Quoted: Joshunda Sanders on Being a Black Woman in Austin, Texas

Austin sunrise image, courtesy of StuSeeger on Flickr
Austin sunrise image, courtesy of StuSeeger on Flickr


For someone so sentimental, I’m unsettled and surprised by my lack of sentimentality about Austin, about moving back to the East Coast. The people I love here who have shaped the experiences that made this feel so close to home for me all know about the non-narrative Austin, the pseudo-nirvana blind to its hidden luxuries and congratulatory, smug stubbornness. Like San Francisco, bless its heart, Austin prefers topical niceties over excavation, and redefines progressive intention, sentiment and fantasies as akin to thought and action.

This is part of what makes Austin and Texas exhausting locations for black people, especially black women. As in its liberal cousin hubs, like Berkeley and San Francisco, I feel a hypervisible invisibility in Austin. Like people are happy to see me because it means that they are not racist, because, look, there is a real, live black woman here, too, and it’s so great that she didn’t have to come in the back or that she’s enjoying a fine meal, too. More often than not, my presence provokes a stare from non-black people pregnant with class and gender assumptions and limitations. Put another way, even though I’m a homeowner, people frequently assume that I must be visiting from where all the black people live. Polite racism is still racism, and because black people with brown skin in particular are unable to pass as anything but, I would argue that people hear most often from us about bias in Austin and Texas because there is no way to blend in or avoid the subject.

This is no different from America. But at least in more racist pockets of Texas, I know where I stand. I mean, I know to stay the hell out of Vidor. But knowing your role in Austin is much trickier. There is no resting place. A tense smile in a liberal hub is a maddening, dangerous thing. It is to be placed in a category upon first meeting that requires black women to spend their social time and experiences treading lightly while we assert and affirm our individuality, knowing that we are often educating our well-meaning friends and while they appreciate it, it is repetitive, never-ending, tiring work. If they are not awkward (and it is a naturally awkward topic, race) or defensive, responses about racial stratification here prompt a white flag: hopelessness, a kind of dreaded silence, an acknowledgment of the awkward position of black women here, a change of subject.

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  • Zambos79

    This has been my experience living in Austin. For quite a while, I have felt invisible. And yes, it is better than some horrific places I have visited, e.g. some of the outskirts of Atlanta, it still has a long way to go.

  • otros_corazones

    Wow, this could have been written about Portland, OR too.
    Thanks! Much appreciated for giving voice to a hard-to-describe feeling of navigating White liberal spaces.

  • Secretsquid

    Meet my sister-in-law! She will praise people as if they were 5 years old. But I don’t know the liberal mind set. But there are conservatives and their are rednecks. Liberals come in many flavors. Some mean well I’m sure. I wonder if there is a sociology books on these different behaviors.

  • nicthommi

    I really love this article. I’m a black woman living in the Bay and 3 years here have felt like 30. This pretty much sums up my entire existence here. I would NOT recommend it b/c she captures quite beautifully how people who have their own personal bubble to live in aren’t necessarily feeling what the rest of us experience. White people esp. can’t understand why i don’t think this is the best place I’ve ever lived…and living around people who can’t see past their own experience is not something I want to continue to be surrounded by.
    “Hypervisible invisibility”…I’m going to borrow that the next time asks me to describe what it feels like being here.

  • Erik

    Austin has a long long history of segregation. It has a rich African-American, Asian, and Chican@ history, but it’s also a city where if you are not White, you know where this “liberal” town will put ya. This is a good article from Cecilia Balli that appeared in the Texas Monthly. http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/what-nobody-says-about-austin

  • rebster

    I have talked about some of these same issues with African-American friends of mine (women). I have heard similar things from them about their experiences in Austin. It makes me incredibly sad and angry that this place that has so much potential falls so short most of the time. So glad JS wrote this piece. It is not a story that gets told publicly very often. Our public narrative eschews any thought that we in the liberal bastion of Texas may be racist ourselves. That’s _other_ places in Texas.

  • Secretsquid

    Austin is liberal! At least they TRY. Patronizing is insulting, though. I got that feeling in London as an American.