Living in Madison, Wisconsin, can be like playing a constant game of Racist Russian Roulette: I never know when the next person is going to say something offensive. White people can say what they want to me in white spaces, with almost no repercussions. Elijah Anderson, Yale professor of sociology, defines white spaces as, “settings in which black people are typically absent, not expected, or marginalized when present.” I know the gut feeling that I don’t belong.
I didn’t always believe there was a difference between black spaces and white spaces. My dad’s attention to race annoyed me until I realized he was telling the truth. I thought he chose to make everything about race. Race was such an unbelievably big part of his life, I thought it must all be in his imagination—that it was something only he could see. I didn’t understand why he always had to point out to me that the black person died first in movies, nor did I understand what his skin color had anything at all to do with his managerial position at work. I repeatedly and stupidly asked if he knew the black men he nodded at when we were on vacation.
Now, that nod keeps me sane. I go out of my way to make eye contact with other black people in white spaces and hold that gaze, to let them know that I know they’re here, and that I’m here, too.
On March 6, 2015, Madison police officer Matt Kenny shot and murdered (it’s the truth—although many people aren’t comfortable using that word) a young black man, 19-year-old Tony Robinson, two blocks from my apartment. I can’t help but believe that Tony Robinson would be alive today if he were white.
I’ve seen how white people treat black people who dare to venture into white spaces—and it is almost always in fear. I work at a local food co-op in a predominantly white, upper-middle class part of Madison that has ruined the TV show Portlandia for me. A black man came up to me at work one day and asked if many black people came into the place. I said no, and asked him why. He told me he had just turned the corner, and a white woman literally gasped and jumped a little—in surprise or fear.
Now imagine that fear magnified by a thousand, and add a firearm. That’s why Tony Robinson is dead; he chose to make a scene in a white space, and he was promptly put back in place. It changed my life in the way Mike Brown should have.
In the months since the shooting of Tony Robinson, I’ve been consciously attempting to feel better by making more black friends. The crazy thing is that it has helped. When I’m with my black friends, I’m a version of myself that doesn’t feel bad about calling someone out for saying something offensive. When I’m with a black friend, I can point out that the time I got arrested and led away in handcuffs for having a little bit of pot on me at a festival, but my roommate snuck right in with a flask of Bacardi, might have had something to do with her being white. (She didn’t hide it any better, they just didn’t look as hard.) I feel like less of a conspiracy theorist when I say out loud that my propensity for bringing up issues of race at my job has held me back from moving up the ladder. Most importantly, I know that the next time a black kid gets shot by a cop, I’ll have a black friend nearby who will cry with me.
Having black friends has helped make me confident enough to be the kind of race person my father raised me to be. Now I consider how my skin color affects everything I do—because it does. I could try and ignore race, but white people would always be on standby to remind me that I look different from them. I’ve tried many times to explain what it’s like to be visibly different than everybody around you because of how you were born. (Never mind the hundreds of years of slavery, the federally legal oppression, and, for instance, the fact that black men are eight times more likely to be arrested in my county than white men.) But it doesn’t matter, because white people think I’m exaggerating, or being sensitive, or that they know what it’s like because they have long hair or visible tattoos. After a while it gets exhausting; I had to slap myself for seriously considering whether I shouldn’t wear an afro to court because it might come off as unprofessional or sloppy.
I’ve lived here for almost three years now, and I only recently started believing Madison could be mine, too. Then I woke up after Charleston and realized black spaces don’t exist. Black spaces belong to white people. White men, if they want, can walk into any black space and shoot any black person they want. White men get to wake up every morning and shine up their impunity badges and cock their guns and go out into a world that gives them the benefit of the doubt. At least that’s how it feels to me: hopeless.
My dad has been preparing me for this realization all my life. It is the duty of any parent of a black child. You die first in horror movies, you die first in real life. No kid wants to believe that.
I remember being at work in the hour or so after Tony Robinson was murdered. All we knew was that somebody had been shot nearby, and I was so scared that the shooter was hiding somewhere in the store. Then I found out the shooter was a cop. Then I found out Tony Robinson was on mushrooms, unarmed, and shirtless, and probably terrified.
Later that night, I walked into an impromptu rally led by a local social activist group called Young, Gifted and Black. Brandi Grayson is their lead organizer. I went up to introduce myself to her once and she immediately touched my hair—the first time in forever it’s happened because the person thinks its beautiful, not wild or exotic. I’ve watched Brandi command thousands of people to silence by simply lifting up her fist. I’ve seen her tell the white kids holding the “Black Lives Matter” banner that they don’t get to stand in front. There is a video of Brandi from the night of the shooting, where a white woman asks to speak about Tony Robinson and Brandi stops her. Brandi tells the woman the mic is not hers, and I think that made the white woman cry. I almost felt bad, but then I reminded myself, that’s what it feels like to be black in a white space—which is almost every space—every day. The mic is never yours. Not unless you take it.
The protests organized by Young Gifted and Black turn the whitest spaces brown and black. We occupy these spaces, these streets—for instance, the Portlandia block of Madison’s near-east side where Tony Robinson was shot, or the jail downtown—and make them our own. Protesting has taught me that, even though I’ll never be Brandi Grayson, it is possible for me to make my own black space out of anything.
I’m on a mission to take back the mic, even if it makes a lot of white people cry. Frankly, they deserve it. If I’m going to be uncomfortable in white spaces, then I’m going to do my best to make white people uncomfortable, too. This means very loudly proclaiming to every black person I see that they’re the first black person I’ve seen all day, even if they aren’t. I want to say no to a white person every single day for the rest of my life. I want to psych out the little white kids who point and stare and ask their parents questions about me. A friend told me that her sister once called a doctor’s office and asked if they had any black doctors—which is question I will now be asking of every place I patronize. (Think, “Do you have any black waitresses?” or “Do you have any black professors?” etc.)
When I consider my mere presence as a form of protest, it makes me want to make my presence even bigger. I will not straighten or cut my hair. I will not be quiet. When I think about the fact that the United States economy was built on slavery, I want everybody to know that black people have more of a right to these spaces than any pilgrim ever did. I will not be embarrassed to do the work of breaking down these borders—I will be black loudly until I can be black safely.
SASHA DEBEVEC-McKENNEY is a Beloit College graduate living in Madison, Wisconsin. She has been writing love poems to presidents since she was 15. (@sashadm)