Wednesday, March 10, 2010

fail to understand why non-white people feel like self-segregating

White Americans rarely find themselves in situations where they're more or less surrounded by people of color. In those rare situations where they are, all they usually have to do to get over any racial discomfort is step back out into the "normal" world. Back out into spaces where the majority is made up of people like themselves.

But again, those situations are rare. Partly because most white people spend little or no time in spaces that are mostly non-white, they tend to find it confusing, and even "wrong," for people of color to seek out spaces and situations that are not predominantly white -- to "self-segregate," that is. Because seeking sanctuary from a situation in which you're no longer surrounded by your racial peers could merely mean stepping back into the great (white) norm for whites, it wouldn't seem like racial self-segregation for a white person to do that. Even though that's what it is, and even though white people actually self-segregate almost all the time.

Another possible reason for some of this common white disapproval of people of color who self-segregate is that even if white people do find themselves in a largely non-white space, their sudden racial self-awareness is still going to be different from how racial self-awareness feels for people of color in largely white spaces. That's mainly because both situations exist within a broader context of white predominance, and thus of white power (a form of power that whites tend not to see), and also because most whites just aren't used to feeling "white," to being made to feel aware of their racial status.

Lester K. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University; he also happens to be a black man. In a recent article on his own need to self-segregate at times, Spence writes of a trivial incident on campus that was clearly sparked by a racist white fear of his presence, an incident that quickly elevated to calls for security and the police. Regarding his need for self-segregation, and the kinds of ridiculous and dangerous incidents in whites spaces that can fuel that need, Spence writes,

Predominantly white spaces can be exhausting to navigate. I have to consciously be aware of what I am saying, of who is around me, of what I am wearing, of what I am doing, of what others are saying and doing. In critical ways, I cannot let my guard down for a moment. Because -- and even as I write this I recognize how paranoid this may sound to people unfamiliar with the experiences I refer to -- at any point I may be forced to defend myself, defend my presence.

In stark contrast, when I am at home, or at my wife’s church, or with my fraternity brothers, or at the club listening to house music, I am at home. I am not a statistic. Not a threat. Not an outsider. Not an anomaly. I am safe to “be.” I can be the “representative for the race.” I can be the one black person in the room. But I don’t have to be. . . . I can, in those spaces, breathe.

Of course, whites have long self-segregated into largely white spaces -- residential spaces, employment spaces, educational and recreational spaces, and so on. And there is something about those spaces that makes it easier for them to "breathe." Something white.

However, they rarely see those homogeneous spaces anymore as examples of "self-segregation." Instead, they tend to take the whiteness of those spaces for granted, as something they don't even think about. Those largely white spaces are usually perceived as "normal," not "white." And that makes it easier for whites to overlook how they're racially segregated.

I recently thought about that side of the "self-segregation" coin -- the white side -- when I saw this clip on ABC News. It's a report about Holland, Michigan, a town deemed newsworthy because it was recently declared one of the "happiest" towns in America.

As I watched this clip, I did what I automatically do now with stories about some "American" place -- I counted the people of color. In this piece, I only saw one, a person who looks black, for a second or two.

In this segment, this town seems very, very white. Could that be part of why its residents are so "happy"? What about the people of color living there? Are they as happy as the white residents? If not -- and it does seem very possible that they're not, given the amount of tension that non-white people, especially black people, can feel in such predominantly white environments -- then why not identify the "happiness" of this very white town as a white form of happiness?

Census Bureau statistics reveal that this town of 35,000 is (or was in 2000) about 78% white, 3% black, 4% Asian, 1% Native American, and 14% Other/Mixed. 22% identify as "Hispanic or Latino (of any race)." I wonder why so few of Holland, Michigan's people of color were featured in this ABC segment?

Well, the place is very white. Personally, I find very white places a little creepy now -- I can't forget anymore how they got that way. More to the point, though, I wonder if the people of color in Happy Holland sometimes feel a need to self-segregate. Does the place seem a little too much like Pleasantville to them? Do all those happy white people there make people of color feel a need to, as Lester Spence put it, constantly "keep their guard up"?

Maybe the initial self-segregation that made Holland an especially white town early on -- I'd bet that many of the people of color, or their ancestors, are relatively recent arrivals -- inspires self-segregation now among the people of color. If so, I wouldn't be surprised if the white people of Holland find that confusing. And maybe even wrong, in a nice, friendly place like Holland, Michigan.

What about you? If you're a person of color who spends a lot of time in very white spaces, do you ever feel a need to "self-segregate"? If so, are there particular things that white people do that especially cause that feeling?


  1. Very good post. Breathing room, indeed. I am a white person, so I can't add any anecdotes on racial self-segregating, but I can imagine why a POC would want to self-segregate... I am a female engineer. I like to work and communicate with other female engineers. I like and respect my male co-workers, but I just feel like... I speak a different language than they do. And there are so many of "them" and so few of "us." I'm also a Muslim convert. I feel like there is a whole side of me that I sort of have to hold back or censor, so that I don't make (non-Muslim) people uncomfortable. I can relax and show that side when I'm around other Muslims. Furthermore, as I was not *raised* Muslim, there are sides of me that I don't always feel comfortable showing to my born-Muslim friends. Therefore, I do have a lot of friends who are Muslim converts. When you are part of a minority--especially one that people don't really want to "deal with"--you HAVE to have a support system. You HAVE to have a safe space to just be yourself without having to worry about people being uncomfortable.

  2. You know, sometimes self-segregating is an unconscious thing. Most of the time when I'm anywhere where I'm within the minority, I tend to gravitate toward people who look like me. I agree with Spence's feelings about the situation. Sometimes you have to be on your guard to make sure that you don't say the wrong thing or come off as stereotypical. God forbid, I'm late to the event and have all the eyes on everyone on me as I walk in late as a Black woman. (even if I did everything within my power to be early)

    If you are one of the few people of color in a situation, you are under a microscope. It feels as if people want you to act based on the stereotypes they associate with your race. You have to be hyper aware of every action you do and suddenly you are a reflection and a representation of your race. It can be nerve racking sometimes to the point that you are afraid to speak out because you may be perpetuating a stereotype. At least, this is my experience as a Black woman in America, I can't really say that other people of color or even Black women feel the same way.

