No safe space for racialism
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Bay Windows
November 21, 2002


No safe space for racialism

You might think, as a person of goodwill, that the surest path toward equality is for us to treat one another as equals. You would be wrong, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

On Veterans Day weekend, NGLTF held its annual Creating Change conference in Portland, Oregon. This year's theme was "Building an Anti-Racist Movement." Delegates were urged to participate in one of several workshops titled, "Starting the Conversation."

(By the way: If we are not going to get any credit for all the previous conversations we have had on racism, why should we start yet another? For some reason known only to the professional victim mongers, every time we meet this aging groom we are expected to act like virgins. The preferred mode of communication at Creating Change resembles not conversation but emotional hostage taking. It is for the designated victims to harangue, and for the rest to pander. Each year the ritual starts all over again, as if for the first time.)

If, eager to start the conversation, you tried to sign up for the pre-conference People of Color Institutes, you would have found this notice: "For people of color only." Hello, NGLTF, is anybody home? Are you serious? Alas, they are quite serious; they have been doing this for years.

In 1999, columnist Dale Carpenter attended the Creating Change conference in Oakland, and was ordered to leave a workshop because he was white. He had violated a "safe space" for people of color. Safe from whom, you may ask -- their allies? What sense does that make? An Internet search on "people of color" and "safe space" reveals reasons like these: "To work on internal racial, power and control issues." "To create a supportive and affirming environment." "To develop leadership within the black community."

This isolationism might be safe if our lives were not inextricably bound up with one another in a larger society. Strength and leadership are developed by engagement with the prevailing system, not avoidance of it.

The trouble with separatists is that they aren't. If you truly wish to insulate yourself from the rest of society, why build coalitions? At least when the National Minority AIDS Council sought to create a safe space with its People of Color Living with HIV Leadership Forum last April in San Diego, they did not call an interracial conference.

However strong a pose, separatism is a tacit admission of defeat. Retreating from society reforms nothing, and is illusory. Look at the white suburban kids wearing FUBU jackets and supporting the hip-hop industry. Visit, watch P. Diddy modeling his collection, then click on "shop online" and you are linked to Macy's. Marketing the ghetto is but a means of escaping it. One way or another, you've got to get in the game.

In 1993, I attended a planning meeting in Milwaukee for the Stonewall 25 celebrations in New York the following year. The planning committee established a weighted voting system to make up for the fact that most of the people who showed up were white men, despite considerable efforts to recruit women and people of color. Under this higher egalitarianism, black women held the most decision-making votes and white men the fewest.

Clarity and efficiency did not result. At one point, a white woman rose in confusion and asked, "How many votes does a white woman have?" The arbitrariness of racial categories was demonstrated when Hispanics and Muslims who were as white as I were counted as colored, while a Jew was initially told he was white.

To remedy what they deemed a lack of racial and gender parity, organizers encouraged the white men present to skip the next quarterly meeting, which was in Boise, and give the money we would have spent on the trip to any dark-skinned gay person we could find who was willing to go to Idaho. Reducing us to labels was their idea of a motivational speech. It motivated me to spend my money and energies elsewhere.

Neither equality nor coherence is served by these racialist exclusions and quotas. Such double standards are often justified with the assertion that black people have no power. Those who decry racism while posting "people of color only" signs prove that they at least have the power to defeat themselves.

Copyright 2002 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.