The news lately has reminded us of a long list of things that black people can’t do without facing punishment. Far too often that punishment is deadly. Making eye contact with a police officer, failing to use a turn signal, playing music too loudly. Now you can apparently add laughing to that list, as 11 women, 10 of whom were black, were kicked off a wine train and met by the police for laughing and having too much fun together. The company initially released a statement claiming the women were physically and verbally abusive, but quickly rescinded it and admitted it was false. Brittney Cooper wrote a powerful response to people who would claim this has nothing to do with race:
Because no racial epithets or references were used when the complaints were lodged, it would be easy to attempt to see this incident as non-racial. This was just, as many would like to believe, the case of persnickety elite passengers complaining about other passengers, who were not respectful of the space. But such thinking betrays an inchoate and facile understanding of the ways that racism works. In April, a large group of Latino passengers were threatened with removal from the very same train for being too loud as well. Black and non-white bodies in white spaces are fundamentally disruptive. Even when they say nothing at all. If they dare to speak too loudly, punishment is frequently swift.
And we know this. Black people are exceedingly self-conscious about being perceived as too loud, too demanding, too anything in the upscale, usually white spaces that we sometimes have occasion to frequent. If you are Black and middle class, or aspire to the middle class, one of the things you learn early is how to navigate white spaces so that you are as inconspicuous as possible, so that you blend in. When my mother took me to restaurants as a child, I always had a tendency to speak a bit loudly. My mother would always lower her voice, look at me intently, and say, “keep it down! Your voice carries.” She was fastidious about training me never to encroach on the space of others, particularly in white space. I always understood the training to be about manners, rather than about race.
But everything is about race. It is about race because while being a loud person in shared space annoys most of us, being a loud Black person in shared, public space is read through a different order of magnitude. Being a loud Black person is perceived as not only annoying but as potentially threatening. For instance, a predominantly white women’s book club most likely would have been met, at most with angry or annoyed stares. Their being loud would at best have been understood as a dilemma that the train company and other passengers needed to make allowances for and accommodate.
One of the tragic things Cooper points out is the idea that black women can’t even enjoy themselves in public. “Why are Black women communing together enjoying themselves seen as an encroachment upon white people’s joy? Why is Black joy criminal?”
Lisa Renee Johnson, one of the women on the train, responded with a hashtag that summed it up well and brought out some powerful and amusing responses.
All we were guilty of is #laughingwhileblack
— Lisa Renee Johnson (@calisarenee) August 23, 2015
Colorlines has rounded up some of the tweets here.