I began writing this article because of one news story that I’d come across but as I dug into the story and the facts and the history…it became a 3 part posting. There was so much I saw packed into that standard 250-300 word article and 5 minute news segment that wasn’t even touched that I felt sanctioned to explore it at length. So let’s go into it…
A few weeks ago the New York City Black Lives Matter chapter’s Memorial Day party where they asked that if people did not identify as part of the African Diaspora that they not attend. Of course the media went on a rampage and called it an “all Black party” and saying White people were “banned” from attending. This has been seen in other chapters such as the Philadelphia chapter that asked that White people not attend their strategy meeting in April. And in February the Students4Justice organization at the University of Michigan lobbied with the administration for a safe space for Black student organizing. They stated very plainly, “we want a space solely dedicated to community organizing and social justice work specifically for people of color.”
Black Only Spaces
In the new generation of activism “safe spaces” have become a major theme. However, the concept of safe spaces is not a new one. In the 1980’s there were feminist groups that refused to allow men to be members and/or attend their meetings. The notion of safe spaces seems to have its foundations in LGBTQ culture wherein things like “gay bars” or “gay clubs” were considered safe spaces for these individuals to express themselves without judgment or opposition. It was not explicitly stated that heterosexual people could not go to these places but the notion was that they wouldn’t because the environment catered to the LGBTQ population. In contemporary times we now see these gay spaces frequented by heterosexual people but there seems to be an unspoken acknowledgment that if you operate in those spaces you have to go with the flow of what is acceptable there and leave your personal opinions at the door.
In the context of Black resistance and activism there is a history of these groups being infiltrated by insurgents and intel gathered from their openness such as the Black Panther Party. There is also a history with the Suffrage movement led by Black and White women for both women’s and Black people’s right to vote. The two causes commingled and caused confusion with leaders (usually White men) feeling one should take priority over the other resulting in Black men being granted the right to vote years before women would.
That said, history shows us that in the realm of civil rights activism the cause cannot be universalized and people (not directly related to the population being advocated for) eclipsing or rearranging the priorities for that population. Lawrence Ross, author of Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, stated that:
“When it comes to marginalized groups on campus, those groups are usually brutalized by the freedom of expression coming from dominant groups, whether it’s white men sending racist emails or men [committing] sexual assault.”
While Ross is speaking regarding college campuses we know that college campuses are microcosms of the larger society and with the facts of history, I think his point is still relevant outside of that context. The point is that group being affected and advocated for has an imperative to lead their resistance sometimes without the thoughts and opinions of those allies outside the population. Otherwise they risk being “brutalized” – as Ross puts it – by the expression of those allies.
I have been in activist meetings and workshops where they will allow people of outside of the central population or demographic being advocated for to attend but not to contribute. I remember attending a workshop regarding masculinity and the empowerment of women and there were sections of the workshop that requested that the men not verbally contribute. I personally wasn’t offended and inherently understood why this might be a request. This is the more diplomatic way to address the issue.
Despite the media’s sensational coverage of the Memorial Day party (and I do understand this particular even wasn’t about organizing specifically and find that of no consequence), this subject isn’t a Black Lives Matter issue. Nor is it in opposition or counterproductive to the cause for which they stand and advocate, as some critics have posed (which is the exact reason you’re not wanted there because they would have spend their planning and organizing time debating and educating the ignorant). What it is: a social justice issue. Social justice groups are centered around a particular cause the is affecting a particular segment of the population and they (rightly so) feel the need to have spaces and times where it is just those affected populations that get to speak and share and think without the threat of being brutalized by the free expression of those who cannot and will not ever truly understand the struggle that they are facing. I don’t see anything disturbing about that. What is disturbing is that people not of that population (especially those who are members of the oppressing population) feeling so strongly about having to have the right and privilege to attend making such a fuss about it.
These groups are clearly expressing a concern with the presence of people who cannot directly identify with their struggle wanting to be so intimately engaged in it. What is that about?? That’s what really needs to be explored. Not why they don’t want White people in their gatherings, but why do White people want so badly to be there? The New York City chapter specifically and Black Lives Matter in general (from what I have seen and documented) have always welcomed the support of allies who are not people of color. All they have done is stated how they that support can best be given. They have that right. And I cannot imagine a true ally would be so enraged by this that they attack them for making that request. So that brings me to the second part of this…the blindness of the privilege that is at the root of that anger (if and when it exists)…
I’m not sayin; I’m just saying,
An Angry Black Man