You might think that people who feel marginalized, discriminated against, or just plain unwelcome who decided to come together to discuss issues of mutual concern and build community would find a welcome place at an institution of higher education. You would be wrong.
The Seattle Times reports that an employee group at South Puget Sound Community College wanted to have a diversity “happy hour” in which people of color were invited and whites were asked not to attend. This group of people of color has no institutional power over anyone. It is not making hiring decisions. It is not distributing funds or making budgetary decisions. As a group they are doing none of these things and yet their decision to meet has some white people in an uproar. There are two issues I have with the reaction to what I see as a reasonable desire for people to meet.
First, it is not segregation or discrimination in the way we think of it. When people of color were forced by law to be separated from whites, the services for the two groups were different. Schools for whites were better funded. Whites had all the hiring power and would exclude people of color from employment. Laws were applied unequally (and this is still a problem today). All of these things are true but segregation and discrimination are not good reference points for what is happening in this situation.
From what I can tell is that the people starting this meeting want a space where they do not have to consider what white people think of them and to build community. They want to meet to discuss issues openly with one another and sometimes they may not want to mince words so white people feel comfortable or don’t feel “threatened.” It is about having a safe and supportive space. This is not the same as discrimination or segregation where people cannot get jobs, loans, or housing, or where people are forced into only specific jobs or housing markets. It is a group meeting to focus on a specific conversation and once again the reminder that it is a group that has no power over anyone. This leads to my second issue about this story which is white privilege.
We white people cannot stand the idea that we may not have access to every space we want to go. This is a privilege. In this case, we cannot even grant the idea that people of color might want to meet in a situation where they are exerting no power other than joining together to hear each other and maybe discuss ways they can improve the work environment. And we white people can’t stand being left out. We may have all the answers they need and how will they know if we are not there. We may be able to help them better understand their experiences but we cannot help iif we are not invited. We white people must always have our say and give input and anything that interferes with this must be a problem.
Yes, we whites do have this idea about ourselves that our input is so valuable and this is why even white allies do not need to be present at this meeting (I know not all white people do this but actually without knowing it, we do but that is a bigger discussion). Even as allies we can say or do things that are marginalizing. Depending on how long we have been allies we may not grasp the experiences of people of color. Sometimes even allies try to explain away racist experiences. I consider myself an ally but that does not mean I need to always be with people of color talking about these issues.
Where does this leave the white people? If we are truly interested in challenging racism, there is a place for white allies to meet among ourselves. As allies there are things we need to learn and we can help each other with those things and not expect people of color to teach us. They cannot always be our teachers. At some point I do think both of these groups would come together to discuss the issues and to engage in difficult conversations. However, people of color need to have a space to meet without white people. Again, I want to point out this is a group that has no actual power or authority. There is no specific prestige associated with being part of the group nor do people in this group get special treatment or privileges not granted to people outside the group.
What about white people who don’t want to be allies. Well, if you aren’t interested in challenging racism why on earth do you want to be at this meeting. This group of white people just want to cause problems and are the exact reason why people of color need their own space. They are not worth any more discussion other than to say they do not need to attend this happy hour and they do not have some kind of point about being discriminated against. Again, the meeting of people of color has no power and if this group of whites has no interest in fighting racism then why do they feel they need to be able to attend this meeting?
White people are everywhere especially in the work environment. Sometimes people of color want to meet just as a group and I say they deserve to have this kind of space. I know it’s scary for us whites to think about them meeting and talking without us but we need to get over it.