The activism context we live in today is much more complicated than it has ever been. More often, we see people who haven’t previously engaged in racial justice feel pulled to address structural racism. Social media has driven this trend, by allowing greater access to activist content. Yet the message on how to be a productive participant is still not getting through. Further, social media has created a dynamic where being a white ally has become part of cultivating an image of being on the “right” side of things, or being “woke.” This is motivating engagement but not necessarily critical thinking around positioning and how to appropriately enter the space of racial justice work, in that the space of racial justice work must always remain centered around People of Color.
Although there’s a lot of talk about how white spaces need to stop being white spaces, there haven’t been enough conversations on how racial justice spaces can be co-opted into white spaces and the role white allies play in this process – and sometimes, the space people of color create, permit, and tolerate whiteness.
First, it is important to know how to identify white spaces. The term “white space” has been increasingly used without a holistic definition or understanding of the variety of situations that can be defined as white spaces. We want to nuance the understanding of what qualifies as a white space.
The assumption that a space needs to be majority white for it to be a white space is false. Our definition of white space is any space in which discussion and critical analysis operate by prioritizing white people’s feelings and needs, creating a deference to whiteness. A white space is also an environment in which the discourse and rhetoric is maintained to be falsely race-neutral, allowing whiteness to serve as the default. It is important to note here that any space that fails to establish and maintain accountability to center the lived experiences and concerns of people of color becomes a white space. If it is a space that requires People of Color to “understand” or “excuse” whiteness for the benefit of everyone getting along or whatever, it is already a white space.
So, how do environments like this perpetuate? In order to understand how white spaces are created and maintained, it is important to understand the workings of white fragility. White fragility is the broad term for a phenomenon in which white people’s intrusive/unproductive feelings about race (white guilt, white savior complex, belief in ‘reverse racism,’ etc.) are permitted, protected, or accepted because people ‘mean well.’ This concept allows white people’s feelings to frequently inconvenience activists of color and prioritizes white feelings over POC action. White fragility is a prerequisite and a warning sign for impending toxic interpersonal conflict, because white people are given permission to lash out when their “hand-wringing’ is not met with gratitude or validation that being upset makes them a ‘good white person.’ Basically, environments that permit behavior associated with white fragility are prioritizing the existential crises associated with whiteness over actual racial justice work. White fragility is, unfortunately, a pervasive norm, and can be found plaguing classrooms, social media comment sections, and organizational meetings with frustrating frequency.
Here are some examples of permitting and maintaining white spaces & how to push back against the momentum of whiteness:
1) Assuming that there are two valid opinions to regarding race, racism, and racial equity.
This is a case of false equivalency. If there is an opinion that erases or justifies structural racism, this stance cannot coexist in a space that is centering people of color. This may not always pan out in a clearly identifiable debate. It can be one white person who wants their needs elevated over the others. White entitlement can slide in at anytime to position itself as “valid” over a person of color’s concerns or needs. An extreme example would be being sympathetic to #AllLivesMatter over #BlackLivesMatter. A more subtle example might be from the intersection of poverty and whiteness debunking the need to prioritize structural racism. These days, even intersectionality can be used to erase the need to prioritize racial justice. Intersectionality should be used to uplift those who are at multiple margins and not for putting down people of color. It’s important to note that the Oppression Olympics is not a game and that there are plenty of other spaces to work on non-race related anti-oppression work. If you want to protect the space from turning into a white space, you need to remove the person and have a private conversation. It needs to be clear that the space will stay centered around People of Color and that sneaky cases of false equivalency will not be allowed to water down space intended for racial justice work.
2) Excusing racial harassment and microaggressions in the name of intent.
The assumption that a “good” person cannot exhibit “racist” behavior is false. People do not have to be hateful to be racist. It is the impact of what was said that matters more than the intent Thus, the perpetrator of a microaggression or racial harassment should not be excused with “Oh, they didn’t mean it,” which erases accountability and the lesson of the issue – racism. Rather, it is important to center the hurtful impact on the person of color and do everything to keep the space from turning into a white space. Many spaces excuse white people’s mistakes to create “learning experiences.” We want to challenge these spaces to confront the question: At what cost to People of Color are white people given learning spaces? And have People of Color left the space because your community has centered the “unintentional” white perpetrators? If you want to keep the space centered on People of Color, you need to address the incidents of racial harassment and microaggression and explicitly place the burden on the perpetrator rather than the victim. There should also be no pressure put on the victim Person of Color to “forgive” the white person. The community can convene to talk about how others can go about owning their mistakes and the work white allies will commit to being better.
3) Permitting White Savior Complex Mentality.
There are so many examples of the white savior complex. Assuming that an initiative or racial justice movement requires white people in order for a movement to be successful is the basic ground in which white savior complex operates on. Another case is where white allies view themselves as neutral individuals who are “out of the goodness of their heart” just trying to help and believe they deserve credit for that – without seeing that their ancestors have been part of creating, maintaining, and benefitting from structural racism. White people don’t need to be in power for them to transform the space to be white. Their existence, taking up space, being there is enough to risk transforming a racial justice space into a white space.
A common example is when positions for diversity leaders are taken by white women, white gay men, or white queer people. This transforms the space that was to uplift people of color into a white role. Initiatives, and groups with less resources, are more likely to become white spaces because help is needed, they don’t prioritize racial equity, lose sight of race consciousness, are taken over by white allies, or because white allies are encouraged to take the space when they shouldn’t have been encouraged to do so. Ignorance on white allies’ side, form of laziness in recruitment for racially diverse candidates.
Even spaces that started with people of color can uplift white people and permit white savior complexes. It could start from the thinking that there aren’t any people of color who can fill leadership positions. People of color can fall victim to white fragility and encourage white people to “learn” and get involved. It could also be the result of fear of interpersonal conflict that can arise from white fragility.
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These are three common ways that a racial justice space can be co-opted into becoming a white space. We wanted to include racial justice leaders of color in this conversation because power and authority should be held accountable in keeping racial justice spaces safe for all people of color. It is important for both white allies and RJ leaders to know that racial justice spaces should be for people of color, not for white allies to use to educate themselves. The momentum behind white deference is part of how our society operates. Because people of color have also been raised in this society that centers whiteness, it is crucial for all of us to identify whiteness, then continuously recenter the space to be focused on people of color.
Taeyin ChoGlueck & Lauren Morisseau