This is a post directed at fellow white people – I want to talk a little bit about spaces created expressly for people of color (POC), and why we need to stuff any objections to these kinds of spaces. I know this is a tall order. After all, as white persons, we are pretty much able to go anywhere we want without worrying about racial harassment or police violence. And yet, that is precisely why we need to be understanding, sensitive, and even affirming of spaces that deliberately exclude white folks: because we don’t know what’s it’s like to exist in US society without this privilege of movement.
Before I jump in here let me make the following obvious disclaimer: I know white people can be victims of violence (particularly gun violence, which happens daily), and can thus be afraid of certain spaces. But, I think we both know that’s not relevant to this particular discussion, so let’s move on.
I’ve been thinking about this topic a bit because of a few things that have popped up in my social media feeds (or sosh meeds, as John Hodgman would say). First was this episode of the Louisville podcast Strange Fruit, in which writer Kelsey Blackwell discusses the importance of POC-only spaces. Blackwell writes about the near-constant anxiety of being in integrated spaces, particularly the tendency to always have to talk about race, racial inequality, or white feelings about these issues, which means she and other POC rarely have a chance to breathe and be their true selves:
If you’re white, you have a choice about whether or not you engage in uncomfortable conversations about race, and you have a choice about how much you feel the racial inequities of our society. If you’re a person of color, however, conversations about race are unavoidable—we’re pulled into them whether we’ve invited such discourse or not. White people often interpret our mere presence in a room as an opportunity to talk about race, and these are not conversations we always want to have.
I encourage you to read that entire piece, linked above, because Blackwell explains this topic really well.
The second encounter I had recently regarding this topic was regarding the collective organization Veggie Mijas. I started following their Instagram account after hearing about them on Representative Alexendria Ocasio-Cortez’s own Instagram. They describe themselves as: “a women of color / non-binary folks of color / femmes of color collective, in which we highlight the importance of having a plant-based lifestyle while also intersecting race, gender identity, class, and sexuality; being brown, Latinx, non-binary, women, queer, genderqueer, coming from a working class background, and having other marginalized identities.” Their potlucks, meetings, and other events are strictly POC-only and it seems that some white women have gotten a little mad about this, accusing the group of being “non-inclusive” in their work. But for Veggie Mijas, the groups maintains these spaces as exclusively non-white because they are working toward a larger goal of liberation that includes non-human animals, marginalized persons, and traditional cultural practices, and they want to do so without having to worry about white people and their feelings.
And that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it? White feelings. I can admit, when I first saw an IG post about the latest Veggie Mijas yoga and vegan potluck meetup, I feel a little pang of sadness/wistfulness that I couldn’t be a part of such a cool event. But instead of immediately firing off accusations to the organizers, I sat with my feelings for a minute and interrogated my response. Why did I feel that way? It’s not like the event was anywhere near where I live, so what’s up with this? As a white woman, I am used to being centered in discussions of veganism and animal rights, so to be deliberately shifted out of this conversation felt different. It felt kinda bad at first. But it was a situation that required I check my own privilege and instead respect and promote the work that Veggie Mijas does.
In thinking through these ideas, I am reminded of Harriet Jacobs’ enslavement narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. After Jacobs has been secreted away to the Free States, she feels as though she is constantly walking on eggshells around white people. First and foremost, she does not trust them, because her life in enslavement taught her that white folks lie. A lot. But she also worries about making them upset, as she laments that she cannot move her daughter from the household of the Hobbs family, “for fear of offending them.” The Hobbs family were short of money, and Jacobs worries about reminding them of this embarrassing fact whenever she sends her daughter supplies. After all, they could potentially sell her daughter into enslavement just to make a few dollars. And so, she protects white people’s feelings at all costs in order for her and her children to survive.
Above all else, white people have access to everything, and we are more often than not in white-only spaces, even though it may not be a deliberate personal choice we make to do so. But the fact remains that we can count on seeing other white people, perhaps seeing only other white people, and we never have to worry about feeling out of place based on our race. But POC do. Thus, POC-only spaces are a simple way for non-white folks to center themselves and to feel safe. I can remember just one time in my life when I was the only white person in a space. I was in elementary school, and had gone to an event with an African American friend of mine that was (IIRC) at her church. At one point toward the end, we all got into a prayer circle that stretched around the room, and I saw that I was the only white person, child or adult, present. I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable, and I don’t remember feeling unsafe. I would best describe my feelings as awkward and out of place. But what I cannot say is that I felt threatened or like I had to defend my existence to all the other people in that room, or like I had to engage in an exhausting conversation about race and how I feel about it.
So, do a thought experiment and imagine for a moment whether you’d like to be a POC in a room filled with white people. My guess is the answer’s no – and so now you might appreciate the need for POC-only spaces.