Dear White People: (Please) Mind Your Business. We’re Just Living While Black!
A few weeks ago a girlfriend of mine asked me to volunteer some of my time to help her out with a women’s retreat. She is a health and wellness coach and was facilitating a paint session in a beautiful park in Toronto on a sunny but breezy Sunday afternoon. We got there and started setting up the materials, laying out the canvases, paint brushes and other supplies the ladies would need. The women on the retreat were a local church group and were comprised of predominantly black women. They had had a wonderful weekend filled with different activities that helped them focus on their spiritual and personal growth and commitment to their faith. On this Sunday, they had gone for a group hike in the park as it had a hiking trail, and were to finish off their day with a group paint session facilitated by my friend.
Now to put this next part in context, I’d like to set the scene for you. This is a massive public park that is frequented by many people that live in the area, and some like our group who come in for events being held in the park. The city of Toronto is extremely diverse and is comprised of ethnicities from literally all over the global in various ranging numbers. This park on this Sunday afternoon was reflective of that. There were people from every race walking or biking on the trails and paths. There were families of different ethnicities in the park within our purview around us, barbequing or just hanging out in the sun. So I said all that to point out that we were not the only people in the park, nor were we the only ones doing some sort of group activity.
Where we were located for our paint session was not too far from a bike/hiking path, but you definitely had to come off the path and out of your way to get to where we were. As my girlfriend and I were setting up, we saw some people biking or walking past us that were definitely curious as to what we were doing. We could see their quizzical smiles as they tried to look over at what we were laying out, but for the most part they continued on, minding their own business and going about their day. And then, it started. The first white couple that walked up to us and (politely) asked us what we were doing. Now anyone who has ever attended a Paint Nite, Paint & Sip or similar events knows exactly what they would see if canvases are being laid out with paint brushes. But, us being the nice people we were, we entertained them by telling them that we were doing a paint session. Normally most people after asking their initial question would move on. But as the day continued and as more white people felt the need to come off the path from their bike or walk and stop and interrogate us (politely) about what we were doing, the questions became more probing. At one point, a white man and his family fully came off their bikes and were asking all of us who were gathered there a series of questions that quite frankly didn’t really need to be asked…or answered. As I looked around I could see the looks on the faces of the women and feel the temporary shift in their high vibration energy and in that moment, I had profound realization. As Black people collectively, most of us have encountered a variation of these situations where we are out just living our lives while Black, and some white people (in particular) feel the need to (politely) interrogate and question or comment on things we are doing out in the open. I have personally experienced this on so many levels, living my daily life or out with my family at bbq’s that we have had in public parks. We’ve had people literally stop and watch us just eating or talking, as if we are animals in a zoo and they are trying to understand our patterns. If I’ve ever been congregated with a group of Black people for any reason in public, I have guaranteed had a random white person walk up to me or us and say something to the effect of “what’s going on here?” usually with a silly grin on their face-as if smiling negates the fact that you are intruding on our personal space and asking us questions we do not need to answer. More recently, I was doing laundry one day in my building. I was squatting down in front of the washing machine that I had just put my clothes in and wanted to make sure that the laundry pack that I had put in didn’t pop out as it sometimes did in these older machines. This white woman in my building who I run into periodically, saw me and brazenly questioned me as to what I was doing. My initial gut reaction was confusion and then swiftly anger because I couldn’t understand why she felt the need to ask me the question when I had not instigated a conversation with her, nor was I doing anything. I literally was just squatting in front of the machine and watching what was happening. I highly doubt if I was any of the white residents in my building and she had seen me doing the same thing would she have asked a question. I feel strongly in my conviction of this having observed this woman with and around other people in my building. But she felt the need to ask me rather snobbishly what I was doing, as if I owed her an explanation. After my initial internal reaction that I could not show on my face, I politely explained to her why I was watching the machine. She then proceeded to tell me that oh now she felt better because she couldn't understand what I was doing. As if I needed to explain my actions to her to make her feel better about me just living my life. I remember walking away with such rage and anger in my stomach at this incident; yet I knew for her, it wouldn’t even be a blip on her radar.
This behaviour is a part of the daily microaggressions that Black people both in the US and Canada face. It is this idea that we cannot simply just be living our lives and we need to be questioned to fulfill the curiosity of other people to make them feel safe or okay about us. It is also an undercurrent of some white people feeling that they are entitled to know something because they are curious about it. Even more insidious for some, an idea that Black people need to explain to some white people what they are doing as if we are somehow accountable to them. What angered me so much about that day in the park is that that man and his family took away moments of peace that we as Black women specifically very rarely get to have. By his careless entitlement of feeling like he needed to interrupt a sacred space that was being created and held for these women, he took something away from them they will never get back. Time. Moments. We as Black people have gotten very good at pushing incidents like this aside and not focusing on them. But they shouldn’t be happening in the first place. We should be allowed to live our lives freely without being questioned about what we are doing, even if it is behind the guise of politeness and curiosity. In Canada, some white people hide their racism thinly veiled behind politeness and curiosity. For those of us who have been the recipients of it, we know very well what it looks and sounds like.
My challenge to accomplices (not allies) is when you see this behaviour next time in public, call it out. Use your privilege and gently, calmly but firmly remind others who look like you that BIPOC do not need to explain themselves to anyone for any reason about what they are doing in living their lives. If you are with a group of friends who decides to stop and stare at Black people living their lives, gently remind them to focus on their business and your lives. They don’t need to comment or have something to say about the lives of Black people. It’s not necessary and unless it was specifically asked for, it’s unwanted. Black people are not looking to anyone outside of our community to validate us. We are citizens of our respective countries and pay our taxes. We have the right to live our lives and be left alone in peace. Please respect that. And if you don’t, we will (politely) remind you.