Is There a Case for White Space?

Recently, the University of Maryland at College Park made headlines for creating a counseling center group for white students to help them learn how to engage in a more diverse world. Named "White Awake," the group was created to give white students a safe space to help them improve their interactions with "racial and ethnic minorities."

In 2017, the University of Maryland made headlines when Richard Collins III, a visiting African-American student from Bowie State University, was stabbed to death days before graduating with his bachelor's degree. His murderer? A white student at the time who actively engaged in online white supremacist websites. It is my suspicion as well as the suspicion of many that this group is, in part, a response to this tragedy.

News of this group was less than well received. In an article published in the Diamondback, a student-run newspaper at the University of Maryland, one student remarked that the marketing material of this group made it seem like "white people are being victimized by interacting with us." Other students, as reported in the Diamondback, raised concerned by the allocation of resources to an initiative like this when overall student access to the counseling center could be improved.

In response, the UMD counseling center has reported that they changed the name of the group and they have discontinued the advertisement that you are seeing here. However, they stand by the group and will move forward with it this semester in an effort to promote antiracism and allyship.

As someone who interns at a multicultural center and has a passion for social justice education on college campuses, this story sparked my attention. I help my office create curriculum for critical consciousness development and self-reflection for all members of our university community. I have conducted a number of trainings from my current position to my previous job at another college where people talk (re: dance around) race and race-related social problems.

Admittedly, my first thought of white people exclusively coming together did not exactly yield the most positive of images. Historically, whenever white people have come together, some pretty atrocious things have been the result. Does colonialism, slavery, pillaging villages, and the sexual violence towards women and children ring a bell?

However, I don't necessarily think a space for white people to confront their issues is a bad thing.

I have heard too many undergraduate students of color, particularly student leaders of color, express that they feel their presence in the classroom is in part to teach their white peers about diversity. Student leaders of color at predominantly white institutions carry a pressure that their white peers do not have because the direct and indirect expectations to share their experiences of oppression in an effort to build compassion from spaces historically not designed for them. Imagine continually being the only Black student in your classes about government, politics, economics, history. Imagine having to defend why #BlackLivesMatter or why media bias will call black children like Tamir Rice a man even though he died playing with a toy at 12 years old. Imagine having to explain how government surveillance infiltrated the organizations created in your community to fight for your rights to students who continually misquote statistics as a justification for your community's oppression? Our students are exhausted.

Earlier this year, I came across a Youtube video of British journalist and writer, Reni Eddo-Lodge. Eddo-Lodge is the author of the book, Why I'm No Long Talking (To White People) About Race. The book was birthed out of a blog post of hers that went viral a few years ago. In her post and in this video, she essentially talks about the emotional toll discourse about about race takes on Black people while trying to talk to people who don't understand race and how it operates. Eddo-Lodge speaks primarily about how race and racism plays out in a British context, but the overlying messages of white privilege are universal concepts.

I really resonate with Reni Eddo-Lodge's stance because in part, she is teaching us to protect ourselves and to have boundaries. People of color were not put on this earth to teach white people about our experiences, even though we are constantly put in environments where we are expected to lead and to teach. As an aspiring higher education professional, I find this particularly troubling because it stifles the necessary growth students of color need to do for themselves. When I was in undergrad, my understanding of social injustice was always seen in relation to "ignorant, well-meaning" white people. Rather than being given the tools to further dismantle my own internalized oppression, I was lauded for my ability to help white students discover the what white privilege is. Now that I work with marginalized students in higher eduction, I recognize how developmentally this expectation can be limiting.

What I have learned throughout my life so far is that white people live in a world where their racial identity is not a point of concern. Systematically, people in power or places of influence have been white. The presence of their whiteness has never been something that restricts their opportunities. White people perpetuate whiteness by acting like they don't understand what it means to be white. Many researchers on white identity development theory mention that whiteness is a discovery for many people that their experiences are not a standard norm for others.

So if other white people want to sit together in a room and work through what people of color have had to learn by way of life experience: so be it.

The questions that remain for me is how trained are the leaders of this group to hold students accountable for their fragility. How will leaders of this group address white students who think they are being discriminated against when marginalized students express dissent and bring into conversations about race their knowledge about power structures? Will this group help students understand white supremacy? Will they no longer say "not all white people" when confronted with the conditions white people cause people of color to live under? Will this group push students away from having unproductive guilt when they learn of their ancestors' atrocities? Will they even learn their ancestors' atrocities? The questions are endless.

Despite the UMD Counseling Center's best intentions, here are the key mistakes I think this institution made in the creation of this white support group:

  1. Naming the group "White Awake." In the age of increasingly right-wing organizations springing up on college campuses specifically, "WHITE AWAKE" sounds like a not-so-distance cousin of Unite the Right. I'm glad this is resolved but yikes, what an introduction.

  2. Calling it a safe space. Now, the debate about safe spaces in higher education has gone on for years. Advocates for safe spaces believe that marginalized communities need a physical place where they can go in seek of refuge in hostile environments. For college students from historically marginalized (re: systemically exploited) backgrounds at PWIs, cultural spaces give students an opportunity to be amongst peers with the pressure of the presence of dominant culture. If we are just looking at race, then WHITE STUDENTS ARE NOT IN NEED OF SAFE SPACES. THE ENTIRE WORLD IS ALREADY SAFE FOR THEM. White students are safe. Whiteness does not create for students a fear for their sense of safety in parts of the world the way racialized identities do for other students. For a group looking to help students understand difference, this is a *key* difference that must be addressed.

As someone who is not part of the University of Maryland community, there are things about the campus culture on which I do not have any insight. This leads me to wonder about the resources that UMD Counseling Center offers marginalized students who are dealing with the heightened racial insensitivities on their campuses, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, racism, and indigenous erasure that is also at the hands of not only their peers on a social level but from the structural level of university culture itself. Also, are there resources are their for white faculty, staff, and administrators who might need a similar place to unlearn racism?

Overall, even though an all-white space makes me anxious, it's nice to see white people attempt to hold their own accountable. Here is to hoping they watch Robin DiAngelo videos and attempt transformative work on themselves without expecting a Black person to run their microaggressions workshop after another racial incident causes them to go viral. Best of luck to the University of Maryland Counseling Center staff.

What are your thoughts? Am I being overly optimistic or am I exercising a good amount of caution?

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