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  • Writer's pictureHarjot Sidhu

DO YOU WORK HERE? A CONVERSATION ABOUT MAJORITY-WHITE SPACES.

Updated: May 8

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A few weeks ago, I’m at an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (the RA). I’m deep in thought, trying to take in nearly 200+ years of colonial history. My left arm across my mid-riff. My right arm stationed vertically, with my thumb and index finger on my chin. Eyes squinted. A lady approaches me. She’s an older white lady. “Excuse me,” she says timidly. Straight away, I can tell she’s very well spoken (in comparison to me). Her enunciation is, well, a lot more ‘proper’ than the way I speak. She’s wearing a brooch and everything. “Could you point me towards Flaming June?” – Who the bloody ‘ell is Flaming June??? “Ermm” I respond hesitantly, trying to buy myself some time. She’s asked me for help. I should try and help her. I have a quick look over my shoulder. Nope, no Flaming June. I leap over to one of the panels on the wall nearest to me. Again, nothing about this mysterious woman ablaze. I turn back to the lady…“Dunno. I’m sure she’s here somewhere,” I say. The lady gives a somewhat confused look. I get the furrowed eyebrows. “Ahh okay. Sorry, I thought…Oh, not to worry.” Faux pas. She walks away. It takes me a second, but I realise what’s just happened. The lady is a few steps away from me now. Nervously, she’s still making eye contact. She knows what she’s done. “I don’t work here!” I say to her with a little chuckle. She looks away, immediately. I’ve had to slightly raise my voice too, as she’s not exactly in my immediate space. In the past, I may not necessarily have called her out. I may not necessarily have realised what’s occurred. Perhaps I’ve made a scene? But this isn’t just mistaken identity. There’s an underlying presumption that I couldn’t possibly be there for the art. For so long, people of colour have been kept away from majority-white spaces. So much so, that me being there just didn’t compute and so of course I had to be one of the staff. The exhibition I was at, Entangled Pasts, 1768–now - Art, Colonialism and Change, explores connections between art associated with the RA and Britain’s colonial history. The irony of this and what’s just happened was not lost on me.

 

In 2020, Black barrister Alexandra Wilson spoke about her experience of being mistaken for a defendant three times in the space of one day. What was it that led to the lady in my situation assuming I was a member of staff? Why couldn’t I have been there consuming art? Was it beyond me? Why did Alexandra get mistaken for the defendant? Was being a barrister beyond her? For the sake of the argument, let’s consider mistaken identity, which can be explained by phenomena such as the Other-Race Effect, or the Cross-Race Effect. Research indicates that, as infants, we become wired to spot differences in facial features of those around us and that it’s harder for people of one race to recognise or identify differences in facial features of others. Scientists have also concluded that minorities are better at cross-race identification, in comparison to whites. This perhaps explains the science behind the “they all look alike” phenomena. But what about the “do you work here?” phenomena.


















Elijah Anderson is an American Sociologist and a Professor at Yale University. In the journal ‘Sociology of Race and Ethnicity,’ Anderson breaks down the idea of the “iconic ghetto.” At the turn of the twentieth century, a time when the black community faced racial segregation, Anderson explains how as “blacks arrived and settled in cities, they were typically contained in ghettos.”[i] As a result of modern-day media, the “ghetto becomes intensely more iconic, symbolised as a distressed place to which blacks have been relegated to live apart from the larger society.” Replace ‘black’ with ‘people of colour’ or ‘ethnic minorities’ and I think the concept is true for what happens in a lot of majority-white spaces in Britain. A museum, opera, theatre. It’s almost as if, for some, non-whites do not deserve to occupy these spaces. Or, to give them a bit of leniency, perhaps they just don’t expect us to share the same space with them. “White people typically avoid black space, but black people are required to navigate the white space as a condition of their existence.”[ii] We are “burdened with a deficit of credibility,” Anderson writes in his article in The Guardian. In other words, we are rejected from these spaces. We live in a world of migration. A world of movement, where nothing and nobody stands still. “As demographics change, public spaces are subject to change as well, impacting not only how a space is occupied and by whom but also the way in which it is perceived.”[iii] I am not sure regular occupiers of majority-white spaces have yet accepted this. I am not sure they have accepted that we, minority groups, are now in spaces that we never have been before. And deservedly so. Just as people move around the world, the world we live in lets us minority groups move up and out of the “iconic ghetto.” But, with comments and micro/macro-aggressions such as the ones already mentioned, we’re kicked back to whence we came. Minority groups have a long history of being rejected and dehumanized, especially in Britain. “Whites and others often stigmatise anonymous black persons by associating them with the danger, crime and poverty of the iconic ghetto, typically leaving blacks with much to prove before being able to establish trusting relations with them.”[iv] My anecdote is just another example of all of this. I was from another part of society. I didn’t deserve to be a part of this shared space. I was ‘othered,’ so I couldn’t possibly have been another regular punter. Of course, not all white people do this. There will be complicated intersections of class, status and hierarchy, as well as other things.

 

Britain isn’t short of culturally themed events, exhibitions, art installations and much more, for and by minority groups. These spaces attract a largely non-white demographic. I’ve seen it. I’ve been to them. Is it time that majority-white spaces, like the RA, start taking a harder look at themselves and hosting more of these types of events? By putting on the Entangled Pasts exhibition, the RA is interrogating and examining their own role in relation to the past, which is highly commendable. Perhaps this is the way forward? Or, do we go the other way and start creating exclusively non-white spaces, so that the fear of experiences such as my one don’t occur? In the past few weeks, there has been criticism from as high up as Downing Street for theatre productions in the West-End, who are planning for ‘Black-only’ nights. But, if Black people have been excluded from majority-white spaces and told they don’t belong, would this not be a gateway towards acclimatising them to the environment? Would it not be a way of allowing them to feel safe in an otherwise difficult space?


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[i] Anderson, Elijah (2015). ”The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2015, Vol.1(1) 11

[ii] Anderson, Elijah (2015). ”The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2015, Vol.1(1) 10

[iii] Anderson, Elijah (2015). ”The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2015, Vol.1(1) 11

[iv] Anderson, Elijah (2015). ”The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2015, Vol.1(1) 13

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