When white people enter a space, anti-Blackness always does too
On October 29th 2012, Glenda Moore’s two sons were killed during Hurricane Sandy, the youngest casualties during the storm. I say during rather than of the storm because the death of Moore’s children–Connor, 4 and Brendan, 2–was caused by another type of tempest, one that has gone on far, far longer and is far more brutal.
Police said Moore, a Black nurse, became stuck in Staten Island while trying to get to safety. When the floodwaters began to sweep her car away, the desperate mother was able to pull her sons from it, but the two small boys were quickly whisked up by the currents. Distraught, Moore banged on the doors of many neighbors who refused to lend a hand. One told her, “I don’t know you. I’m not going to help you.” Another turned off the lights and refused to answer when she rang the doorbell. Moore’s neighborhood was 64% white (in 2010).
I was reminded of this incident while reading Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake: On Blackness and Being, in which Sharpe explains that Moore was subsequently subject to “condemnation by many as an unfit mother. What, they demand, was she doing out in that storm? What kind of mother was she? Not only that, but when the white man who denied her shelter was asked why he didn’t open the door to that distraught Black woman who repeatedly pounded on it for help, he said that he did not see a Black woman at all, but a BIG Black man and that he was forced, therefore, to spend the night with his back against the door to prevent entry and thereby his own violation.” (79-80)
The tempest that killed Connor and Brendan is the same storm that forced this white man’s violent refusal of basic care, the logic of whiteness that shapes interactions with Blackness and Black people globally. It is an illogic that de-genders Black womanhood or genders it as masculine, while always deeming Black masculinity dangerous and criminal, even when it is weathering superstorms.
This logic renders Black people whiteness-terrorizing monsters and whiteness always innocent, then it uses this imagined monstrosity to blame Blackness for its own calamities.
The logic of Moore’s neighbor is not simply the logic of one man, but the logic of an entire system of whiteness, the same system that also shaped the perceptions of his peers (of all races) on message boards who subsequently analyzed her as the guilty party.
This is the system that is responsible for justice here, and it does not only refuse to punish actions like those of Moore’s neighbor, but goes so far as to reframe them as moral and hers as immoral. If Moore’s neighbor had instead killed the “big Black man” robbing him and there were a trial, would those message board commenters not be the same as the jury of his peers that let off the likes of the murderers of Aiyana Jones (7) and Mike Brown (18)?
If Black people are dangerous enough to white people to be justifiably put down in almost any situation, mistakenly perceived as a threat or not, child or not, isn’t the very presence of white people a keg of gunpowder in a world full of anti-Black sparks? This is what Sharpe calls “the weather,” explaining, “the weather is the total climate; and the climate is antiblack.” (104)
I made this exact point recently while arguing that the necessary healing work Black people experience in exclusively Black spaces is automatically disrupted by the presence of white people. I argued that since the state does not ask for intentions when it designates Black people a threat, “every white person has the state and its guns at their behest and a gentrifying tongue in their mouth, whether they intend it or not.”
Glenda Moore’s neighbor may have truly feared for his life, and even truly saw her as a scary Black man. In fact, I do not doubt it any more than I doubt the people on message boards really saw her as blameworthy for her own childrens’ death. But it is this violently transformative imagination–that turns desperate Black mothers into terrorizing Black assailants, or unworthy parents–that is the reason why anti-Blackness moves in all spaces where white people are.
On May 5th, Bayna El-Amin was attacked by a drunk white man at a Dallas BBQ restaurant in New York City. El-Amin, who is Black and queer, allegedly called the white man and his boyfriend “white faggots” and derided them for “spilling [their] drinks.” The white man admits to being drunk and hitting El-Amin first, but pressed charges against the 6’6” tall Black man when El-Amin responded by defending himself with a chair.
El-Amin is now serving 9 years in prison, the judge agreeing with the prosecutor that El-Amin was a bully who deserved to be punished for his over-the-top response to the attacks of “these girly men” (prosecutor’s words).
To recap, a Black man was minding his own business when an admittedly drunk white man spills his drink on and hits him, and the Black man’s response makes him into a “hulking brute” deserving of a near-decade in cages. This is the violence of white people in spaces with Black people. It is influenced not only by the white person in the space, but also by his witnesses of all races and, most importantly, the law responsible for any “justice” deemed deserved.
The danger of whiteness is not branded onto an individual white person’s skin, but onto the general psyche under systems of whiteness. It’s not about the actions of singular white people toward Black people (although those actions, as made evident by Moore’s neighbor and the white gay man at Dallas BBQ, are often destructive as well), but the way the anti-Black world surrounding them inevitably moves.
The mere fact that Blackness registers as criminal in the white imagination leads directly to the unsafety of Black people. This is why gentrification leads to the hyper-policing of and other punitive practices against Black communities being displaced. When Black and white people are juxtaposed and in conflict, imagined or real, Blackness is always guilty, and whiteness is innocent. So when Black people desire spaces of reprieve from white people, this is what we are talking about.