if only in recent years, and in certain circumstances recent months, have I started to recognize what my normal is and what is actually normal. I guess that’s what is the whole concept of “woke” or whatever. When you start to realize, “Wait, wait, hold on. I’m living under a system that is problematic as f–k and I don’t even notice how problematic it is and how I’ve internalized some of this stuff.”
This isn’t normal. But it is normal for you and all of the people you know. So you realize you live in a certain way and your community around you lives in a certain way and it’s a part of the culture, you just don’t talk about that. I mean I’m not going to talk about the fact that I breathe every day or that I have to take a shower every day. These are things that you don’t discuss because it’s just part of your life. …
This is just how it is to be black.
How did you come to learn that’s not normal?
Actually, I started talking about it out loud. I guess realizing that when I would say something out loud, the immediate pushback that I would get from white folks. It got to the point where I would get self-conscious about even mentioning anything. And then at some point I started realizing that they just don’t seem to get it. Nobody understood what white privilege was. That privilege is invisible; they literally can’t see it.
So, I was, like, wait. I’m not crazy. You literally don’t know what you’re talking about. Then I would ask: “Have you ever experienced this?” I would talk about it on air, on the show. I would talk about it on social media.
And white people would (say): “I don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s never happened to me before. If it didn’t happen to me, it didn’t happen to you.” And that’s when I realized, like holy shit, this is something that’s very, very, very confined to marginalized groups, and especially to black folks in America.
For example, when the conversation came up after Trayvon [Martin shooting] about “The Talk” that black parents give their kids. White folks were so shocked by this. And I’m like: what are you shocked about; I had The Talk when I was 7 or 8 years old…That was normal. I didn’t know anybody who hadn’t had The Talk.
Why did you talk/Tweet about it this time?
After watching the shock and disbelief of white America about this Starbucks incident, I was like: Are you kidding? It was me responding to the Starbucks situation.
I talk about mental health a lot because I think it’s important, especially as a black man to be very vocal about mental health and my own struggles with depression or anxiety or anything like that. I have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and work with it every day, so I talk about these things.
I was talking about the Starbucks situation from the perspective of someone who has anxiety. So imagine you have anxiety, and for a lot of people they don’t understand it and sometimes it’s even hard for me to explain it even to friends and loved ones. So I said, try to imagine it: you feel it in your chest, the hyperawareness of everything around you, it builds up. Now, imagine that…and then you have to deal with white people’s fear of you.
People say, Oh, oh! I didn’t think of that. I’ve had so many white people say to me that they have anxiety, but they never considered black people would feel the way I feel when they’re in white spaces. They didn’t even consider it. So when people started responding like that so much, I said: “Wait, you really don’t know what it feels like?
This stuff is like looking at someone who has burns all over his body and wanting to know why they don’t want to sit next to the uncovered fire pit.
And so I happened to go out that morning, as this experience was happening and I was walking through the neighborhood and I was, like, having a hard time finding a coffee shop. I was looking in shops and I saw people looking back at me…I was going through the whole thing and then I had that Eureka moment: This isn’t something normal for white people. This is something that is very normal for my community and for people I know, but this is not normal for white folks.
You mention feeling uncomfortable as a black man moving around in a white area and the reactions of the people you encounter. What do you make of those feelings?
Some of the pushback I got for talking about this was that I am a paranoid delusional. It was all in my head and that I’m putting all this stuff out there in my head as if it was real and that I need to get help. In reality, I understand when something is made up or I’m putting a lot of focus on something that might not actually be real.
Black anger is looked at as a bigger problem than any transgression that is done towards us.
I also understand the shared experience of a community where all of these discussions are the norm and none of this is remarkable. And so, when I think about white people’s shock, I’m like, you guys are amazingly lucky that you never really had to deal with this…like you really think that black folks are just making things up.
I use a metaphor in one of the threads that [people who say] I’m oversensitive about this stuff is like looking at someone who has burns all over his body and wanting to know why they don’t want to sit next to the uncovered fire pit.
I know that the pushback when black people want to talk about this stuff is that we’re making it up and it isn’t real. I’m addressing this in almost every thread I wrote about this idea of it being in my head.
Maybe I am making this up. Ok, cool. But answer me this: Why do I have it in my head? Why am I looking out for something like this in order for my life to be preserved?
This is not paranoia on my end. This is literally self preservation.
Would it be better for you to only live and move among other black people exclusively?
In certain circumstances, I would probably argue yeah.
When I lived in Oakland, I lived in a black neighborhood. I am also married to a white woman…but there are times when I’m in a white situation.
I was media director of NetRoots Nation, which is and was predominately white, and I’ve had to move in through those situations. I’ve worked with a number of progressive groups and organizations that are predominately white. I end up moving within these organizations because I feel often times we have to be sitting at the table. For example, NetRoots Nation was getting critiqued up the wazoo about their race problem. I thought the platform was important enough that it needed to address these things.
I know a lot of black people who have no choice, at times, but to move through white spaces. I can’t decide I’m going to never leave blackness. Ever. I can’t make that decision with the work I do, with the community I run in, that’s just not a reasonable thing to do.
And it’s completely not fair. Sometimes the things you really want or that sandwich you want that is really amazing is in a white neighborhood. Am I not allowed to go get a sandwich because white people are going to be afraid? That’s not reasonable.
Is this about white fear more than anything else?
Yes, absolutely. Everyone who wanted to push back on me, wanted to push back about my paranoia, about my fear, as opposed to the fact that my fear is based and a reaction on white fear.
Black anger is looked at as a bigger problem than any transgression that is done towards us.
White privilege is denied on a regular basis because “I didn’t grow up rich” and so immediately you don’t have white privilege, but you’re not worried about being arrested just by walking past a store twice.
You said at the end you were angry but didn’t realize how angry you were. What’s that about?
I realized that if I’d gotten pissed, what happens now when I get angry…what happens now when I get angry. I know if the cops came, now, I’m the problem.
When that happens enough, it takes a toll on how you interact. I’ll admit, as I’ve gotten older, I fight less than I did when I was younger because I’m tired. I don’t want to get into a big rigmarole. I’m used to these instances occurring and you get to the point where I just want a sandwich. Can I have a sandwich? No? I’m going home. Fuck all, ya’ll, I’m going home.
What is your take-away from your experience and can it be generalized over what happened in Philadelphia at the Starbucks?
I’m not going to say that my experience is how Philadelphia works. This isn’t a Starbucks situation. This isn’t a Philadelphia situation. This is an America situation. This is a problem that America has and it still hasn’t reckoned with racism and how systemically it works.