    Thanks for this post and this blog. It's nice to read that someone understands the situation.

  3. Macon D:

    This is off-topic, but is there anyway for me to subscribe to you blog by email?

  4. Yeah! That man is SO right! I'm in a University that has very few black people. I'd say that we're not more than 20 actually. Every time I have to do a presentation or speak in class I have this subconscious urge to prove myself so they don't think I'm some dumb African girl or something. Once, I did this presentation and I had a lot of people coming up to me telling me I "spoke very well". It's very possible that they were just complimenting me but I couldn't help but think 'Hmm do I speak well as a person in general or do I speak well for an African girl?'

  5. I am a Black woman living in Maine, Maine is the whitest state in the US. I am also not originally from here so at times living is a tad strange to say the least. The town I live is has a population of about 16,000 and I suspect less than 5% is POC.

    Its a happy town, on the coast, I have a job where I am well known and to answer the question there are times I need to self segregate. After 8 years here people treat me and my family well but there are times where to be honest I don't want to explain things. I just want to be. I get tired of feeling like I am always on, always being mindful of my language, actions and feeling at times like I am representative of all things Black. Its a hard place to be in and I definitely get why there is a need to self segregate.

    I think I may use your questions as a jumping off point to my next blog post.

  6. @Blackgirlinmaine

    Took the words out of my mouth, but insert East Tn for my dwelling and it's a mirror image. Other than Nashville and, of course, Memphis, I can't think of too many places where POC's have a substantial presence, unless you dig for those pockets of folks scattered throughout the state and I'm located just outside the so-called Black belt.

  7. I have a real problem with other white people who don't understand the need for "safe space". White people segregate themselves all the damn time - they have a long and very ugly history of doing it, for heaven's sake! - and turning around and declaring PoC "wrong" for needing to be in a space where they're not pawed, questioned, judged, subjected to demands that they educate white people, or simply unwilling witnesses to all kinds of conscious and unconscious racism is so arrogant it makes my head spin.

    Of course PoC need to self-segregate. It's part of recharging one's batteries so one can go out and deal with the racism all over again the next day. I deeply respect the idea of minority-only space - where else can PoC blow off steam safely without being held up for judgement?

    I'm sure I'm saying this wrong, but it pisses me off so much that white people do this. It's such a mark of privilege to assume that a space is automatically safe.

  8. I am a white person, so I can't add any anecdotes on racial self-segregating, [purvis]

    Hold on a sec. Wasn't the post also about how white people self-segregate but don't notice that they do this? If this is true (which I think it is), then it is likely that white readers would also have instances where they found themselves in a poc space, felt uncomfortable, and sighed a sigh of relief when they were out of that space and back into 'normal' white-majority space.

    I've heard white people say things like, "It was weird being the only white guy at the party." And from a white people who work in Asia: "I can't imagine living permanently in a place where I'm a minority and never really being fully accepted by mainstream society ever". Initially I felt sympathy. I thought being an extreme minority like that was 'unique' to white ppl. I thought, "Wow, yeah, that must be hard." Then I noticed that I experience being one of two or three poc out of 50-100 white people on a daily basis. Duh.

    when I'm anywhere where I'm within the minority, I tend to gravitate toward people who look like me.

    Most of the times, yes. But sometimes, no. At times I purposely avoid other Asians because I worry it'll look like we're self-segregating. Or, I might talk to them, but will stay acutely aware that we may look like we're self-segregating. (This happened all day just today.) This double consciousness is really annoying. Tiring. Hopefully one day I'll stop caring.

  9. I think many white people have a fundamental inability to understand why, in cases where we are significantly outnumbered in a small space, self-segregating is necessary.

    It's the old "It works for me, why doesn't it work for you?" thing.

    It's why white students don't "get" Black Cultural Centers or why all the black kids are sitting together in the cafeteria

    Of course, whites have long self-segregated into largely white spaces -- residential spaces, employment spaces, educational and recreational spaces, and so on. And there is something about those spaces that makes it easier for them to "breathe." Something white.

    However, they rarely see those homogeneous spaces anymore as examples of "self-segregation." Instead, they tend to take the whiteness of those spaces for granted, as something they don't even think about. Those largely white spaces are usually perceived as "normal," not "white." And that makes it easier for whites to overlook how they're racially segregated.

    Excellent point here. White is normal -- any deviation from that is wrong/abnormal. My standard answer to any form of the "why do all the black kids hang out together" is "why do all the white kids hang out together?"

    Black folks are always expected to do the work of desegregation. We were the ones bussed into schools -- they didn't send the white kids to black schools (of course that's because the white schools were better...). We're the ones who have to enter the awkward settings and diversify things.

    I don't hear a lot of white students talk about applying to HBCUs, but I do hear them complaining about how diversity prevents them from being accepted to ivy league universities (it's actually all the kids with major donor parents who are preventing it, but that's another post for another time) and how they wished they could have minority scholarships.

    I went to a predominantly white private high school. I did self-segregate but I was also fairly comfortable with my white friends (in fact, it was having to keep the groups seperate that cause my self-segregation). Once I got to my PWI, though, the self-segregation came almost naturally. I had few close white friends. 90% of my friends were black and I spent 95% of my time with them.

    It wasn't until I was preparing to graduate that I even really analyzed it or thought about why. We felt comfortable together -- we understood each other implicitly. The black students probably made friends/found niches faster because we flocked to each other from the beginning.

    It's been addressed here on this blog, how hard and draining it is to explain things that happen to you because of your race. Especially to people who "need proof" Having a "base" to go to who can just hear the story and "get it" is affirming and needed.

