An exploration of the physical frontiers that define race in America

Examining notions of race in our own backyards

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Forest Whitaker

Forest Whitaker at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival (Photo Credit: David Shankbone via Creative Commons License)

Back in February, Academy-Award winning actor Forest Whitaker was publicly frisked at an upscale New York City deli after being falsely accused of shoplifting. The event became national news in light of commentary that Whitaker’s race played a role in the employee’s decision to frisk him.

This past week, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times on the topic. In the article, Coates notes: “In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs.” Coates points to the Whitaker story, however, as an example of the type of systematic racism that is propagated by even the most sincere, ostensible ‘nice’ people. His take on the matter is colored by his extensive experience with the deli, which is in his neighborhood and is one of his favorites.

Coates concludes the article by urging society to fight against the tendency to immediately forgive people for subtly racist sentiments. This is an intriguing point in its own right, and the opinion piece is well worth a read. But it is particularly fascinating to me that Coates had such a strong reaction to the Whitaker event, taking the time to address it in an article, primarily because it happened in his own backyard.

Our conceptions of race are very much shaped by the environments we live and grow up in. Our home environments become normal for us; they serve as our barometer for our worldly experiences. Any disruptions to this environment can be alarming, but disruptions that are racially tinged or motivated can be especially upsetting. It’s something I experienced personally when federal immigration agents raided a predominantly Latino neighborhood less than two miles from where I went to school. It’s something that Coates experienced when a world-famous actor was frisked in a ritzy deli on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

It’s a testament to the deep interconnection between our conceptions of race and the spaces that we inhabit that such localized events can spark such strong responses, even on a national scale.


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