The other day as I was riding home on the city bus, I couldn’t help but to overhear a conversation happening behind me. It was two white individuals, one boy and one girl. She was complaining to her counterpart about the shit-show of her living circumstances ― she had just moved into a new place with less than a month left in the semester, she had to pay to have all of her belongings moved, and the university had charged her for terminating her on-campus housing contract.
When the boy asked why she had even gone through with the move in the first place, her response began with something along the lines of, “I just had to leave. I didn’t feel comfortable there.”
My ears immediately perked up―I had a hunch concerning where she was talking about. While I told myself I shouldn’t make assumptions, her further comments proved my suspicions to be correct; she was referring to a themed residence housing that proclaims itself as a place that “celebrates the rich and diverse history of Black people”.
From what she was saying, she just didn’t “fit in”, and had a hard time making friends. She also was put off by the programs they hosted; they were held “specifically for minorities”―which is “great”, she made sure to reiterate―but she felt, how can she feel comfortable attending such events that essentially outwardly excluded her? (12/04/16 Edit: The dorm actually does not bar non-minorities from attending their programs, and extent invitations for all members of the greater community to partake in their events.)
Now, it’s very easy to dismiss the girl’s complaints to “white tears”―a term used to refer to undue woes expressed by whites. And I won’t defend her entirely, because to some extent, it is. I mean, poor white girl who is used to being in the majority and feeling represented and being surrounded by people who look (and think) just like herself, right? Perhaps she forgot that those very circumstances that made her feel so unwelcome are the same ones that simply make up the reality called life for over one-third of our nation’s population.
But at the same time, I wanted to hear her out, and empathize with her. Because my freshman year, I lived in that same dorm, and despite being of the same skin color as many of the occupants, I too felt out of place. But even more than that, I thought it was unfortunate that she shied away from the programs, since they tend to be very raw and informative, and would probably provide her with insight concerning the struggles of being black in America.
If they had not gotten off at the stop before mine, I surely would have engaged in conversation with her. Because what she was saying got me thinking―should we start making room for the privileged white groups that caused the inception of such spaces in the first place?
I can imagine a response to my question that could be given: “Those spaces are not meant for her to feel comfortable. If she wants to be comfortable, she can stay in the public space that marginalized and refused to accept us. This space is our space, and if she doesn’t like it she can easily exit.”
And don’t get me wrong―this is a very valid point.
But to me, something about that mindset rings amiss. Never mind that we are doing the same thing to them that they did to us (I personally don’t think reciprocating negative actions is the answer to any issue―and perhaps FLOTUS Michelle Obama would agree). What needs to be considered is how such thinking can result in a stalemate for progress―because it excludes a vital counterpart needed to propelling us towards the institutional and social changes we strive for.
It’s a bitter truth that we may not want to look at, but must be acknowledged: change doesn’t happen without participation of the majority group. We can have our MLK, our Rosa Parks, our Malcom X―who are all vital and necessary figures―but without our Lyndon B. Johnson (and not to forget JFK, who advocated for a civil rights bill before his assassination), we don’t get our legislative change. Similarly, we can create opportunities for those of us experiencing the same societal and structural injustices to gather and talk about it, but until we invite the group in power into our conversations to hear and understand them, we can never recruit them as allies and thus exclude ourselves from moving toward grander, wide-sweeping improvements to our condition.
Further, without inviting the privileged group into our spaces, it is likely easy for them to not even be aware that there is a problem. It’s like planning an intervention, and not inviting the person with the substance habit―it doesn’t make the source of the problem acknowledge that there is indeed a problem. Yeah, they may hear that meth is bad for their health, but until being made to accept the identification as a meth addict and exposed to the implications of their habit, there are no merits for change. Similarly, while whites may hear of social inequalities, there is likely a disconnect since they feel that, a.) They feel that hey are not affected by it, so it either does not exist or is not “as big of a deal” as everyone says it is, and b.) They do not personally discriminate, so they are not part of the problem (besides, didn’t you see the safety pins on their shirts?). Including the majority group provides to opportunity to change their understanding―to let them know that racism is systematic; to tell them that they are affected by social injustices, that they just get the much longer end of the stick; and to encourage them to find ways in their own life to raise awareness in their communities and take a stand against the injustices inflicted on people solely because of the color of their skin.
As Gunnar Myrdal states in his book The American Dilemma, the issues faced by the black communities in the nation are “moral issues[s] both to Negros and the whites in America”. Besides the outdated terminology, this is a concept that applies to all non-white minority groups of the United States, and needs to be emphasized more. So let’s release ourselves of all the burden, and shift some responsibility to the group historically responsible for our woes in the first place. And this, I believe, starts with opening up our spaces to them.
I don’t want to underscore another aspect of the problem: how whites do tend to avoid such spaces in which they become the minority (because who wants to be that?) Because it is a problem, and probably an aspect that chased the girl I mentioned earlier away from the themed living community. But as a member of a colored minority group, I also know very well how we can be very exclusive―even amongst ourselves. That’s why I’m advocating more white inclusiveness in our spaces. Since racial injustices impact all Americans, it’s important to include whites in our spaces and our conversations. It’s only through these means that we can gain an understanding of their perspectives, as well as provide them with a nuanced insight on our condition, and recruit whites in fighting for causes towards institutional and social equality for all Americans.