A teachable moment. it's a term that has been used quite frequently. Indicative of a desire to provide commentary on some aspect of society, public policy, or culture. Its use in this instance will be to highlight a fairly culturally sensitive aspect of our lives. It is a concept that many don't want to speak to and perhaps are unaware of its existence, which is unfortunately indicative of the bifurcated nature of today's society.
There are two Americas. The myth and the reality. The shining city on the hill, beacon of hope and justice, and the other America bound by discrimination and despair. As evidenced by our founding father’s own words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” unless you are African American, unless you were a woman, unless you did not own property. The ideal and the reality. There is a phenomenon that has defined our society, cultural norms and practices that are particularly illustrative when viewed through the lens of public spaces.
In America, public spaces are synonymous with white spaces. “White Spaces” are “settings in which black people are typically absent, not expected, or marginalized when present” (Anderson, 2015). Pick up a newspaper, turn on the television, or look on Facebook and you will find on any given week evidence of these circumstances. There are hashtags that have emerged in popular culture to describe these encounters such as:
Invariably it always involves the calling of the police. As enforcers of the social order, the police ensure that these public spaces are in actual practice “white spaces.” To reaffirm the belongingness or lack thereof of African Americans existing in those spaces. To reinforce the notion that you do not belong. You are an interloper here and we will not accede even basic human decency, let alone human rights. My own experience recently is illustrative of that point.
For many African Americans, going to the bank can be an anxiety inducing experience. Something as simple as trying to cash a check or opening a bank account can lead to bank employees calling the police, which can cause mental health and stress related outcomes and unnecessarily place their African American customers in physical danger.
As an African American professional, I am used to navigating these spaces. I understand the expectations and the limitations that have been placed upon me both of which are different than the expectations and limits that are placed on white Americans. I know that. They are there. On most days, I can anticipate, I can make the allowances, I am prepared for many of the typical interactions that occur in these white spaces. I understand that the security and freedom emanating in these public spaces flow disproportionately to Whites Americans (Embrick & Moore, 2020).
On February 16th, just a few days after Abraham Lincoln's birthday, in the middle of Black History month, on a trip to the bank, to a local credit Union that purportedly caters to educators, I was not prepared for what would greet me. I drove to the bank, waited my turn in the drive-thru, and completed the paperwork necessary to withdraw a sum of money so that we could pay our contractor for finishing our basement. I sent the paperwork along with an appropriate ID (I always provide ID, because they always ask for it). I was informed that due to policy concerns I would have to enter the bank. After entering the bank, I requested a written copy of the policy and expressed my concern of having to go into the bank because we are in the midst of a pandemic and thus increased my health risk. The teller could not produce the policy at which point I asked to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor was rude and said that she didn't know me. My response was, I don't know you either and perhaps your policy limitation for the drive-thru is only applicable to me and I again requested a written copy of the policy in question. She stated that she would go get it. I finished my business with the teller, waited for 5 or 6 more minutes for the supervisor to return at which point I decided to leave. As I rounded the corner, the bank president flanked by police officers greeted me. Incredulous as to this response, I stated, “You called the police on me, for asking about a policy?” Her response, “I didn't like the way you spoke to my employee!” I found this interaction silly, but sadly in our society it is not surprising. In fact, these types of interactions are used to normalize the existing racial and social order and serve to reinforce complete White dominion over public spaces (Embrick & Moore, 2020).
We are nearing a reckoning in our society. It has been said that the price we pay for democracy is constant vigilance. But what if those that stand on that vigil, harbor some dark ill?
Anderson, E. (2015). The white space. Sociology of race and ethnicity, 1(1), 10-21.
Embrick, D. G., & Moore, W. L. (2020). White Space (s) and the Reproduction of White Supremacy. American Behavioral Scientist, 64(14), 1935-1945.
Dr. Ty Dooley is an Associate Professor of Public Administration at the University of Illinois Springfield. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the University of Arkansas, a Master’s Degree in Political Science from the University of Memphis, and he received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Central Arkansas. Dr. Dooley was honored with a Center for Online Learning Research and Service Faculty Fellowship in 2014 for his research in the area of human capital development. Dr. Dooley’s research has been featured in the Journal of Public Management & Social Policy, Youth & Society, Teaching Public Administration and e-Mentor. Dr. Dooley’s research areas include: social justice, critical race, social equity and community development.