I did a dopey thing yesterday which resulted in cars driving over my cell phone.
This in turn resulted in a trip to a suburban Apple store. At the genius bar, I was waited on by two young male geniuses: one white and one black; one leading and one in training.
As I sat on the genius barstool, I was conscious of the BLACK LIVES MATTER button on my coat. It felt like more of a statement than usual in that place.
After pronouncing my phone dead (even though Siri was still talking to me), the men helped me set up a replacement phone. This took time and while they simultaneously helped other customers, I looked around. I saw many young people in red t-shirts that marked them as Apple employees. And among those in red shirts, I was surprised to see several more black people.
I noted my surprise yesterday. Today I am interrogating it.
Why was I surprised that the Apple store at this mall has not just one but several black employees? Why was that noteworthy to me? Today I realize that I assumed this store was “white space” and I assumed Apple assumed it “white space” as well.
According to Nikki Jones, “white space” are places where people of color, particularly if they are of African descent, “don’t belong”:
The university where I teach is a white space, movie theaters, cafés are white spaces. In these white spaces black people have a special burden. Somehow they have a provisional status position. They have to prove they belong there.
As a white person, I am often unaware that I am in white space. It takes conscious effort to remember it when there are only white people present. But when people of color enter the space, I find I notice in new ways. White space includes certain hotel lobbies, restaurants, parks, sidewalks — even churches that declare “Everyone Welcome!” People of color entering these spaces have to prove they are not interlopers who took a wrong turn, janitors or maids come to clean up, criminals or terrorists threatening harm.
Even with the presence of black employees, by Nikki Jones’s definition the Apple store might still be “white space.” As employees, the black people I saw had a “proven right” to be there. It’s possible plenty of black people on entering the store still have to prove themselves as customers, friends of customers or acquaintances of employees.
When the men were done helping me, they handed me off to a young white woman in a red t-shirt. She answered my questions and stood with me to make last minute adjustments. As we waited for the phone to update, she said, “I like your button. I’m glad you’re wearing it.”
She didn’t have to say that. But she did. And I felt so grateful. A white-haired white woman wearing a BLACK LIVES MATTER button in white space. It’s such an incredibly tiny thing! And yet, in that space, it was remarkable to a young white employee.
Beloved Community in which we assume belonging of whoever shows up is such a long way off. And yet it breaks through in tiny ways. Today I pray those tiny spaces add up and up into common ground where no space is ever again assumed to be “white.”