Is diversity for white people? A response to Jose Antonio Vargas

Is it the obligation of people of color to include white people in discussions of diversity? Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define America and #EmergingUS seems to believe so. In a recent tweet he stated, “Too often, when people of color discuss ‘diversity,’ we don’t include #whitepeople in the conversation. That must stop.”  In this tweet, Vargas suggests that it is the obligation of people of color to include white people in discussions of diversity and that creating spaces that do not include white people are counterproductive.

To be fair, twitter is a hard place to have nuanced conversations about race. Indeed, though we had a brief twitter exchange about it, I decided to write this blog post precisely because I struggled to write a critique of this comment in 140 characters or less. My goal in this post is to more clearly lay out the concerns that I raised in our brief twitter engage in the spirit of Vargas’ invitation to engage in “uncomfortable conversations” about race with one another.

Vargas’ tweet overlooks the important structural distinction between the lives of people of color and the lives of white people. People of color can never exclude white people from their lives. People of color have to interact with white teachers, police officers, bosses, the media etc. In contrast, white people either consciously or unconsciously exclude people of color on a daily basis by inhabiting mostly or exclusively white spaces that are a product of centuries of oppression of people of color and that continue to impact the material realities of people of color today.

White people can go to school assured that most, if not all, of their teachers look like them, can be confident that interactions with the police will likely be with somebody of their same racial background, can easily find employment in spaces where their bosses are white and can find an innumerable number of shows and movies about people like them. It is these mostly or exclusively white spaces that are the root of the problem of racial inequality and that should be subject to critique not people of color discussing racial inequality without white people present.

Ironically, it is within these mostly or exclusively white spaces where discussions of diversity that Vargas seems to suggest white people are being excluded from emerged. In a recent article, Ellen Berrey, an assistant professor of sociology, claims that discussions of diversity don’t exclude white people but are only for white people. Discussions of diversity have shifted conversations away from a focus on structural inequality toward a discussion of “a celebration of cultural difference as a competitive advantage.”

This shift allows white people to feel good about themselves for celebrating diversity while continuing to benefit from the privilege afforded to them by a white supremacist society. Therefore, the major impediment to racial progress is not that white people are not included in discussions of diversity but rather the concept of diversity itself, which erases centuries of oppression and replaces it with a focus on everybody just getting along.

Vargas ended our brief twitter exchange arguing that “We need a safe space where people of color AND #whitepeople can talk and hear each other.”  This conclusion is precisely my concern with his focus on the need for more discussions about diversity between people of color and white people as opposed to more discussions about the structural oppression of people of color. It presupposes that people of color and white people are on equal footing in US society and can both be equally “safe” or “unsafe” in US society. White people can easily avoid “unsafe” spaces that include having conversations with people of color about race while people of color cannot easily avoid “unsafe” spaces that include hostility from white people.

Should white people decide to engage in a space that they deem “unsafe” the worse that can happen to them is that their feelings get hurt. In contrast, white people in “safe spaces” may feel “safe” enough to cry in ways that privilege their feelings over the lived experience of people of color, “safe” enough to express microaggressions that have psychological consequences  for people color, or “safe” enough to brand a person of color as “angry” and “confrontational” in ways that exclude them from access to professional opportunities.

For a white person to feel like they are in a “safe space” may, by necessity, mean that the space is hostile to people of color—indeed, this very dynamic can be seen in Vargas documentary White People where a white girl co-opts a discussion about racial inequality by claiming that she feels attacked. Yet, Vargas is suggesting that people of color are at fault for refusing to endure these “safe spaces” without creating spaces of their own to cope with the psychological consequences.

Discussions of race cannot begin from the premise that it is the responsibility of people of color to invite white people into conversations about ‘diversity.’ Instead, they must begin from the premise that discussions of diversity are a tool of white supremacy that erases the ways that structural racism is endemic to US society. From this perspective, people of color spaces are understood to be ways of coping with structural oppression and not as discussions of diversity that unnecessarily exclude white people. These spaces become spaces where people of color can work in solidarity with one another to heal from the wounds of white supremacy without having to justify its existence or cater to the feelings of white people. Indeed, it is through construction these spaces that people of color can continue the struggle to dismantle white supremacy—a goal that must be at the root of any meaningful discussion of race in the US.

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4 comments
  1. Hi Prof. Nelson,

    Thank you for your comments. I would respond on Twitter, but it’s impossible to do so in so few words. I offer a few of my own thoughts below. Apologies if it’s a little stream-of-consciousness-esque…

    It’s not that I’m unwilling to participate in tough discussions with #whitepeople, as Jose Antonio Vargas suggests. In my capacity as an educator, I have had to have many conversations with white students (or students who don’t identity as POC) about privilege in its many forms (including my own, as a Xicana pursuing a PhD). This has proven difficult for some students; however, it is only through honest discussions of positionality that we can move toward creating a community inside and outside of the walls of a seminar room. I address any and all student concerns in a spirit of compassion, recognizing that the history of race (and indeed, history in general) is often difficult to confront. This is what I do as an educator. I’m sure it’s what you do as an educator.