    White folks seem to be disturbed by the segregation but then do very little to help change that.

    I'm from TN. East TN can be a scary place for a black person. Ironically, Chattanooga has a higher population of black people than Nashville (I think the only other Southern cities that rival Memphis are New Orleans and Atlanta, lol). I didn't know that fact until recently and I'm from Chattanooga and went to school in Nashville.

  10. I have the privilege of living in a city that is predominantly black. Even so, there are plenty of times when I'm surrounded by white folks (especially when I'm participating in special interest activities such as a Scrabble tourney or whatever), and I do sometimes feel a bit of what I call "race fatigue." It's a relief sometimes to hang with my family or just go home to my neighborhood where I'm surrounded by folks of color, to be able to be laugh freely without fear of being labeled "loud black person" or to express a range of emotions - including anger - without being an "angry black woman."

  11. This is true. I find it truer as I get older. When I was a kid I grew up in a mostly white area and was almost to the point where, except with my Mom at home, I as a black person, almost felt weird when I was somewhere with no white people around b/c it felt strange. Then again, I often felt strange at school, in a disembodied way and goodness help me when we talked about black history or slavery. It is rough being the only black kid in the room when those topics come up, my face would get hot and even if no one was looking at me I felt like everyone was looking at me. NOw as an adult I try to seek out more black or integrated spaces and sometimes I think I get tired of trying to fit in with white folks or search out people of color and stay at home.

    I'm also more aware that when I sign up for things that sound "fun" there usually aren't too many other black folks there and that starts to feel uncomfortable and sometimes even if I'm not thinking about it, it comes up anyway. Recently I was at an event with lots of white people and this person was asking me how I knew the group etc, etc and it was a nice conversation and then he said to that it was too bad there weren't more black people. He was white, it was the weirdest thing. I just looked at him raised my eyebrows and didn't say anything else. LIke even when you don't self-segregate it is looked on as weird and you must want to have other black people around even if you hadn't thought of it at all at that moment.

    One other quick story, once in college I was at a reception for an internship program away from my own school that brought students from some other schools together but was mostly under the umbrella of Boston U. I just so happened to be speaking to the only other person from my PWI who also happened to be black and another black girl who came over to chat. In less than 5 minitues the program director came over to ask why we were self-segreating. So , he assumed that I who had spent 80% of my outside of the home life up until that time around white folks, was self-segregating b/c I was talking to two other black people for 5 mins! Unbelievable. The other girl asked him, why he didn't ask all the white kids the same questions, which shut him up.

    SO basiscally, I take from all this that to some white folks, if you aren't segregated and seem to feel comfortable you shouldn't and then if you do "self-segregate" it is bad. We can't win. Damned if you do, damned it you don't.

  12. White students at the PWI where I work are constantly asking about POC self-segregating, and usually with an attitude of "See? They segregate themselves; it's nothing that white people are doing (so stop making me feel guilty about racism)." I think this reflects not only a main tenet of racism--that POC can't win no matter what they do--but also white people's woeful lack of racial awareness, including awareness of what racism is and how it affects everyone's lives. They seem to equate this "segregation" with the de jure segregation they learned about in the one week they spent on race issues in US history class. To the naive, the POC they see forming social groupings in the cafeteria and so on are voluntarily inflicting segregation--which we all know was what racism was all about way back then--on themselves.

    The idea of "safe spaces" is so foreign to the white self-image that it actually doesn't occur to them that any POC would be seeking safety, not to mention why they would do so. We so want to believe that racism involves only the wicked because to think otherwise is an existential threat to whiteness, which, whether we can see it or not, makes up a significant part of our identity.

  13. @A.Smith

    I keep forgetting about Chattanooga! Thanks for the clarification. I'll add that in current times, the Latino equation has been injected into the conversation.

  14. I can related what the assistant professor went through. I work at an after school program. The program takes place at two churches. One church is where mostly black people attend where the other is where mostly white people attend.

    When I began working, they put me in the church where most of the white people attend. I wasn't aware that the program also takes place at the black church. Me and my sister were the only two blacks working there. I felt nervous working there because I didn't want to do or say anything that would make them afraid of me.

    After one year of working there, they transferred me to the "black" church, and I've worked there ever since. I did notice that most of the workers in each church was the same race of those who mostly attended those churches. Although there were a couple of whites that worked each year at the church I'm working on now, and a couple of blacks at the other church, it still seemed very segregated.

    Every Friday or every other Friday, children at both church sites gather to watch a movie. Over time, the buses and parents came to pick up the most of the children by 5:30 p.m. After that, we still have a few kids left (the program doesn't end until 6). Before all of the kids are eventually picked up, the black staff members would usually hang out together, and the whites did the same. I'm usually sitting alone or walking around until the time to go comes. Until then, I watch my every move and helped out whenever and wherever I can because some part of me wonders if the white workers are observing me.

  15. I am a black woman and I go to a top 10 US university, work in a medical office where I am one of three black people and intern at a white/Hispanic corporation. I am conscious of race all the time now. Rather than self-segregate, I isolate. I get along with the other black students in my cohort (grand total: 4 which is a lot) but I feel the perception/tension will be equally high if I self segregate or attempt to assimilate more with whites.

    I think it's that I don't want to be seen as "self-segregating." And I'm not about to force my way into a white group where I clearly have been excluded by omission, so I make a conscious effort to appear mostly alone. Neither option is appealing to me.

  16. I'm a white guy. I went to a predominantly white High School with - mostly all red necks (it's not a derogatory term, chill) in a South Eastern Town in Virginia, USA. Either the people I spoke with were white trash or snobby rich white/black kids. I didn't fit in, ever, for one single moment at that stupid High School.

    There was one time where I went to a different High School for some Summer School Classes and that school was just the opposite situation for me, it was predominantly black and I was the only white kid. Spiky blonde hair and all black clothes - yet somehow I still fit in much better there than I did back home.

