Or, why you cannot jump into PoC spaces and you don’t get an explanation. Except for this. This is your explanation.
If you haven’t read Part 1 in this series, please start there.
If you are white, at some point in your life you will have noticed and been offended by the fact that black people sometimes need spaces that are exclusively for themselves, and that you are not welcome in them.
If you’ve taken a gander at a history book, you may have noticed that the defining quality of whiteness as a historical actor is that it refuses to take no for an answer.
Whiteness doesn’t believe in consent. See: colonization.
Whiteness doesn’t believe in autonomy. See: slavery.
Whiteness doesn’t believe in dignity. See: forced assimilation.
Because of this history, I frequently use the term white racial terrorism to describe not only a century of Jim Crow, but the preceding three centuries of whiteness used explicitly to dehumanize, subjugate, and oppress black and brown people. The happy slave/happy sharecropper was a myth created by whiteness to preserve its own belief in its inherent goodness. Black people have always had voices, and we have always condemned these experiences.
Where white people are blissfully ignorant of their history, because whiteness was designed to treat ignorance as a moral reset button, people of color are often (reasonably) reticent to trust white people because of past broken trust. These phenomenon often becomes more acute as we age, because our tolerance for bullshit goes down, but many people pass this cultural distrust on to their kids.
Whiteness is a supremacist construct created by white people which has used its power to functionally remove itself from its history. Instead of being called white people, whiteness just says “people.” Everyone else is othered. This creates a need and desire for spaces where our humanity is not questioned.
Conservatives mock and deride “safe spaces,” but as a matter of fact, the data supports them. (You can read about racism, stress, and the associated health disparities thereof here and here to start.) White liberals feel entitled to safe spaces, failing to realize that they are often weaponizing their privilege within those spaces to do damage to the very people of color they claim to be fighting for. Working in diversity recruitment in higher ed, white liberals frequently try to get white students into the few spots set aside for underrepresented minorities. This isn’t a political issue, it’s an issue of whiteness.
As a brief reminder, I am not writing these pieces because black people are fragile and need protection from reality. I am writing these pieces because black people are under attack by latent, passive white supremacy. The point is not that black people need safe space away from white people. We’ve survived worse than your constant microaggressions over brunch. What we need is to be in a space where we know our humanity will be affirmed and celebrated. Access to such a space is essential to anyone’s mental health.
If you’re working to be a good white friend, you need to be willing to see our need for spaces to ourselves from the perspective of our collective, historical trauma. With this in mind, white people and nonblack people of color (NBPOC) need to be willing to not only protect those spaces for us, but to celebrate them.
It’s Just Easier
Stop taking it personally. Black people don’t want safe spaces or spaces free of white people because white people are inherently bad. Generally we want black spaces because white people are exhausting. Without realizing it, during any casual conversation, white people will inevitably speak as though their experiences are universal.
A few days after the birth of my first child, I was visiting some friends. We were chatting about all things parenting when my newborn opened his eyes.
“Oh! He has blue eyes!” my friend said, to which his wife immediately responded, “All babies are born with blue eyes.”
My immediate thought, while holding my baby, was, “Wow, you’re in your 30s and you’ve never seen a brown baby in your life. How is that possible?” It wasn’t an attack on my humanity, it was just a definitive statement spoken ignorance, as though it was universal. I have no idea what color eyes “all babies” have. I just know mine, my siblings’ and my dad’s eyes have never been blue.
Over time, through my decades of living life as a black person, these conversations, the assumption of white universality, become more work than it’s worth. It’s emotional waterboarding. You can handle some water on your face, but eventually the cloth gets soaked and you start to suffocate. Or, for another metaphor: being hit once won’t kill you. Most of the time, it’s not even worth mentioning--it’s just a shove on the sidewalk, a bump in the hallways. But being hit in the same spot multiple times a day for 20, 30, 40 years? Telling someone to just get over it (hit) is an unreasonable expectation.
Whiteness is Entitlement
As I have already said, to inherit whiteness, means that your heritage is the assumption that there is no place you do not belong. There is no place whiteness does not expect to be accommodated. Whiteness is arrogance and presumption. Everyone around whiteness is expected to defer to it, and historically has done so.
If you have ever seen a white person’s response to not being allowed in a space that was specifically designed and created for black people and/or NBPOC, you have seen this arrogant presumption on full display.
Whiteness does not abide being told that it does not have a right to enter a space. The hysteria which follows white people being banned from any space is proof positive of this fact. Whiteness is also incredible at erasing its own racist history, as you may remember when I note that whiteness has historically excluded PoC from, not only white spaces, but shared HUMANITY. Yet somehow, when black people ask for temporary reprieve from the dehumanization we experience daily in shared or white spaces, this is asking too much and accommodating our needs is a bridge too far.
When the question of a safe black space is examined in the historical context of a half a millenium of white racial terrorism on this continent, giving us a room being set aside where whiteness is not welcome a few hours is hardly anything to ask, least of all an affront to the humanity of white people. But again, whiteness doesn’t function with a solid grasp on its own terrorist history (that’s part of the definition of whiteness, after all), so it is forced to erase it and pretend said erasure equals a moral reset.
