Separating to Decenter

I am a writer. I occasionally blog. I am an independent scholar and a former academic. I am a geek. I am also a womanist. I often spend lots of time pondering what these things mean in terms of my identity, but I also consider how these points of identity affect others’ perceptions of me. I use them here as a point of disclosure.

As a writer and scholar, I intentionally focus on black women. I include them in the center of the story or scholarship every time. This arose out of a need to see me whenever I look around at the things I love. As a grad school student, I fought a losing battle to center my work exclusively on the works of black women and their representation in spaces created for and by African Americans and lost my taste for the academic life.

At the time, I had no vocabulary to understand whiteness even though I had heard of whiteness and white studies. At the time, it did not occur to me that the very people who were supposed to guide my academic career were too heavily invested in upholding whiteness that they would render my work invalid. After six years, I let go of my dreams of making an impact in an institution that never intended to let me work on my terms because that would have actually shifted focus of dialogue away from whiteness.

Since then, I have drifted, but three years ago, I attended my first WisCon, a feminist sci-fi convention in my new hometown. One of the things I like about the conference is that people of color have their own safe space. Like whiteness, I had no academic or intellectual context in which to discuss the need for a safe space before this point. I had been involved in student organizations for people of color at times, but I had never given them such a formal name or recognized them as safe spaces.

However, I often find that whiteness often invades these safe spaces as well. White people are not the only ones invested in it, as I learned during my grad school years. I once took part in a discussion on a podcast I frequent, GeekSoulBrother, on the subject of geek segregation (we’ll get to this word in a moment). Inevitably, the question arose that asked what if whites suddenly want to make a name for themselves as white geeks since many black nerds refer to themselves as blerds.

Questions such as these illustrate the pervasiveness of whiteness in our lives. When people of color create spaces for ourselves, we are often accused of racism or reverse racism as if societal and institutional structures do not still call for the need of these spaces. Yet, when we come together in our safe spaces, we still preoccupy ourselves with what the white folks think. How are they going to see us separating ourselves from them?

I understand why some of us would ask this question and why there would be reluctance to leave whites out of safe spaces. In academic and geek circles, some of us grow close to whites who share our interests and sometimes our lives. Leaving them out can be tough, but it is often necessary. People of color experience life in ways whites do not have to, and at times, these “allies” and other close friends and family can contribute to our distress even if they do not realize it.

There are even some of us who feel we should make an effort to live “in harmony,” so to speak, with others and separating ourselves defeats the purpose of unity. They do not like to talk about concepts like whiteness and white privilege and instead discuss why we should “blend in” or assimilate to dominate cultures. I cannot deal with someone who does not deal in the reality that whiteness does not respect our differences and wants us to check them at the door when we enter mainstream spaces.

I also find it problematic that using safe spaces is referred to as segregation or self-segregation. Segregation refers to institutional and legal practices used to systematically keep out marginalized peoples from certain spaces and opportunities; safe spaces respond to segregation and the distress that comes from dealing with systematic oppression once we are “allowed” to integrate spaces. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who criticize marginalized people for demanding inclusion even though this inclusion can be painful and traumatic. They say we are begging for crumbs and say we should make our own spaces while not supporting those very spaces they say we need.

However, what all these conversations miss is the underlying assumption of whiteness and how we cannot seem to get it out of the spaces we create for ourselves in order to be safe. Because sooner or later, we have to leave these spaces. We have to deal with what the world we live in throws at us whether or not we are ready. The concept of “colorblindness” that so many people of all races espouse does not make the centuries of systematic oppression that continues to facilitate the ways of the world magically disappear. Refusing to acknowledge race, gender identity, sexuality, religion and other differences does not mean the forces they no longer matter.

I do not live in a world in which race, gender identity, sexuality, religion and other differences do not matter. I live in a world in which I want to believe in one thing but have to behave in contradiction to those beliefs in order to survive. I have to anticipate how others will respond to me based on what they see and how they expect me to behave. I do not have the luxury of not seeing color or other differences. I strive to create safe spaces for myself and the people I love because I know none of us is safe once we walk out into this world.