    Years later, every day of my life is me being surrounded by total diversity and very few red necks. I think I fit in everywhere I go these days now that I'm in college and what not, and when I'm surrounded by black people, I sometimes feel even more comfortable with myself than I do with white people.. it seems like I am judged less and relate more.

  17. Hi, this is my first time commenting here, but I feel really strongly about this topic. I'm an Asian American from New Jersey who goes to college in Kentucky, so every time I go to school and back home, it's a racial shock. At my residence hall, when the residential advisors who don't know me are at the staff office, they look at me like I'm some sort of a stranger. Problem? I've lived there for two school years - the residential advisors don't give a second glance at seeing white people going into their dorms. At fast food establishments here, people have the tendency of asking "What's this dude saying?" to their coworkers without even paying attention to me.

    To me, when I go to a self-segregating environment (such as where I live), I don't have to face these issues. I don't have to answer questions like "Do you know any 'ancient Chinese secrets' that will ease my muscle tension?" or "So are you American or Korean?"

    I also work at the Black Cultural Center at my school, and it is relaxing to be without the burden of having to face people with privilege, but it's still not quite there in terms of people who can mostly relate to me as an Asian American.

    Even in Kentucky, I try to find ways to self-segregate, and my (white) friends point that out to me as "racism." For instance, I had gone out of my way to take classes with instructors of Asian descent, and they saw that as completely unreasonable. I've tried pointing it out to my friends that it is reasonable to want to be without the pressure of having to "represent the race" or feel inhuman, but to no avail. :(

  18. @ Radathser, I have had a similar experience, and have often wondered about the reasons behind it. Although I am a WW, and I although attend a PWI, about 40% of my acquaintances and friends are PoC. However, in the past I attended schools that were almost all white. Being a quiet, nerdy kind of girl, I experienced the usual high school-style bullying by other (white) girls.

    When I got older and moved into university, I found myself gravitating more towards my PoC friends than to white people. It was as if I was thinking subconciously that, as PoC, they were well-acquainted with oppression, and so would be more understanding and accepting of my uniqueness. On the other hand, I felt that white people, being generally unaware of their prejudices, would be more likely to ostracize me.

    Of course it could have been something even more insidious. Maybe I was so tired of being made to feel inferior by white people that I preferred to hang out with PoC because, as a white person, I would hold privilege in a PoC group. It's sad to think that some of my dearest friendships could be tainted by unconscious racism. This blog has forced me to question a lot of my basic assumptions about myself.

  19. so , according to your post, whites expect and are agitated by POC self-segregation. And Black recognize this by pointing out that whites also self-segregate.

    Could this be because ppl in generally do not like surprises?

    Just a general social Psychology question....

  20. @AnonymousAnn

    i would say that your reading of the post is quite simplistic (unless i misunderstood your point).

    WP have historically self-segregated through legal channels, as well as other organized efforts. in addition, they still employ racism/white privilege in ways that make PoC feel (at best) suspicious and (at worst) unwelcome in integrated spaces. so the result has been that PoC generally feel safer being in spaces that predominantly or completely consist of other PoC.

    however, there are many WP who do not want to understand why PoC self-segregate. it's not for the same reasons that WP have traditionally self-segregated. it's also not just a function of personal comfort. it's a reaction to what PoC traditionally experience in integrated spaces.

  21. YES, YES, YES. One of my friends (who, incidentally, is biracial...Asian and white) and I were talking about colleges. I told her that I was looking for a school that had a significant black population and she took it the wrong way. She acted like I didn't want to be around white people. I explained to her how it is exhausting for me to be around white people all the time because I feel that I have to represent my race positively, and she didn't really get it. She told me I was being too paranoid and she started to get offended. Then she started going, "I'm Asian and I eat Asian food and play a string instrument and I don't really care about what people think blah blah so neither should you." :/ It made me feel as though there was something wrong with me to analyze these situations so much, but I'm glad to see that other people feel this way too.

  22. Question...

    Is it an issue of "failing to understand" or is it that some WP take offense to the ideas of:

    1. PoC defining some White spaces as fundamentally unsafe and it is made that way by the behavior of other WP.

    2. The notion that a PoC space can be safer, and therefore, more desirable for PoC.

    3. The rejection of White spaces as superior.

    4. The rejection of that idea that all PoC want and need to fully assimilate and integrate into a space where PoC are seen as innately inferior.

    5. On any level, PoC can be strongly preferred to whites for any positive reason.

    Am I way off?

  23. Macon, I am just wandering... do white people "fail to understand why non-white people fell like self-segregating" (and many other things) because they do not want to see the truth? After all if you don't want to see the truth then you wont.

  24. class of 13,

    When I first read your question, I thought, "No. That's not quite it." But then I thought, well, actually . . .

    I think that when it comes to race, most white people think they already know the truth -- basically, the common white claims that "racism doesn't much matter anymore, so why spend much time thinking about it, let alone working against it? People of color who complain about it are oversensitive or paranoid, or worse yet, race hustlers." As for the truths that racial whiteness is very significant in their own lives and in the lives of other white people, and that we still live in a system of de facto white supremacy -- I think most white people don't even consciously know that. It's a set of truths that they don't even know are there. So, I don't think it's quite that they "don't want to see" those truths.

    But then, at deeper psychological and emotional levels, I think most whites ARE aware of ongoing and rampant racial injustice. They mostly just suppress and avoid that awareness, and believe what some part of them knows are fantasies and lies instead. But I don't want to go too far in trying to diagnose that; I'm not some sort of qualified mental health professional.

    Does that make any sense?

  25. @TakeMulattoBack

    I think all of those reasons are behind the common white objection to the idea of non-white spaces. Also, I think that part of what's behind it is the ideal of the color-blind society, in which there is no separation but constant harmonious integration. We think that white people are ready for such a society and wonder why POC aren't (as indicated by their "unwillingness" to integrate in any situation). But that's based on being oblivious to the fact of pervasive racism and the reality that what we think are "neutral" spaces are actually white spaces.

