Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Half Manifesto/Half Working Document for #OccupyWhiteness



In the summer of 2003, I was the Cape Town, South Africa about to perform in the University of Cape Town.  We were less than ten years removed from the official overthrow of apartheid and many of the patrons coming to our show were coming to the University for the first time in their lives, even though in some cases they lived or worked walking distance from the institution.  There had never been a reason to come there since it became accessible to all, and it had not crossed their minds to visit it for the sake of doing so.  Many entered the building tentatively.  Their brains knew apartheid was over.  Their bodies, requiring more rigorous unlearning, were not yet sure. Together with Staceyann Chin and Ursula Rucker, we welcomed them in.  We invited them backstage.  We – foreigners, black people from America – were telling the South Africans that apartheid/segregation was over and that it was right that they be there; that the space was theirs to enter. 

But in examining that phenomenon in the days that passed I remember being in Houston and deciding to go downtown, and my peoples in the hood there asking (this would not have been more than 2 years prior to the Sth Africa trip), “What you wanna go there for? That’s white people shit.”  I was aghast.  “I paid my taxes I said. I saw some shit down there I like…”  They looked at me like I was a little crazy or like someone maybe to be pitied.  But they knew why in a different way from how I knew why.  I was certainly by then (having lived 15 yrs in the U.S.) fluent in how black people are made to feel uncomfortable in white spaces.  I’ve been followed in stores, been pulled over and questioned separately from others in the car, had my car stopped and the white person in it asked if she or he was alright, I’ve suffered the double takes and the studious attempts to make me invisible – the sort of behavior that ‘freezes’ any discerning person out of company he might have designs on keeping.  But I am an immigrant, and I didn’t have several generations of that making its way felt throughout my body, so that my body hadn’t ‘learned’ in the same way, that those spaces weren’t mine.  Certainly I was uncomfortable in them, but if there was something there I wanted to be a part of – sports event, museum, symphony, restaurant, public park – I went anyway.

I arrived in New York City in 1987 fresh on the heels of the Howard Beach case in which a gang of white youths chased a black man out onto the parkway where he was struck and killed by a motorist.  I was here less than a year before Yusef Hawkins was killed in the same neighborhood for a similar infraction.  There were places whiteness ‘froze’ us out of, and there were places where whiteness used white people to let us know in no uncertain terms that we couldn’t be there.  But for most of my 26 years in the United States I’ve lived in Brooklyn, NY.  For the most part, black people in NYC go anywhere.  For the most part white NYC does not bat an eye to see us at the opera, an expensive restaurant, a ballgame.  It is not that white NYC is less racist than anyone else.  It is that the nature of the city has meant that they’re accustomed to spaces being integrated.  There isn’t (for the most part) something that can be done about it.  Whiteness cannot claim exclusivity of space because the culture of its being not so, is already firmly established.

The recent murder of Trayvon Martin, the subsequent acquittal of his killer, and the inability (by much of white America) to understand that George Zimmerman actually had no right to even question Trayvon Martin, suggests that the culture established in Brooklyn, USA, in which one expects to see youth of color in numbers in a museum as easily as in a pool hall, as easily as on Wall Street; does not exist in Sanford, Florida.  In the days of heartbreak following the court’s devaluing of the life of Trayvon Martin by finding George Zimmerman guilty of absolutely nothing, I found myself struggling to find words to say to the young people whom I teach, to say to my daughter when she starts asking me questions.  In the frustration, I’m asking myself time and again, how do we force whiteness in America to recognize the right of people of color to be wherever they want to be.  This exclusivity of space is a question at the center of the culture that has defined America racially and it has made its way from Reconstruction through Jim Crow, through residential redlining, through de facto segregated public schooling, up until today.  OccupyWhiteness aims to address it.

OccupyWhiteness is an initiative which seeks to encourage young people of color to go into spaces they do not think of as ‘theirs’, spaces which they see as ‘white’, and create cultural shift in those spaces, simply by being there in numbers.  Public spaces of corporate buildings, public beaches in neighborhoods not their own, museums, the opera, parks, restaurants and the like. 

Young people of color in groups of 3 or more will visit an event, location of their choice.  They’ll simply enjoy themselves there.  They will also observe their surroundings and round table after their outings to talk about what they noticed, what they felt like etc. There are no accompanying adults. In this way, the young people are both companions on an outing and support system for one another in negotiating whiteness in public spaces.

This is for young people of color between the ages of 16 and 24.  They should be old enough that their parents already let them out socially on their own, and young enough that they’re still part of a rough peer group.  Ideally the youth going out on any given outing should be friends, or have at least met with one another once before.  There must be a level of comfort with one another.

OccupyWhiteness hopes to ‘launch’ before the end of August.

Support and Organization:
For now, OccupyWhiteness is a Chicago-based initiative with hopes that people nationwide will soon adopt the model.  A committee of youth of color and supporting adults is currently being formed, who will get the logistics right and perform experimental ‘outings’.  Reports from these will be publicly broadcast.

OccupyWhiteness will be an initiative of Nin-Ja Works Productions, which seeks to launch programs and support efforts toward social equity through youth engagement.  It will operate under the auspices of Young Chicago Authors.  Support will include youth protocol preparations (or what we also like to call ‘alternate language skills’), legal aide backup and we hope, eventually finance.  Some outings will cost perhaps more money than the youth who want to go can afford.

We are still building this initiative’s vision, but keep looking for word of our efforts.  We will need your support in the near future.

Roger Bonair-Agard

To schedule a reading or an appearance please contact Ofer Ziv at Blue Flower Arts at 845-677-8559 or email


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first letters of the words 'black' and 'white' should be capitalized because they are referring to ethnicities. As for 'people of color,' since when is ecru, beige, olive, etc. not colors? Let us raise our speech if we really want to break this degrading cycle of violence. We must honor one another.

1:43 PM  

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