Calling All White People, Part 27: Taking up less space

Calling All White People, Part 27

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: We white people need to take up less space  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

People with an interest in environmental issues will often talk about “reducing our carbon footprint.” Well, those of us who are interested in racial equity and who are white might want to think about something similar, except it would be “reducing our Caucasian footprint.”

Now, one could argue for the need to reduce such a potentially damaging footprint in all kinds of ways, from reducing our propensity for colonialism (which is still practiced in such places as Puerto Rico today) to ending the practice of overwhelmingly putting white people (particularly men) in charge of corporations and federal law, way out of proportion to their actual percentage of the population or sometimes even their ability to do the job.

But no, what I want to talk about is reducing how much space we white people often take up.

You may have heard people of color talk about “white people taking up too much space.” If you haven’t , you might want to pay attention more, because you might be one of the folks crowding them. And no, I’m not talking about literal space, though white people do have a bad habit of invading the personal space of people of color, too. What I mean is that we tend to make ourselves the center of attention when it comes to discussions of racial matters.

(If you’re the kind of person who says at this point: “Well, if Black people or whoever don’t want us white people around to help undo racism and they’re just going to complain about us all the time, I’m just gonna take my marbles and go home” then you probably don’t really care about racial justice and…why are you here, anyway?)

No, it isn’t that people of color, particularly Black people, are tired of constantly being surrounded by white people and having to always adjust to white norms because it hurts them figuratively or gets them literally hurt if they don’t do exactly what white people want and expect all people to do regardless of cultural or historical background. I mean, they are tired of that, but my point isn’t that we white people need to be literally absent from the scene more often (because really, white supremacy and racism is something white people created and continue to nurture, consciously and unconsciously, so we need to do most of the work of undoing it).

My point is that we need to stop making ourselves the center of attention.

And that is often what is at the core of people of color complaining that white people take up too much space.

For example, you might have a group of people of differing races together, and talk of racism comes up. Eliminating racial disparities, reparations, higher rates of police violence vs. Black people. Whatever. And during the discussion, one or more white people will somehow make it about themselves, either individually or as a race. Instead of focusing on the issue of how things like white privilege and white supremacy hurt non-white folks, they’ll start going on about their feelings of guilt or how hard it is to work for social justice of whatever.

And it’s not that their feelings or the difficulties of dismantling racism or anything else are invalid.

It’s just that too many white people turn that into the focus and want to be heard out on such topics to the exclusion of respecting the people of color, or instead of focusing on the bigger and more important issue, etc.

If you’re not getting what I’m talking about, think about fellow white people you hang out with or have been around in the past who “suck all the air out of a room” or who always dominate conversations or try to be the center of attention. It’s not that all of those people are bad or even annoying generally. They might be fine humans or delightful company most of the time, but still, their antics are often exhausting and exasperating.

And when this kind of thing is brought up to white people by people of color, nowadays it isn’t that uncommon for the white people to ask if they can have a separate space (in the virtual world or the physical one) where they can talk with each other and process their own emotions about racial issues. Which isn’t a bad thing, because often it’s tiring for people of color to have to always hold our hands or listen to us weep or gnash our teeth about our struggles with overcoming white supremacy both outside and inside ourselves.

So, creating white spaces to deal with white feelings can often be an example of taking up less space. And yet, even there, white privilege and white supremacy ironically can still rear their ugly heads. I’ve witnessed and heard about all too many examples where white people in racial justice or racial equity circles get those “safe spaces” and then spend more time on talking amongst themselves about their feelings than actually working against racism. Or they start asking for time, space or resources that distract or detract from the work of people of color or that exceed what the people of color get in trying to take down racism.

Basically, as I’ve often heard it said: “Whiteness is a hell of a drug.”

So, let’s kick the habit of being quite so white-centered and self-centered and try to be a lot less prone to dominating spaces and conversations about problems we created to begin with. Don’t metaphorically be the person who recklessly ran down someone with a car who then asks the victim’s family to listen to them cry about how hard it is to be charged with vehicular manslaughter.


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