But again, those situations are rare. Partly because most white people spend little or no time in spaces that are mostly non-white, they tend to find it confusing, and even "wrong," for people of color to seek out spaces and situations that are not predominantly white -- to "self-segregate," that is. Because seeking sanctuary from a situation in which you're no longer surrounded by your racial peers could merely mean stepping back into the great (white) norm for whites, it wouldn't seem like racial self-segregation for a white person to do that. Even though that's what it is, and even though white people actually self-segregate almost all the time.
Another possible reason for some of this common white disapproval of people of color who self-segregate is that even if white people do find themselves in a largely non-white space, their sudden racial self-awareness is still going to be different from how racial self-awareness feels for people of color in largely white spaces. That's mainly because both situations exist within a broader context of white predominance, and thus of white power (a form of power that whites tend not to see), and also because most whites just aren't used to feeling "white," to being made to feel aware of their racial status.
Lester K. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University; he also happens to be a black man. In a recent article on his own need to self-segregate at times, Spence writes of a trivial incident on campus that was clearly sparked by a racist white fear of his presence, an incident that quickly elevated to calls for security and the police. Regarding his need for self-segregation, and the kinds of ridiculous and dangerous incidents in whites spaces that can fuel that need, Spence writes,
Predominantly white spaces can be exhausting to navigate. I have to consciously be aware of what I am saying, of who is around me, of what I am wearing, of what I am doing, of what others are saying and doing. In critical ways, I cannot let my guard down for a moment. Because -- and even as I write this I recognize how paranoid this may sound to people unfamiliar with the experiences I refer to -- at any point I may be forced to defend myself, defend my presence.
In stark contrast, when I am at home, or at my wife’s church, or with my fraternity brothers, or at the club listening to house music, I am at home. I am not a statistic. Not a threat. Not an outsider. Not an anomaly. I am safe to “be.” I can be the “representative for the race.” I can be the one black person in the room. But I don’t have to be. . . . I can, in those spaces, breathe.
Of course, whites have long self-segregated into largely white spaces -- residential spaces, employment spaces, educational and recreational spaces, and so on. And there is something about those spaces that makes it easier for them to "breathe." Something white.
However, they rarely see those homogeneous spaces anymore as examples of "self-segregation." Instead, they tend to take the whiteness of those spaces for granted, as something they don't even think about. Those largely white spaces are usually perceived as "normal," not "white." And that makes it easier for whites to overlook how they're racially segregated.
I recently thought about that side of the "self-segregation" coin -- the white side -- when I saw this clip on ABC News. It's a report about Holland, Michigan, a town deemed newsworthy because it was recently declared one of the "happiest" towns in America.
As I watched this clip, I did what I automatically do now with stories about some "American" place -- I counted the people of color. In this piece, I only saw one, a person who looks black, for a second or two.
In this segment, this town seems very, very white. Could that be part of why its residents are so "happy"? What about the people of color living there? Are they as happy as the white residents? If not -- and it does seem very possible that they're not, given the amount of tension that non-white people, especially black people, can feel in such predominantly white environments -- then why not identify the "happiness" of this very white town as a white form of happiness?
Census Bureau statistics reveal that this town of 35,000 is (or was in 2000) about 78% white, 3% black, 4% Asian, 1% Native American, and 14% Other/Mixed. 22% identify as "Hispanic or Latino (of any race)." I wonder why so few of Holland, Michigan's people of color were featured in this ABC segment?
Well, the place is very white. Personally, I find very white places a little creepy now -- I can't forget anymore how they got that way. More to the point, though, I wonder if the people of color in Happy Holland sometimes feel a need to self-segregate. Does the place seem a little too much like Pleasantville to them? Do all those happy white people there make people of color feel a need to, as Lester Spence put it, constantly "keep their guard up"?
Maybe the initial self-segregation that made Holland an especially white town early on -- I'd bet that many of the people of color, or their ancestors, are relatively recent arrivals -- inspires self-segregation now among the people of color. If so, I wouldn't be surprised if the white people of Holland find that confusing. And maybe even wrong, in a nice, friendly place like Holland, Michigan.
What about you? If you're a person of color who spends a lot of time in very white spaces, do you ever feel a need to "self-segregate"? If so, are there particular things that white people do that especially cause that feeling?