  26. What a great perspective. From the quote, you can see the need for any race to self segregate. It is easier. You don't have to explain yourself to be understood.

    It takes work, time and committment to be a representative of your race in a place where you are not the majority. It is something I'll remember the next time I meet someone of a different race where they are in the minority. Instead of thinking "He's reserved", I'll think "He's being careful to be neutral".

  27. I totally understand this need for separation. But for me, it does not need to be another Asian person. It can be any other POC and does not need to be homogeneous (ex. does not need to be all Jamaican) because I feel like other POCs still understand, almost implicitly, what I go through.

    Is it like this for anyone else?

  28. @Sonic
    I kind feel the same way. Although I do have white friends, I feel that when it comes to discrimination or certain incidents my friends that are Hispanic, Asian, black or multiracial "get it". However, one of my good friends who is white and Jewish, does "get it". I think it's because she grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Philadelphia and witnessed some of the discrimination that took place.

    I live in LA--a city that "claims" diversity, but everyone sticks in their own corner--something which I'm not used to. I remember Chris Rock making a joke about his black friends having a bunch of white friends and his white friends only having one black friend. When I do hang out with some of my white friends, I tend to notice that I'm the only POC in the group--so I guess that I'd fit into Chris Rock's joke.

    In college, the program that I was in, only had four black people in total. There was another black guy in my class and whenever he wasn't in class, one of the professors would ask me if I'd seen him. Sometimes I had to bite me tongue from saying, "Just because I'm black and he's black doesn't mean that we're together 24/7, so no, I don't know where he is." It was annoying to have to the black ambassador.

    What's interesting is that I once dated this French guy and I was shocked that he made a comment about his circle being "too white". He said that he realized that he was hanging around too many white people and needed to diversify his circle--it was unusual for me to hear that. I guess it shocked me because he was aware of it.

    Not to go too off topic, but for some reason I've always felt more comfortable being around a diverse group of people. I grew up in a mostly black and Jewish neighborhood and my family is mixed, so I'm pretty much used to being around people of different backgrounds.

  29. Hell yeah I feel like I want to self-segregate in largely white spaces sometimes. Ironically enough I feel the most uncomfortable when white people let their guard down around me. When they get over my blackness I become 'colorless' like them and they feel thy can be more candid with me. Im like an honorary white to them. They dont say 'racist' stuff, most of the time I just think they are unaware of how ignorant/clueless they can be. They will say "Oh you are so nice, pretty, smart ect.. not like the rest" The rest of who???

    Again I dont think they necessary are racist but they, like every other person in the US, have some preconceived notions that tend to come out when they are at ease.

    My Asian roommate is the same. We were discussing something and the subject changed to blacks (Americans). She said something like they have attitudes and I said "Well Im black and dont have an attitude" She said "Your a Nigerian you dont have an attitude...everyone is scared of black Americans".

    Again, its amazing what people let out when they get comfortable

  30. "I'm sure I'm saying this wrong, but it pisses me off so much that white people do this. It's such a mark of privilege to assume that a space is automatically safe."

    Sounds right to me.
    They're "Space" (literal and otherwise) Invaders. I keep meaning to suggest this as a topic for SWPD [the Step-Off thing and the reaction to it alone are rich with material]. Because I just can't understand it. In addition to the (neverending, years-long) debate I've been having with a friend over Eminem and recent posts here and elsewhere, the latest thing that has me thinking about it is the whole Sprite Step-Off flap. I'm not into stepping (at all), but I've looked into this closely. Personally, it does bug me, but maybe not for the obvious reason(s). My big issue, once again, is: WHY? Why (from their POV) do these space-invader WP want to do these "black things"?

    Help me out: why does a poor white guy with creative tendencies living a WHITE hard-times existence feel compelled to express himself via rap more than, I dunno, rock, punk or metal? They were open; rap was not. So why rap? (Why battle rap?) Why does a white sorority girl who enjoys dance/creative movement want to step (!?)— more than, say, do gymnastics or tap or whatever else? Much less a whole clutch of them!? Not just the competition itself, but all that came before— the forming the crew, all that practice time, deciding to enter... WHY?

    These things are not addressed to WP. I hate to put it that way, but c'mon: what is there for a white person in stepping?? I know what stepping says to black Americans; what could these white Americans possibly be hearing? And once these invaders decide to follow their inexplicable calling, let's face it: often, when they first show up to the gritty battle spot or whatever, it's a real record-scratch moment. Let's say the atmosphere is in fact... less than welcoming at first (as with Mnm). Why do they stay?? Why do they feel comfortable enough to stay? Why do they feel—not just think— that they belong there, when everyone and everything is telling them (more or less explicitly) that they don't? I mean, compare to: "I'm not about to force my way into a white group where I clearly have been excluded by omission," where the space in question is work— we're all told we can expect to feel like we belong there, of all places! Whereas the Step-Off? Not so much. (As a non-USian, *I* don't quite feel I belong there!)

  31. I do pull away. It's stressfull when someone has never experienced being the minority or has never been force to process through it. If you never experienced it you make general statements and argue moot points. The minority is always on guard not to offend, upset and look for opportunities to educate the majority. The only time a minority gets a break is when s/he are in a majority. ...self-segregating.

  32. From time to time, here in Australia, you hear in the media some rumblings about the existence of "Asian nights" - that is, nightclubs that have nights targeting an Asian clientele.

    The complaint is along the lines of "Why don't they want to hang out with the rest of us? Isn't that racist?"

    But a prime factor that gave rise to such nights opening up was anti-Asian prejudice in the nightclub industry. Some club owners or door staff have ideas that Asians start trouble, or don't drink enough when compared to white patrons, or through their mere presence create the wrong sort of look for the club.

    The media who complain about this aspect of Asian self-segregation always manage to ignore the role that mainstream rejection has played in it.

