Let’s Unpack This

‘White Only’ Signs Never Went Away, They Just Changed Form

From Cecil J. Williams to Trayvon Martin, someone is always thinking they have the authority to decide that we don’t belong

A “White Only” sign marks the way to a picnic area in this historical image. Photo: Getty Images

Black people defying racists in America makes my heart smile. One of my favorite defiant moments is memorialized in a picture of Cecil J. Williams. The picture, taken in 1956, features Williams drinking from a water fountain in South Carolina. He was on his way back from an assignment for Jet magazine—photographing the state’s segregated beaches—when he stopped at a closed filling station.

The “White Only” sign is clear. What’s also clear is that Williams isn’t White. This “problem” obviously meant nothing to Williams as his eyes pierced into the camera lens with what I’ve imagined is a smug sense of satisfaction. Ignoring the fact that his actions likely could’ve gotten him killed, what strikes me about the 66-year-old photo is that things haven’t changed much despite the passage of nearly seven decades.

“White Only” signs may no longer be in plain view in 2021, but Black people can still find heavy resistance to their presence from White people. Morehouse College’s debate team experienced this firsthand before they withdrew from the United States Universities Debating Championship (USUDC) this past April.

The USUDC hosted the 2021 championship at Penn State that month. The Morehouse team said they quit after experiencing racist taunts from their opponents. After a judge for one of their debate rounds dismissed their argument and awarded points to other teams, the men of Morehouse quit, believing their arguments weren’t given proper due. Later, they brought their complaints to the tournament’s equity team to no avail.

Apparently, such behavior at these tournaments is expected as Daniel Edwards, a senior member of the team, told ESPN’s The Undefeated they “will hear some crazy shit at a debate, and it’s usually going to be racist.” The Morehouse team’s story echoes that of another HBCU student, John Wilson IV, who had his own “White Only” moment on the tennis court.

Wilson played for North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University (NCAT) in 2018. One of his matches was against a White student named Spencer Brown. During the match, Brown said this to Wilson: “At least I know my dad.” The fact that Wilson had previously indicated three previous generations of Wilson men seemed irrelevant to Brown’s flawed and racist viewpoint.

For Wilson, those remarks were a small part of his longer tennis journey. In an interview with Black Tennis magazine, Wilson said he was familiar with racism in the sport and thought of them as natural occurrences. White players make up 81.2% of the sport while Black players only make up 6.8%.

White people reinforcing the notion they don’t want to share spaces with Black people isn’t all that shocking. In fact, it’s standard operating procedure, especially if some White people see Black people in a place they don’t believe Black people belong.

“White Only” signs are palpable when one considers George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin. Martin was in town with his father, but Zimmerman stalked and killed him because Martin, who was walking home from the gas station, “looked like he was up to no good.” This “White Only” mentality could be part of the foundation for the three White men who hunted and killed Ahmaud Arbery because they’d “never seen him in the neighborhood before.”

It’s also why a White man in New York asked a Black man in an apartment lobby “What are you doing in my building? I’ve never seen you before” while that Black man, who lives in the building, was minding his business and waiting for a Lyft ride to work. These racist incidents, the idea of being somewhere you don’t belong and having to explain your presence to some unknown White person, are intimately familiar to me.

Retail workers have followed me around stores because they thought I might steal something. A police officer once pulled me over and questioned whether the luxury car I bought a few months prior to the stop belonged to me. A lawyer friend recounted stories of entering courtrooms and White people accusing her of lying about her profession.

One might be tempted to defend those instances as actions with no malice intended. However, racism is so pervasive that all of it has a malicious impact. Even those “nonoffensive” inquiries are based on a negative stereotype of Black people firmly rooted in the idea we aren’t capable of making expensive purchases, driving luxury cars, or practicing law as a profession.

Those attitudes are the foundation for what Morehouse faced at Penn State and colored Wilson’s tennis career from Texas country clubs to NCAT tennis matches. It’s the same disdain shown toward Black men waiting in their lobbies and the kind of suspicion that kills Black boys walking home with Skittles and Black men jogging around a neighborhood.

White America has been unabashed in the notion that the country belongs to them, treating Black people like intruders who need to justify our presence. It’s a curious position to take for people who not only built the entirety of the American wealth system on our backs but violently forced our ancestors to come here in the first place.

Award-winning TV news journalist. Freelance writer. Mad question asker.

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