Race, Social Justice

We deserve a safe space as people of color, too

These very white saviors are outraged at us for speaking up.

Women of color are never seen as activists in our own right. We’re the submissive frightened creatures who need to be rescued, perpetual victims in need of rescue by white saviors. But what happens if we want share our experiences of exclusion and marginalization with others who’ve gone through similar discrimination?

Those very saviors are outraged at us for – wait for the irony – speaking up.

The lesson here is clear. Minorities are great when we can be used as a cause – as their cause, mainly – but not when we mobilize ourselves to learn and heal from our pain.

Talking and sharing in safe spaces is that tiny first step. It lets you know, when it feels overwhelming, that you’re not alone and it will be okay. It will get better. Our lived experiences as people of color are important. They matter. Our voices will be heard.

A few weeks ago at Ryerson University in Canada, two white students were told they couldn’t attend a safe space event on campus hosted by the Racialized Students’ Collective. They were asked if they had experienced such discrimination and when they answered they had not, they were told they couldn’t be part of it.

The collective denying them entry, of course, quickly turned into a bit into a bit of a hullabaloo over reverse racism and the validity of exclusive safe spaces. But let’s break this down a little.

Both were first year journalism students who wanted to cover the event as an assignment. Okay, but a “safe space” usually means an event isn’t open to media. Why choose this event?  It was open to the public, yes, but how hard is it to grasp that members of the public who wanted to attend could be marginalized groups who usually aren’t offered a platform, let alone one where they can feel comfortable enough to talk sincerely about their experiences?

“It felt really bad… kind of embarrassing,” one of the two students said of the experience. I will acknowledge that it must have hurt, a basic courtesy rarely afforded to people of color. But while her feelings are valid, they are not more important than the students who sought and more so felt the need for a space to speak freely, without judgment or intimidation.

Micro aggressions daily faced by people of color, whose culture, work and ideas are all up for grabs, and ready to be consumed and appropriated and turned into a steady stream of profit. Remember last year, when Peshawari chappals were sold as “Robert” footwear by Paul Smith? (After making headlines and drawing condemnation, Smith has since added a gentle acknowledgement that the sandals are “inspired” by the Pakistani chappals.)

Imagine not being able to go a week without experiencing a moment where it feels “really bad.” Maybe all you friends are traveling together, but only one person’s bag is ripped open and checked by security. Or maybe you‘re wearing shalwar kameez while going about your day, as my friend Anam Syed did, and you get stares and weird looks – but then Kendall Jenner wears it, and suddenly it’s high fashion.

Or imagine being a six-year-old little brown girl, and hearing your friend say, “I wish all of you were killed,” after the London 7/7 suicide bombings. Now that little girl is grown up and wants to share that pain, the hurt and anger she felt.

Shouldn’t she get to talk about how it felt “really bad”?

I’m trying hard to be level headed about this and not go off on a tangent starting with dear white people, but seriously, dear white people there is no such thing as reverse racism, which  is my second thing.

While covering the incident, The National Post dropped this gem in: “One top-rated comment on Reddit Canada noted wryly that after the students had been asked to leave because they had never been marginalized “they could have changed their answer to ‘yes, just now.’”

No. That’s not how systematic institutionalized oppression works. Don’t take my word for it; read this essay by Peggy McIntosh, an associate director at Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.

“I could think of myself as belonging in major ways and of making social systems work for me,” McIntosh, a white woman, wrote in her essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. “I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely. As my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit, in turn, upon people of color.”

I found this excerpt on a handout promoting multiculturalism in classrooms on Ryerson’s website.

“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group,” McIntosh adds. She’s asking people around her to acknowledge their privilege.  The marginalised group has no onus to educate others, and those who haven’t been systematically oppressed should not comment on how people of color choose to talk about their lived experiences.

But back to the Racialized Students Collective.

“Right now it’s almost like they’re suggesting they can make racialization go away (and that) if everyone who has been racialized just talks… it will magically go away,” Trevor Hewitt, the other student who was denied entry to the event, said.

The statement is disingenuous. The burden cannot be placed on a group of people that are not the dominant power group, have zero control over other people’s actions, and are the receptors of racism.

It is not on them to make racism go away.

Guess whose job that would be, Hewitt? Take a wild guess.