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.