Let’s examine this. Let’s say, god forbid, someone were to kidnap your child. Say, your child was locked in a basement and beaten every day. Say, after a year of daily beatings, your child is released -- dropped off the next state over. Your child is grateful to be free, but has no idea how to get home. Eventually you reconnect.
Six weeks later, you get a phone call. Your child’s captor owned up to what he did. When he arrives in court, he claims enough time has passed that your child should be over the year of abuse. This person informs the judge that he cannot be held responsible for his actions because too much time has passed, and anyway, your child still the same amount of opportunity as their peers to become a well-rounded, functional member of society.
The judge agrees, saying it would be unwise to over react or respond out of anger. Your child’s kidnapper is allowed to walk free, and then follows you and your child to the restaurant where you are getting lunch after the hearing, and sits down at your booth with you and refuses to leave.
This is how whiteness expects to be treated in America in 2019. “Enough time has passed.” (Hit.) “It’s time to get over it.” (Hit.) “No one can be held responsible.” (Hit.) “I like your food, let me have some.” (Hit.) “This recipe is great, let me start a business using your secret sauce!” (Hit.Whiteness seeks to erase its past from the narrative and avoid examination precisely because it knows its guilty. In America, we have an ahistorical, revised version of events (an ahistoricity which is the heart of the American dream) and which leaves out the very purpose of the creation of whiteness in the first place. The desire to avoid responsibility for the effects of white supremacy is the overarching force of its presence in society today.
Just because your whiteness is invisible to you does not mean it is invisible to people of color. The white experience is FAR from universal.
But I’m One of the Good Ones!
Because whiteness is always working to be invisible and projects that invisibility on to others through racial colorblindness, it causes harm. If you cannot see me and my unique needs, you will inevitably end up causing harm through ignorance or inaction.
Whereas black people are lumped together as a collective or a monolith, white people are seen and act as individuals. They enter spaces as individuals. Not merely as part of a demographic. There is no weight of whiteness because whiteness is weightless. Neutral. Invisible. If you understood the weight of your whiteness, you would not WANT to go spaces where you weren’t wanted. You would understand the responsibility that comes with being white and having privilege. If you were the kind of white person who would be a safe co-conspirator, you wouldn’t WANT to be in a black or NBPOC space uninvited.
What White People Can Do Instead
Instead of pouting, support our efforts. I know you have FOMO but it’s going to be OK. You’re doing us a BIG FAVOR by staying out and vocalizing your support for black joy and black healing.
This is pretty straightforward. Donate. Give directly.
Maybe you don’t have cash to spare. You can still give! Use your connections to help people of color. Make yourself available as a resource or a contact. Support the causes your friends of color are raising awareness for and promoting.
Go Where You ARE Invited
I need to say this again, because white people who want to do right ask me about this all the time. GO WHERE YOU ARE INVITED. Just because people of color need some space doesn’t mean all events FOR people of color are meant to exclude you. Most are completely inclusive of white people, but in my experience white people do not often show up.
Find a mixer in your town for professionals of color. Find out if there is a black nonbelievers group meeting in your city. One of the best ways to be a supportive friend, ally, and co-conspirator is to go TO places that are for people of color as a showing of support. It’s consistently disappointing how few white people show up to these events.
Pay People of Color to Educate You
Again. Straightforward. Don’t let your commitment to educating yourself lead you to recreate segregated spaces. Pay people of color who want to do the work to educate you. Pay them well. We take a LOT of risk to do this work. Including harassment, death threats, stalking. We believe a better world is possible but we need you to help us build it.
Ditch The White Guilt
OK, here’s the thing. That white guilt you’re carrying around? It helps no one. Complaining about your racist ancestors? It doesn’t have any bearing on the work you’re doing today and frankly I don’t want to hear it. It’s exhausting and, to quote my friend Austin, I am not the high priest for the white soul. I do not exist to absolve you of your ancestors’ evil. Leave me out of that.
Ditch the guilt. Deal with that on your own time. When you’re working in spaces with people of color, leave the white guilt at home. That’s not out problem.
You didn’t choose to be white but you can choose how to use your whiteness. Are you going to use it to nitpick black people over things that don’t really matter? Who is harmed by a white person not being allowed in an all-black space? Who is harmed by you not being allowed to say the n-word? Who is harmed by you choosing not to police our language?
When you use your whiteness as a tool to micromanage blackness, no one wins. However, whiteness is privilege and you can spend some of yours to be a good friend, ally, co-conspirator in the work of justice. I will remind you that spending your privilege on behalf of the marginalized will not get you anywhere in a capitalist, white supremacist society.. If privilege were currency socked away in an account, your financial advisor would tell you in no uncertain terms that standing up for black and NBPOC is not a wise investment. You’re either ok with taking that hit, or you aren’t.
True friendship with black people has a cost. It will cost you your pride and your upward mobility, at the very least. It could cost you your employment and your future plans. History has clearly documented that there is much work to be done to make restitution for four centuries of systemic oppression. This is where you can begin the work.
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