  33. The OP asked POC to respond about their experiences, and did not solicit WP's stories. However, Karinova's comment about stepping leads me to tell a story. Before telling it, I want to say that I understand why POC want safe spaces. When I've been a gender or cultural minority, I had the same sense of just being able to relax with people more like myself. Further, although I do socialize individually with some POC and spend time in settings where POC are the majority when doing my work, I have been reflecting and challenging myself with the recognition that I do not go into group social settings dominated by POC. In my reflections I am torn between asking myself whether I'm respecting other people's need to create safe spaces or contributing to segregation by not bearing some of the burden of integration.

    Now the story. In the 1970s my graduate program had a significant contingent of Black students. I invited one Black woman I had friendly conversations with to my house for dinner. She initially accepted, then told me that she had changed her mind, that the other Black students wanted her to avoid social contact with Whites, and that she wanted to stand in solidarity with the other Black students. I understood, and our conversation was friendly. We remained on friendly terms through graduate school, and are still friendly when we see each other professionally although we never formed a personal relationship. (I did socialize individually with another Black woman student who complained about and refused to accept the self-segregation policy.) The Black students in our program had a special corner of the study area where they hung out, and I always respected their desire for separation. I felt that I had enough understanding of their situation to respect their boundaries. However, another White woman (Donna) did not respect their boundaries and insisted on hanging out in the "Black" area anyway. But here's where it gets complicated. Four years later, Donna had made close friends with a number of the Black students, while I remained on friendly but distant terms with them. I wondered then and I still wonder who was right, me for respecting the boundaries, or Donna for crossing them.

  34. Sonic, no, not necessarily. I have encountered a lot of prejudice and also cluelessness/ignorance from other POCs, particularly in my academic field, where certain people of color are not in the minority. In other words, even POC spaces can be unsafe spaces for black people.

  35. @Tony, hang in there. If I were you I would re-evaluate your " white friends" if they call you racist for searching out Profs and role-models who are of Asian descent. If they can't be sensitive to your feelings and are so dismissive of what are your genuine concerns and needs and won't listen to you they probably aren't really friends, or worthy of being considered friends.

    TO me their attitude sounds like a case of the pot calling the kettle black (or as David Addison said, "the pot calling the kettle, pot"). Especially since there is this big meme going around about how for a white person being called racist is the worst thing they can be called (which I think is bullshit), then they need to show some sensitivity throwing that term around against minorities. Unless these same folks regularly call white folks on racism or recognize the endemic racism in our society (which I doubt) then they don't have a leg to stand on. Or you could employ the what is good for the goose is good for the gander philosophy and call them out on their seeming reflexive racism for calling you out for doing what they do every day. If it is so unimportant to them to taught by whites then why aren't they at a HBCU or HSI? B/c it never occured to them and as it has been pointed out here, white is "normal" and the "default" so why would they? And watch them carefully to see what they say if they ever have a course taught by a POC and jump on them immediately if they say anything racially tinged about that person.

    Hang in there my young brother.

  36. I am enjoying reading the comments, but I need to ask a potentially stupid question. A few people used the acronym PWI. What it stands for? Because Google is telling me tall tales:
    Personal Wellbeing Index
    Perfect World International
    Pro Wrestling Illustrated
    Pregnant Without Intercourse

  37. @fromthetropics

    PWI = Predominantly White Institution which refers to the majority of Universities in the US.

    This is as opposed to an HBCU which is a Historically Black College or University

  38. Yes it does. Thanks for the insight.

  39. Personally, I prefer to call higher ed PWI's "historically white colleges and universities." It helps to foreground their racially exclusionary pasts, and the de facto white supremacy that still pervades them. It's not a perfect term, though, as it could imply (unlike "PWI") that their pervasiveness whiteness is in the past.

  40. @macon

    It's interesting the way we label schools that way.

    PWI insinuates that it's "just that way" as if there isn't a historical significance to why PWIs are predominantly white.

    Meanwhile, HBCU has this suggestion that it's "historically" been this way, but doesn't have to be now. I'm sure this is meant to combat that annoying assertion that white people can't attend HBCUs.

    Very interesting the way we use words. Good point.

  41. I want to second what thesiencegirl said about predominately POC places not necessarily being a safe space for me as a black American woman. Unfortunately the US racist media depictions of black Americans has spread around the world so I have had POC say racist things to me about black Americans.

  42. The need to segregate for me as a Black person is the need for a "no need to explain my behavior, no need to explain everything i do, no one to tell me they know more about things i go through everyday more than i do although they have never experienced any of them" ZONE simply put a place where i can be fully black.

  43. I think the wrong word is being used in this discussion: For Black and other POC it's not about self-segregation but self-preservation.

  44. @James Earl

    That's what is has always felt like to me. Both when you want to just be away and when I just wanna be me.

  45. I've always been confused by this, because honestly i'm never sure if I am doing this or not.

    I'm a Jewish individual with mixed racial heritage, who grew up in the South.

    In Elementary school, I had a lot of black friends, but my closest friend was a white kid.

    I generally gravitated to the "brains", so it was usually the kids with the thick glasses that were good at math, and we were all kind of pushed together because no one else wanted us around, so I self-segregated in that degree, I am sure.

    In high school, I was mostly groupless, everyone knew me and I could move around pretty easily. I had a good amount of black friends I think, and I sat at the "black table" a lot, primarily because I was seeing a black girl at the time, and that's where she sat and I wanted to be close to her to talk. I never really felt out of place, it only becomes an issue when people start acting "weird". This wasn't just at the "black table", but everywhere, people always seemed a little different around me after they found out I was Jewish.

    I've gotten a few, "Oh.. so you're Jewish?"-kind of questions, and a few weird looks. A few people were nice and admitted that they didn't know what a Jew was exactly, and talked to me about it.

