Whiteness, Groceries, and Black Women’s (Hyper)(In)Visibility
Recently, I walked my six-foot-four inch tall, natural-haired self into a local, small grocery store with a shirt that said “Pure Black Nutritional Facts” on it. Below those words, it described the nutritional facts or “ingredients” found in a “pure Black” person. This shirt is meant to be witty but it also draws attention to the fact that I’m in support of the revolution and I’m not checking for respectability politics.
I saw some shocked faces after folks had scanned down the contents of the shirt. I saw some puzzlement. Granted, I live in a small suburb of Chicago and most of the folks in the store were older and White. But, this area is pretty diverse. So, it’s not like these folks have never seen ‘real’ Black people before. There was something about wearing the shirt that made my experience in that grocery store seem so surreal, so fabricated, that I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself when I thought back on all the ways I used to perform for whiteness in public spaces.
The experience that most reminded me of my past life back in California was at the register. I was next in line and hadn’t started unloading my things yet since the person ahead of me had a full basket and had already filled up the conveyor. Instead, I waited patiently, hoping a new cashier would come along and pull me into their aisle.
As two White women entered my line, joining me and the White woman just behind me, I saw a cashier walking up. Surprisingly, she asked the White woman behind me to come over to her line instead of asking me. I still hadn’t placed anything on the conveyor since the lady ahead of me wasn’t done unloading her things. I figured this would be acknowledged and turned to enter the new aisle.
The woman behind me, rather than gesture to me that I should go ahead of her (since I was in line ahead of her and had been waiting longer), looked to the other two women in line and offered the spot to the White woman directly behind her. Gratified by her offer, the woman thanked the woman behind me then looked back, noticed that the last woman in line (three people behind me) had only a few things in her cart and offered the spot to her. At this point, the third, fourth, and fifth people in line were debating whether or not they should be next in the new aisle.
I watched all this because it was interesting. But, the most intriguing comments exchanged between these women happened next. The third woman in line behind me looked at the second woman in line behind me and said, “No, you should go first. You have been waiting here longer than I have.” They all chuckled about this. The second woman in line behind me was satisfied with this outcome then went to the newly opened aisle. The woman behind me followed her to the new aisle. And the final woman stayed behind me since the net impact to her was pretty low in either aisle at this point.
A few minutes later when I was finally done with checkout – at just about the same time as the woman who was initially behind me – I reflected on what had happened at the grocery store. I walked in the store to be greeted by gawking eyes because my t-shirt noted the fact that I was Black, a fact one could readily see by simply looking at me. Then, I became completely invisible when, at checkout, three White women cordially offered one another a position in line which none of them actually should have had any rights to. To be fair, the cashier did initially speak to the woman behind me (again, rendering me invisible) but, she could have very easily said, “No, she should go next. She was here before me.” I do this all the time. It’s a quite effortless gesture of respect and acknowledgement.
To be honest, I have had interactions like this one for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I was frequently asked to get things off of upper shelves by White women in public spaces. At the grocery store or at school, I was relied upon – usually by White women – to provide some type of service or to simply disappear when not needed. When walking through department stores, I am often seen as an employee rather than a fellow shopper. It is almost always White women who find it completely logical to step ahead of me in line or walk around me in the queue yet seek me out when looking for help finding a sweater in their size.
I still remember being sent to the principal’s office for refusing to retrieve items from the top of my third grade teacher’s closet during class. Even at eight-years-old, I realized that I was being treated differently because of my body and the perception of my utility to serve whiteness. My friend Olivia describes this as the “hypervisible invisibility of Black children.” And, it is this intersection of perception, hyper-visibility, and invisibility that often defines what it means to be Black in predominantly White spaces.
There are many explanations for this. Issues of implicit racism – where individual actors do not necessarily express racist views outwardly but they hold them inside – are clearly at the foundation of American society. But, beyond that, Black women’s position at the intersection of race and gender has historically been linked to this pervasive fact: Black women are still seen as the ‘the help’ – below the status of White women but more useful than Black men – and, therefore, still expected to serve whiteness.
The narrative of Black women’s functionality in service to whiteness is shown in film and television every time the loveless Black friend or secretary helps the beautiful White lead put herself together and nab the perfect man. It is at the forefront of critiques of people like Serena Williams whose undeniable talent is seen as a threat to White womanhood rather than the embodiment of Black Excellence. And, it is repeatedly illustrated through mundane interactions, like these, that some call “micro-aggressions” but I just call good old-fashioned racism.
Like many other aspects of human interaction and sociability, there is no quick solution to issues like these. I’m partial to calling these interactions out, centering my experiences, and suggesting that they aren’t actually “micro” in nature. Others prefer to remove themselves from predominantly White spaces – this is also a valid approach. The truth of the matter is that interactions like these – whether they involve race, gender, sex, ability, size, or anything else – are interwoven into the fabric of this country. Regardless of how one chooses the manage these situations, there is something disturbing about their ubiquity, their blanketing of the sleeping giant of anti-blackness in the United States.
At some point, we’re going to have to face the sleeping giant. And, just like the reactions to my t-shirt, it won’t be pretty. But, I’m okay with this work being as ugly and difficult as possible if it means that we begin to move toward a place of awareness and consciousness for everyone.
Photo credit: AP Photographie via Photopin/Creative Commons
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