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 this is the second installment…
In the previous post I looked at the concept of safe spaces. The concept has been widely criticized by the Baby Boomers whose concept of academic rigor and discussion is almost always characterized by combative language and intellectual side-stepping.But I didn’t really want to focus on that as much as discuss an aspect of the nature of safe spaces that I find to be included in most interpretations. That exploration led me to the question regarding why some people (usually White) are so offended by the notion of these spaces that are exclusively for underrepresented populations. This may bring into question the notion of allies because some of these people, although they are not people of color, do support the cause for which these groups fight. But then why do these allies feel like they have to be so intimately involved in order to lend their support? Why do they object to the idea that sometimes the best support they give is financial or to publicly speak in support of the cause rather than be a member of the group and/or hold position and have a voice within it?
Privilege is a strange creature. It exists and is felt so strongly throughout our culture; yet, those holding the privilege are so blithely unaware of it that they have difficulty recognizing when it is being exercised. Privilege much like many things in discrimination is so layered an nuanced it takes effort to peel back the layers and reveal and address what is underlying. Mainly because it is nebulous enough to afford the holder plausible deniability of its existence and power. But this is arguably one of the reasons that safe spaces have been created. Underrepresented groups spend much of their time in society debating, fighting, and lobbying for their existence and acknowledgment of the conditions of that existence. It is exhausting. And when it comes to organizing and strategizing resistance privilege often passively presents itself as a distraction from the purpose of the organizing. What has begun happening is these groups are asking for spaces where they can focus on their goals and not have to constantly take tangents to address the ignorance of privilege.
This is difficult for non people of color to understand because their privilege affords them the right and opportunity to, at any time in any place, make case for their grievances. There is always room for them to be heard so they can’t fathom not being able to do so. The other part is that because they are part of the dominant culture and afforded privilege they are not familiar with their gaze not being the desired or accepted.
I am reminded of an interview where Toni Morrison responded to a question that was posed to her about the fact that she writes about race with Black characters but there aren’t often White central characters in her works. Morrison explained that the question was off-putting for her because it presumed that Black people’s lives have “no depth or meaning without the White gaze.” She went on to talk about what she learned from reading the works of African writers and what it taught her:
Those writers who could assume the centrality of their race because they were African. And they didn’t explain anything to White people. Those [kinds] of questions were incomprehensible to them. Those questions that I would have as a minority living in an all White country like the United States. – There was a language, there was a posture, there were the parameters. I could step in now and I didn’t have to be consumed by or concerned by the White gaze. That was the liberation for me.
What was so powerful and what I connected with and now bring into this discussion is that safe spaces function in the way being described by Morrison regarding her disregard of the White gaze. Safe spaces offer the underrepresented to step into their own existence and assume the central position without having to explain themselves. White people do not understand how profound that is for someone whose voiced has often been snuffed out and whose presence always raises questions and whose differences are always critiqued and measured against a standard that is neither created for them or in consideration of them. This is what Jane Elliott teaches to White people in her “blue eyes/brown eyes exercise.” In brief her exercise allows White people to experience what it feels like to not only be discriminated against based on some characteristic that you have no power to change, but also to be silenced and have your perspective (or gaze) not be the dominant one.
That is one of the major qualities of privilege: you don’t have to prove or validate your position, it is assumed to be okay just because of the group in which you were born having dominance.
It could be argued that safe spaces (and a number of other concepts being lobbied for in the struggle for racial equality) seem to be in opposition to the principles for which the underrepresented group seems to be fighting. That’s through the white gaze. Because when we address the white gaze and white privilege and white supremacy we demand that they not see themselves as superior to us or treat us unfairly. Moving from that position to the position of equality for THEM means having to see the connectedness and similarities between the races but from the other side it means the underrepresented have to begin to psychologically assert the centrality if their race and their experience and they have to be able to learn to think and act and function without having a gaze other than their own be a priority or even a thought.
People of color exist every day dually affirming themselves and their culture but being keenly aware of what effects any of those expressions will have on the non people of color and what consequences will follow. This is what W.E.B. DuBois spoke about in his theories on double consciousness. It’s this constance existing in two worlds at once. What safe spaces is about is suspending privilege and for a period of time and/or in a particular space allow the underrepresented to learn themselves and each other without and exist without that burden. Certainly in the barest of objective analysis it seems unequal. Maybe it is. But it’s fair. I am reminded of what one of my college professors (an attorney, activist and former Black Panther) used to say: What is fair isn’t always equal.
I’m not sayin; I’m just saying,
An Angry Black Man