    Most people seem pretty friendly to me, I haven't ever really gotten any outwardly hostile reactions, but the "Jew gold!" and comments about my nose, even jokingly feel a little old after a while. I can take a joke, and it's almost impossible to offend me, but when you're just walking down the hall and a friend yells out "JEEEEEWWW!", it's... weird.

    The "Nerds" were probably the group I segregated with the most, simply because they were usually all polite, and we could sit in our quiet corner and talk about video games. Our group was pretty "diverse", the "nerd" group consisted of a few Hispanics, a few black kids, a polynesian guy, a few asians, a couple of other Jews, and a few white guys. That was the group I could let my hair down around, and not worry about anything, because we were all secondary segregated from our own groups, or many of us were parts of groups so small that we didn't really have a large enough group to segregate with on our own. (Can you really segregate yourself when there are like 2 other Jews in the entire school and you're the only Sephardi?)

    But having no other people "just like" me, I had to segregate based on interests rather than ethnic boundaries.

    I guess I see pretty much everyone as "outsiders" to me, since i've never met another Sephardi in my life (the community here is almost all Ashkenazi)and it's rare to meet another Jew, much less another from my specific group of Jews.

    Yet, I am "white-enough" as long as I stay out of the sun and keep my beard trimmed that as long as I don't mention Hannukah or the Sabbath, that I can "fit in" with white people, but it's still a matter of having to keep the whole J-thing on the downlow or I start getting expected to comment on the Israeli-Palestinian Situation and having to explain to people that the fight isn't over "Whose god is better", and it's a little more complex than that.

    So for me, I think my situation is kind of weird.

  46. I grew up Mexican American in Los Angeles, went to all black and Latino schools, in a black and Latino neighborhood. I never knew any white people besides teachers. So when I went to college (in Los Angeles), I was actually pretty excited for the diversity, to meet Asians and White people and all kinds of people. I wound up being good friends with people of all races, but I guess you would say I wasn’t really a part of POC group on campus that “self-segregated.” I was friends with them, definitely, but not a part of the clique. It seemed to me then (and the comments above seem to confirm), is that most of the POC who “self-segregated” in college were those who either grew up as the lone POC in an all-white suburb, or lived in a POC neighborhood but attended an elite private (white) school, again being the lone POC, and were quite frankly tired of it. So by the time college came around, they all felt the need to “self-segregate.”

    Me, well I didn’t fit into either of those circumstances. The white mainstream world was so new to me it was interesting to learn about these white people are their dramatically different worlds. I honestly had no idea people like that existed- people with that much privilege and wealth (doesn’t describe all white people, obviously, but most, at least in college). I had lived in a ghetto-bubble all my life and thought that stuff only existed in the movies.

    Fast forward to now. It’s been about 3 years since college; I’ve been out in the (White) working world. I moved across the country to a city in the Mid Atlantic without any Mexican Americans. Like, at all. Maybe a couple at the universities. It’s incredibly isolating. Yes, there is still more of a “safe space” with POC because they understand being a minority, but it’s isolating to not have any friends of Latino or Mexican descent. To not be able to speak your home language, Spanglish. I can only “recharge my batteries” twice a year or so when I visit Los Angeles. Part of it is homesickness, but a big piece of it is the racial aspect. Throw into this mix the fact that I have very fair skin and easily mistaken for white. Yes, I have a certain degree of ‘white privilege,” but this means that I am a POC in the midst of white people who don’t necessarily know a POC is in their midst. And it also means that it’s incredibly difficult to feel like I’m in a “safe space” even with POC because I don’t appear to be a POC. At least a black person will always see another black person in the room. Of course that is an oversimplification (African American vs. African?) but nevertheless, I feel like I would love some self-preservation, but there isn’t any way for me to get it, from both angles. I would have to introduce myself every time as, “Hi my name is Rebecca and I’m Mexican.” And that is exhausting (although I do sometimes do this, and feel the need to do this, but it still seems awkward). I have a wonderful boyfriend who is a POC and quite honestly we depend on each other a lot for understanding and security, but even then I don’t get the language aspect. And of course having now spent about 7 years in the White World, I understand why the POC in college felt the need to “self-segregate”! I just hadn’t reached my limit yet, I guess.

  47. In my case it gets even more complicated sometimes...

    I'm personally black woman who almost completely grew up around white folk....outside of my family my interactions with other blacks were relatively few, and all of my extended family lived several states away so I saw them only yearly. Many people assume that I'm mixed (in the sense of having one white parent and one black, which I'm not) because I'm relatively light skinned....and from what I gather from my "mixed" friends, I think my experience with the outside world was pretty similar. My parents were successful engineers who although intensely proud of their heritage, were forced to navigate the (very very white) world their profession put them in. Although they wanted me to be around other black kids, the best public schools were in the wealthy white was more important to them, so that's where I went to school, although my mom says that to this day she regrets not making sure I was around more black kids. I was taught to speak in a way acceptable to the white community as to give me the best chance of success.

    As such, I never knew what a safe space was, all I could gather was that to survive and make friends, I had to integrate. I was more successful with the white kids...the black kids mostly thought I acted "too white" (and called me the appropriate names)...and life was mostly peaceful if I was willing to put up with the unsavoury joke or comment occasionally.

    Since then, everything about me is a blend of worlds. I'm so used to being the only one that I tend to feel equally awkward amongst unfamiliar blacks as being around unfamiliar groups of whites. My experience with trying to explain this feeling of isolation has mostly earned me a s***storm from blacks, and pitying confused comments from the whites, usually involving some of the comments that this post was launched on. Even amongst my good white friends, it gets exhausting knowing that as much as they love you and want to understand, they never will.

    So honestly, to this day I don't know what a "safe space" regarding my race is like...I feel like I have to be on my guard either way. The only place I feel like I can just be and not have to fight/make nice/be a good example/be loud and proud/blend in is at home with my (white) husband, who has learned that although he'll never fully understand (although he does try hard to), and as much as he wants to do something, mostly all he can do is listen and let me pour out my frustration to someone who's not going to make me explain. And as we try to navigate what to do with our future children, it will be interesting to see what paths we decide to take.

