On Racialized Space and Belonging

A white woman graduate student at Yale called the police on a napping black woman fellow graduate student, Lolade Siyonbola. Once again, we see an example of what Charles Mills means in Chapter 2 of The Racial Contract, when he argues that space itself is racialized. Mills leaves out of his initial account the ways that space is both raced and gendered. Kathryn Belle (formerly Kathryn Gines) is right to take Mills to task for the oversight and the ways that this oversight reveals the blind spots in his analysis. An important and consistent theme in black feminist theory is the ways that white women leverage their social position as simultaneously privileged and oppressed in order to wield power. Belle is correct to highlight this in her work. However, the media accounts I've seen all refer to the white woman's race but not her gender. Her gender is a significant part of the dynamic at play. More accurately, her race/gender is a significant part of the dynamic at play. White women, even self-proclaimed "women's rights advocates," actively participate in misogynoir. It's difficult for me to articulate the precise difference to those who haven't experienced it, but there is a special kind of "frogginess"* that white women exhibit in their interactions with black women that is not part and parcel of their interactions with one another or with men of any race.

Watching Siyonbola recount repeatedly to the police that this white woman told her she "didn't belong" and that she couldn't sleep (nap, rest, whatever) in the common room of the dorm, while the police (four of them by the end of the video) repeatedly assert that they are simply "trying to verify" that Siyonbola "belongs," reminded me of my own graduate school moment of being explicitly told that I didn't belong. I was a fifth (or so) year student and had gone to the department to check my mail when a white male first year demanded to know why I was entering the department lounge. He then proceeded to physically block my path to my mailbox, telling me that I "had no business" there. I've written about the effect that these kinds of interactions can have on graduate students personally and on the profession (philosophy) generally. (Ironically, the white woman who called the police on Siyonbola is allegedly a philosophy gradate student.) In my case, the white male student did not call the campus police, but he was extra confident that, even as a first year student who at that time had only been on campus approximately a month, he was in a position to gauge who "had business" in the department and who did not. Unlike in Siyonbola's case, once I told the white male student in my department that I was a fifth year student (after I said some other things), he backed down in embarrassment. Not only did this white woman student refuse back down, she doubled down by calling the police.

To return to Mills and his notion of racialized space, whiteness "deputizes" the average white person and vests him or her with the authority to make determinations, however unfounded, about who belongs where. When a space is racialized as white, nonwhite people by virtue of their nonwhiteness, do not belong. Given the nature of the racial contract, white authority (as a sociopolitical instrument) remains legitimate. Despite it being obvious that the black woman in the white space was, in fact, a Yale student, it took 15 minutes and four Yale police officers to confirm to their own satisfaction that she "belonged" there. Based on the video and media reports, the woman who made the bogus call did not have to justify how she made her determination of suspicious napping that was so threatening it warranted police intervention. Nor did the white male graduate student who blocked my way into the my department's lounge expect that he would have to offer any justification for his behavior. The fact of whiteness is its own justification. Until that reality is acknowledged and met with real consequences, the promises to work on inclusiveness fall flat.




*The best way I can describe white women's "frogginess" toward black women is as a combination of entitlement, aggression, and hostility coupled with the smug awareness that others will indulge her, especially if she claims to have been victimized by said black woman.