    At various moments in my academic life as a student, I have participated in hours-long conversations on the history and construction of race. I have provided well-researched examples to my colleagues of how “liberation” movements are sanitized in history and how certain groups are intentionally removed from the dominant narrative. I have traced laws in various colonial contexts and compared them to laws we have in the U.S. in an attempt to demonstrate how the law is not “colorblind.” This has often fallen on unwilling hearts and minds. In fact, I was almost always labeled “angry,” “sensitive,” “emotional,” or “heated” etc., even as my voice remained calm and collected (let’s not even GET into the gender politics of these accusations).

    I learned long ago to contain my emotions because I am Xicana and because I am a woman. When a white male colleague expressed how unfair it is to talk about whiteness, I trained myself to NOT immediately see the hands of my grandfather, worn by years of picking produce and years of building freeways. I trained myself to NOT think of Tata’s frail and dying body, eaten by cancer that came to him in “golden years” because he spent his life under a sun that dropped pesticides. “Mi’jita mira mis manos. Tu nunca vas a tener manos como las mías.” I trained myself NOT to think of how my paternal grandmother spent her life working in a factory and how she never knew her father because his life was taken in a mine and left in an unmarked grave. I trained myself NOT to think of my other nana’s broken childhood, filled with migration, the “American Dream” gained, family and history lost. I train myself to NOT think of how my parents are a million times smarter than most people I know but still always feel that their dreams were bigger than their opportunities. I train myself…to restrain. My POC spaces are where I weep, yell, share some deep shit, receive love. They are important. And no amount of “diversity discussion” will change that.

    I think Jose Antonio Vargas’ work is important. I also think it leaves out crucial social players: our white allies. (If I remember correctly, there was one example of a white ally in his documentary). Some of my closest friends – who identify as allies – have often stepped in when other white students or colleagues were verbally aggressive or unfairly attacking or simply NOT listening to reason. In some of these conversations described above, a white ally stepped up and the conversation shifted. Rather than continuing in confrontation, the tenor changed to include such comments as “I see your point.” The conversation also became filled with questions rather than accusations (i.e. “how do you feel about xyz?” “do you agree that xyz?”). And it oftentimes ends with my favorite phrase of civility: “let’s agree to disagree.”

    White allies are important pieces to the puzzle that is race in America. Rather than our backs being the bridges for understanding (love me some WOC feminists), our white allies should step up. Many of them have and will continue to do so.

    I don’t know you personally, but thank you for your voice.

    Abrazos,
    Pilar

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    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

      I agree with you on the importance of speaking to a broader audience about issues of racial inequality. Indeed, part of what your comment gets to, which is something else that Vargas overlooked in his initial tweet and subsequent responses are that many people of color are, in fact, having conversations with white people about race on a daily basis. For some of us that is a primary focus of our jobs. His comments erase this work–work that is already made invisible by institutions that expect us to do this work as “diverse employees” but who provide us with little or no recognition.

      I agree with you on the importance of allies but true allies understand when to speak up, when to stay quiet and when they don’t need to be there. As a cisgender male who identifies as a feminist I try hard to use my platforms to bring attention to patriarchal thinking, such as the ones that cause you to be positioned as angry when you speak up. Yet, at the same time I understand and respect the fact that women in general and women of color specifically need their own spaces where they work through these issues without having to worry about explaining things to me that I have never and will never experience. To insist on having access to those spaces would be the epitome of patriarchal thinking and male entitlement. The same thing is true for white people insisting on having access to people of color spaces or feeling as if these spaces are somehow oppressing them. They’re not.

      At least one good thing came out of this exchange with Vargas–you and I were able to connect. Here’s too many more conversations!

      Like

      • I absolutely agree with you that a real ally recognizes the nuance of their own participation in the collaboration. One recent example for me that shows where allyship can fail is the #DeportRacism campaign, founded by someone who identifies as a white ally in the struggle for racial justice. While good intentions are nice, they do not erase the fact that Luke Montgomery marketed this project as a Latinx project. All of the actors were Latinx. All the models selling his t-shirts are Latinx. Most importantly, all of the attacks on the film fall on brown bodies, not his own. I was watching Fox News this weekend and a commentator said that if this is how Latino children act, perhaps there ARE important reasons to deny birthright citizenship. This video contributed to the already-present trope that Latinxs and other POC are responsible for the decaying of American moral values. Latinxs are collateral damage in this attempt to be progressive. I listened to his LatinoRebels interview last night and he was thrilled that Larry David yelled “Trump is Racist.” His view: “After we did this, our website got a flood of traffic. There was one order from a Latino organization for 120 t-shirts. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie and wanted to be part of this. I feel that we did something. It’s open season on people’s dignity. It’s open season on Latinos and we hit back and I think people really responded to that. I mean, I kind of teared up to be honest to see the response. It’s been really really great. You say you googled us and saw all those headlines. That’s what it’s about.” (For anyone who didn’t hear the interview and wants to: http://www.latinorebels.com/2015/11/08/latino-rebels-radio-racismisntfunny-and-deportracism-explicit/).

        No, actually, that’s not what it’s about. I’m glad that we have white allies out there, but the discussion should be framed by us. We don’t exist to make a point, to increase your website traffic, or to make headlines.

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