Why Do So Many White People Get Upset by "Safe Spaces" for People of Color?
A lot of white people who think safe spaces (and the like) are racist were raised with the idea that racism is resentment/bigotry against people of a different race than yourself. I know that I was.
I believed that so deeply that when I attended my first anti-racist workshop in high school, I was incredibly defensive and didn’t listen. It took years to realize that what I’d been taught about racism was wrong. Not only wrong, but actually harmful.
What we white people have been taught about racism in school and in our families is a lie that’s actually meant to stop progress in dismantling racism.
Imagine someone beats you and your friends up every day, and one day you say, “I can’t stand being beat up. I think me and my friends should get together and talk about how we feel about this and what we can do to make it stop.” But all of a sudden, all the folks who beat you all up daily are complaining because they think it’s just as wrong for you to have a separate group to talk about what to do about them. And all those people’s friends are defending them too. They want to come to your group, too, and express their feelings, like how they’re sad because they feel like you’re pointing the finger at them when they didn’t even do it, it was their friend who did it. Suddenly your group is overrun by your attackers and the friends of your attackers, who all want a turn to say how it feels to feel so attacked and victimized by your group’s existence.
And yet, the next day after your group, you and your friends still get beat up. You didn’t get a chance to talk about what to do, because you were so busy with the feelings of people who felt upset because you formed your group and excluded them from it. You tell the friends of your attackers, “Hey, why don’t you talk to your friends instead? Help them understand they have to stop attacking us. You say you sympathize, so please, help us change things.”
And they say, “Hey, this shouldn’t be our responsibility. We didn’t attack you.”
It doesn’t take long to figure out that these friends-of-the-attackers don’t really want you to make any progress at all. Because anything you can do that works to solve the problem, they don’t like it. They even make up theories about how if you would just stop mentioning the problem, it would stop. You’re perpetuating it by talking about it, they say. You should really just stop pointing the finger.
And every day, you and your friends still get beat up. But now you’re not even supposed to mention it. Somehow, someday, this will solve the problem, according to the buddies of your attackers.
The lie that white people have been taught about racism is that it isn’t our fault, either individually or as a group. If it isn’t our fault, it isn’t our responsibility, and we can go on tearing down people of color when they try to speak out.
We can turn their logic against them and insist that them talking about being attacked, or oppressed, or undermined, is the same as the act itself. We can try to undermine every way that people of color try to change the situation. Unfortunately, that’s what we usually do.
The scary and awful truth is that racism is something that white people did to the rest of the world. It’s not bigotry against people who are different - it’s a whole complex ideology of lies about why white people are superior and deserve more, going back hundreds of years. It’s always been about making white people, specifically, superior in society.
People of color did nothing to bring this on themselves. It’s not a battle with wrongs on both sides. It’s a systemic, complicated, economic and social war that our white ancestors waged to make sure they, and we, their descendants, came out on top.
It’s still going on, today. So if you do want things to be better, you can start by supporting people of color in the ways they fight this battle, even when it makes you uncomfortable. No, you’re likely not going to feel ‘included.’ You can’t decide how people of color fight, and sometimes you might hear things said about white people that hurt your feelings or make you feel uncomfortable.
Recognize that this is necessary, it’s a side effect of things that have to happen so that the situation can change. In fact, it's even a crucial part of a change you can make within yourself so that you can stop accidentally fighting for the side of the attackers, and start making space for the resisters, start speaking to other white people about racism, and start helping a better world into being.