One of my Twitter faves recently tweeted this about something that happened to a friend of hers:
Existence of safe spaces does not preclude white people from participating in coalition work w/ POC. They don’t need us in that room.
— Sam Winn (@Sam_Winn) February 23, 2016
This friend was organizing meetings for local people of color to mobilize for the #blacklivesmatter movement in his public library. The library was happy to offer the space until they realized the meetings were meant to be for non-whites only and shut it down. Now, this person has to find new space for the meetings.
This kind of issue comes up quite a bit. It’s definitely a concern for people who don’t understand or care about issues of oppression. The so-called colorblind, neutrality-believers who don’t get that neutrality is a myth and all things are tinted by the systemic bias inherent to our society. They always have a problem with things like affirmative action and exclusive spaces.
I’m not talking to or about those folks. They still have a lot of work to do.
No, I’m talking about allies. Those folks who consider themselves to be woke and progressive and all about the cause, but who hate coming up against exclusive safe spaces to which they are not welcome or invited. Allies who want to fight alongside their marginalized counterparts but only want to do so on their own terms. Those are the people I’m talking to and about.
The fact is that people from the margins need safe spaces. We need places we can go to laugh, cry, scream, and shout among our own. We need exclusive spaces where we can curse our lot, speak our minds, and then dry our faces and take back up our fighting stances. We need places where we can be weak and vulnerable without being in danger or exposed.
As a black woman, I need space apart from white women to rage about how white women mistreat feminism. I need space apart from white men to rage about how white men mistreat blacks and women and black women. I even need space at times apart from my black brothers to rage about the patriarchy in our shared black community.
That doesn’t mean I hate white women or white men, and I certainly don’t hate my black brothers. But I need that space. And I need it to be exclusive.
Likewise, as a Christian, cisgender hetero woman with an able body and middle-class background, I understand that my atheist friends need space, my trans friends need space, my queer friends need space, my disabled and working-class friends need space apart from me to work through some of their struggle. And I understand that as a good ally, I need to respect, and at times help protect, that exclusive space.
To fight against that exclusive space as an ally is to insist that the struggle be centered on me, on my feelings, my needs, my desires. That is not good allyship. Being an ally means standing to the side and lending support. It does not mean being at the center. It does not involve performing theater as the star of the show.
I am forever grateful for my allies, for the white men and women, and the black men who stand in solidarity with me. But there are still places I need to go where they cannot follow. And that is okay.
Because good allies, true allies, will stand at the gates to the exclusive safe space and wait for me there.