Navigating the Spatial Complexities of Race: Elijah Anderson Exposes the Dangers of Daily Interactions

Anderson spotlights the complex politics that Black people must navigate in spaces that are predominantly populated by white people.

By Kamille Gentles-Peart

Black in White Space: The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life, by Elijah Anderson. Chicago, 2022. 288p bibl index, 9780226657233 $25.00, 9780226815176 $24.99

Cover of the book Black in White Space

Black in White Space provides an inside look at the everyday injustices that Black people face in white spaces in the US. During a time when mainstream white communities are intent on registering and responding to overt manifestations of racism and extreme white supremacists, this book helps create a more comprehensive picture of the workings of anti-Black racism by highlighting the small but pervasive ways in which white supremacy impacts the lives of Black people. Disrupting narratives that continue to label racism as the work of a few so-called bad individuals, Anderson (Yale Univ.) carefully and candidly illuminates the tacit racial caste system that traps Black people en masse at the bottom of social, economic, and moral hierarchies and the strategies “ordinary” white people use to maintain and police these boundaries. 

Central to Anderson’s argument is the reality of the “[w]hite space” (p. 3)—spaces predominantly occupied by white people where Black people are generally unexpected, unwelcomed, dehumanized, and often killed. As Anderson demonstrates, these “white spaces” are ubiquitous and endemic in the US. He argues that even spaces that appear to be cosmopolitan and accepting of Black people—e.g., shopping malls, parks, coffee shops, gyms—can quickly become white spaces (i.e., dangerous for Black people) at the behest of white occupants, exposing the always tenuous position of Black people in these spaces. As Anderson underscores, Black people, regardless of socioeconomic status, are never truly safe when moving around predominantly white spaces and therefore do so with caution and wariness, distrustful of the intentions of white people—even white allies. Black people may employ various strategies to navigate white spaces, such as code switching and image management, but these practices permit only conditional, provisional entry. 

Anderson further contends that the linchpin of the white space is the “iconic ghetto” (p. 3). As the diametric opposite of the white space, the iconic ghetto refers to the segregated and stigmatized neighborhoods to which Black people have been relegated in the US, places often characterized by state-sanctioned structural poverty and hyper-policing to contain residents and protect white folks. These conditions foster legal and illegal informal economies, violence, and both psychological and physical death. Though the circumstances of the ghetto are real, Anderson argues that white people develop and project their own ideologies about the ghetto and its inhabitants that perpetuate the notion that Black people are inferior to white people. He explains,

[I]n the minds of many, to be Black is to be from the ghetto, a place stereotyped as a den of iniquity where poverty, crime, drugs, and violence proliferate. And to be ‘from the ghetto,’ signaled by Black skin, is to be burdened with a deficit of credibility, especially in the [w]hite spaces of the larger society where Blacks complete with others for place and position.

(p. 119)

Anderson thus illustrates how the ideological trope of the ghetto is used to lock Black people out of the white space, trapping them at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.  

Throughout the text, Anderson establishes that no Black person is exempt from the ghetto ideology. He extensively incorporates stories of Black people from different backgrounds—including his own—that demonstrate how the ghetto trope is applied to all Black people regardless of where they fall within the social strata. Many Black people may try to escape this categorization by employing white respectability politics, speaking the language of white spaces, and comporting themselves in ways that distance them from the ghetto, only to realize that it is their Black skin that deems them “ghetto” and of negative human capital. Anderson does not romanticize the ghetto or demonize it. Rather, using Philadelphia as his subject, he brings into focus the conditions, decisions, and activities of people who dwell in these “Black spaces” (p. 14), contextualizing them as the result of systemic anti-Blackness and discrediting narratives that blame Black people for their “self-destruction” (p. 120). He is critical of some Black people’s strategies to disassociate themselves from the ghetto, even as he acknowledges that these moves are necessitated by persistent institutional racism. 

Anderson candidly spotlights the problematic intragroup interactions and politics of distancing that deepen the isolation and oppression of the most marginalized Black communities.

Anderson also explicitly challenges the perception prevalent in white spaces that Black people are a monolith. He presents various communities of Black people (sometimes in admittedly essentializing ways) who have different relationships to and investments in the white space and the iconic ghetto. These differences often place Black communities at odds with each other, obscuring opportunities for solidarity. Anderson details competition and distrust between, for example, light-skinned Black people and Black people of darker hues, African Americans and recent Black immigrants, “ghetto-dwelling Black [people]” (p. 50) and those who live outside of the ghetto, and “the decent family and the street family” (p. 162). Anderson candidly spotlights the problematic intragroup interactions and politics of distancing that deepen the isolation and oppression of the most marginalized Black communities: Black people who are trapped in “the inner-city ghetto” (p. 123). 

To be clear, the text does not tell the complete story of Black people’s oppression in the US, as the author explicitly centers Black male experiences. Black people of other gender identities do not show up in any significant way. Black women and girls are mentioned, but they are not explored or humanized in the same way as Black men and boys throughout the book. The impact of race and socioeconomic status on the lives of Black males feature largely in Anderson’s analysis, but the intersections of race, gender, sexual identity, and patriarchy remain underexplored.

Furthermore, Anderson does not examine the subjugation of non-US-born Black people. He highlights how, in competition for resources and jobs, white people often select Black people with Caribbean or African heritage over African Americans. This ranking of Black people by white Americans is real, but, similar to social class, the ethnicity of Black people matters much less than the fact that they are Black in a white society. Anderson does not fully elucidate the reality that Black people, regardless of their heritage and place of birth, generally endure a similar plight under white supremacy. 

Black in White Space is one platform that makes visible the voices and experiences of Black people in the US, making public the conversations and information that many Black people share among themselves in their safe spaces.

Evidently, the full story of being Black in the US still needs to be told, and it is more than can be covered in one book. Black in White Space is one platform that makes visible the voices and experiences of Black people in the US, making public the conversations and information that many Black people share among themselves in their safe spaces. The text is not revelatory to Black people, but it is affirming. In documenting the oppression of Black people perpetrated through the mundane, day-to-day micro-deaths and negotiations of Black people that are not likely to be covered in the news or go viral, Anderson validates what Black people in the US already know to be true. Furthermore, by explicitly naming white spaces and the “iconic Black ghetto” (p. 12), Anderson exposes the ways in which race remains a “master status” (p. 24) that significantly impacts social interactions and life outcomes. Through his study, he illustrates that American society is oriented around color-based oppression, not color-neutrality, and a racial caste system, not post-racialism. In doing so, he exposes the human casualties of these racist forces, making plain the economic, social, psychological, and physical toll of living while Black in the white space that is the US.

In the end, Anderson suggests that diversity and inclusion alone do not equate to racial justice for Black people. As long as white supremacy and anti-Blackness exist, racial equality will be elusive, leaving Black people to remain stigmatized and profoundly oppressed as they navigate American society. More is needed.

Summing Up: Recommended. Undergraduates and graduate students.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – Sociology

Kamille Gentles-Peart is professor of communication studies at Roger Williams University. Having written and edited several books, including Romance with Voluptuousness (2016), her areas of expertise include Black feminisms, critical race studies, critical communication studies, Caribbean postcolonial studies, and beauty politics.