  48. To me the reason why some white people complaint about PoC self-segregation is that they do not ever want to see a space which whites aren't dominate.

    I think although very few white ppl openly wish for a all-white space, almost every white person (save the KKK folks) wants to see a "diverse" space with a white majority and a sprinkle of token PoCs to make them feel good. However, any space where THEY become the minority and thus start feeling the sting of being a minority is utterly unacceptable. So they complaint about it so they can feel comfortable going to ANY space.

    That maybe a bit extreme but that's how I see it.

  49. kerinova said "what could these white Americans possibly be hearing? "

    if you think white people are incapable of appreciating an art form just because it was invented by black people that leads me to believe that you really think that race is more than just a social construct. because if it is just a social construct, as we continue to break it down we are going to find out that we have a whole lot more in common than not. problem?

    according to you a white person who is genuinely inspired to be a part of something should say "oh wait i can't do that it's for black people, and they don't want me around anyway. i'll retreat back to my white world and do the stuff i'm supposed to do according to the script this racist society has written for me."

    no matter how many books or blogs we read white people are still going to have to actually hang out with POC if we are going to learn to stop relying on stereotypes. i know that sucks for POC a lot of the time because we are total dicks, and you wish we could just go to some meetings at the Y and figure it out for ourselves but, it's just not going to happen. (i for one will try to be less of a dick.)

  50. I know you didn't solicit white responses, but I hope they are welcome anyway. I'm a white woman and wanted to share that one of the best things anyone in my church growing up did for me was take my (white) youth group mission team to a local university (before we left for our "mission work") where we went to a one-day conference of churches. We were not prepared ahead of time to expect it to be all black churches, but they were, and most of them were also charismatic (which we weren't). We were seperated into gender groups for a particular workshop where things felt pretty foreign to me. I could not get myself to interact with the black people around me without a white friend by my side. Partially, I was a shy kid who liked to interact with people I already knew, but I also was aware that largely it was because they were black and I was already feeling judged--even though I am the one from the privileged race. We got yelled over a cultural misunderstanding and told we weren't holy enough and it was complete shock. When our whole group met back together outside of the building on this mostly white campus, you can bet I breathed a sigh of relief. I was 14 at the time and having grown up in a town where the only PoC I ever met were adopted children growing up in white families and one biracial girl growing up with her white grandparents, this was an extremely formative experience. I walked away thinking about what it means to be in a minority. I've had more formative experiences since then that have forced me to realize my white identity perhaps more than some of my peers that I grew up with, but that was by far the most useful in terms of building self-awareness.

  51. I self segregate from both blacks and whites...i am a misanthrope with a great disdain for humanity.

    I get dirty looks from blacks (who don't mind being verbal in their discontent for you) and I get the evil looks from whites who like to talk crap about you behind your back.

    I get scared around everyone...even my own family (except for my mom)

    But there have been times when I prayed there would be a black person in any small classes I have even though I have seen what happens when the subject of race does come up even when there are other blacks in the class...its not pretty at all. but at least with another black in the room, i am not the only target.

  52. Why I self-segregate
    -Because when having a discussion with my white female friend about a white guy who dated outside of his race, she said "maybe he wanted some flavor."

    -Because after my coworker asked me where I was from (nigeria), he proceeded to ask me "what we worship" there. Not what religions are most popular, not the specific values of my family, but "what we worship," as if he expected that dolls, the sun, or sticks would easily be plausible answers to that question.

    -Because, after losing a few pounds, I realized that I didn't like my hips not because they were fat, but because they didn't resemble the thin, white idealized image I'd had jammed down my throat during my teen years.

    -Because I like feeling like an individual, not a representative of my race.

  53. @Stephanie,

    Did you discuss your experiences when you returned to your community? In particular, did you discuss it in terms of race? I'm interested in whether an experience like yours would be as formative for most white Americans.

  54. This is the best blog I have ever read :)
    Classy, respectful, honest and mature.

    How refreshing :)

    Thank you for this. I needed to know I was not alone very much at this moment as the only person of colour in my office presently and really feeling the pinch bad. Thank you for all your comments. I related to almost every one.
    Amen & God Bless each one of you :)

  55. Also,

    for me I would like to add that it is tiring at work to be expected to emulate negative media stereotypes out there where POC are concerned.

    I am not about to "pop a cap" in anyone's a**.

    It is absolutely an awkward position to be in these days as far as I am concerned.

    I wish the media would stop buying into these negative images as the norm for all POC.

    It makes us all look bad and adds to making it a harder struggle day to day to counteract those stereotypes.

  56. I don't think that segregating yourself or surrounding yourself around more people of color makes the situation any more comfortable. I guess it is assumed that when your around white people that you have do or say things in a certain way as to not be viewed as another stereotypical black person to them. Negative media stereotypes like the news reporting of crimes involving minorities always play into what many white people think of blacks. These media images are damaging and they don't always make it easy for white and non-whites to get along or see eye to eye on certain issues. That is why I don't like to read the news or TV because we are always portrayed in a bad light and it is hard for many white people to counteract these bad images of minorities.

  57. When you approach anyone for the first time, the first thing to notice is usually sex and race.

    Race could make you feel uncomfortable just for not knowing what to expect or how to react before this person. But after a while, race becomes unimportant; color losses power and you start seeing the person just as a person.

    This makes me belief that segregation is the biggest ally to racism, misjudging and prototyping people. The least contact with people of other races, the more misconceptions you will have, and you will be most likely to adopt racist positions even unconsciously.

    If churches, workplaces and institutions would adopt diversity, probably it would be some confrontations and new issues a first. But, in the long run, all those misunderstanding will disappear.

    And churches followed by school and work places are the major gate-keepers. The are the real reason for a segregated society.


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