A Deeper Look at "Minority Spaces"

So, a while back I got an e-mail from a reader about my Nice Guy list. Finding it interesting, I decided to make it the subject of a post. That was, as I said, a while ago. I am nothing if not a procrastinator.

Anyway, the e-mail (reprinted with permission) is as follows:

Hi,

I read the article “How To Be A Real Nice Guy” and most of the comments to it last night, and I am somewhat confused by what is really a core premise of the article that isn’t fully articulated, namely what exactly you are saying qualifies as a Minority Space. The definition given is “Minority spaces exist, whether they be safe-spaces, places where we can go to not have to focus on priviliged groups for once, or even exclusionary ones.” This leaves me with a number of questions. For example, is a blog on feminist issues by default a Minority Space by virtue of its subject matter being one of concern to the Minority rather than an issue that caters to the privileged group? Or would there need to be more specific and/or explicit criteria followed for it to constitute a Minority Space? Further confusing me is that certain parts of the article appear to treat the concept of entering a Minority Space interchangably with having a conversation with a member of a Minority.

There is in your article a strong emphasis on the idea that members of a Majority who are in a Minority Space should listen and learn (without requiring active teaching) and refrain from actively participating, and in particular, to be extremely cautious when comparing the experiences of that Minority group to their own as a member of another Minority group and not to compare said experiences at all to the experience of the Majority. I certainly agree that members of a Minority should be free to construct such a space if that is their wish, and there are certain spaces that could be assumed by their very function to be, unless otherwise noted, a Minority Space of this type (eg a rape survivor peer counselling group). But a broad definition of Minority Space that encompasses any space where members of the Minority engage in discussion about issues of concern to their Minority, combined with all members of the Majority who participate following your suggestions (a perhaps unlikely hypothetical) would largely preclude direct discussion between members of the Minority and members of the Majority on those subjects, which would be an unfortunate result.

(Of course, it could be that what I see as the inherent benefits of direct discussion between members of the Minority and members of the Majority- that the insights of all parties, both as individual thinkers and as people with the respective experiences of being part of the Minority and the Majority, will together allow understanding that would not have been possible otherwise- is a viewpoint derived from my position of privilege, and that such discussion is not actually beneficial to the Minority. Nevertheless, I believe that such benefits do exist.)

Nicolas

So, first, the simple answer: a “minority space” is a space created by minority groups, for minority groups. It may allow privileged groups to listen to or participate in discussion, and it may not. It differs from a “privileged space” in that its exclusionary nature is not designed to uphold established power structures (as with gentlemen’s clubs and the like), but rather to provide a safe environment for minority groups to discuss issues that are not able to get airtime in “default” spaces due to those spaces being primarily focused on so-called “real” issues which too often amount to issues that the privileged group cares about.

The longer answer to Nicolas’ questions will be behind the cut.

I. Is it a “Minority Space” or Not?

For example, is a blog on feminist issues by default a Minority Space by virtue of its subject matter being one of concern to the Minority rather than an issue that caters to the privileged group? Or would there need to be more specific and/or explicit criteria followed for it to constitute a Minority Space? Further confusing me is that certain parts of the article appear to treat the concept of entering a Minority Space interchangably with having a conversation with a member of a Minority.

Whether or not a space is a “minority space” is a question that can only be decided by the membership and/or proprietors of said space. It also can vary depending on the subject matter — this blog is primarily a minority space, but we’re one that welcomes all voices that follow the discussion rules, and there are a few posts that specifically address and invite the participation of privileged groups (such as the “Nice Guy” list).

I should also point out that, while I tend to conflate “minority spaces” with “safe spaces” in my “Nice Guy” post, they aren’t the same things. A “safe space” is one that has strict rules of support, many of which I have drawn on for my guidelines to approaching a minority space, and is, in general, not a debate space — not even for the minority members of that community. Minority spaces that are debate spaces can open the floor to discussion of privileged issues with minority groups and spaces. These spaces will sometimes invite privileged people to engage in the discussions in the hopes of fostering dialogue.

In general, though, I’m going to say that I think it’s best to treat any space populated primarily or wholly by a minority group as a safe space, unless specifically told to do otherwise. Even then, I’d say it would be a good idea to follow some of the same guidelines of a minority space even when it’s a minority issue in a default space. Sort of a it’s better to err on the side of politeness than on the side of rudeness kind of thing.

On that note, that idea — of treating conversations about minority issues as if they are taking place in a minority space — may be one reason that I seem to interchange the idea of a minority space with conversations about minorities/with minority individuals. While the two are not exactly the same, I believe that the fundamentals of a privileged person entering a minority space with respect and willingness to listen are the same fundamentals that are required when dealing with a minority individual as well.

II. Privileged Participation in Minority Issues

But a broad definition of Minority Space that encompasses any space where members of the Minority engage in discussion about issues of concern to their Minority, combined with all members of the Majority who participate following your suggestions (a perhaps unlikely hypothetical) would largely preclude direct discussion between members of the Minority and members of the Majority on those subjects, which would be an unfortunate result.

The role of a privileged person in a minority discussion is not one that is easy to define. The reason I emphasise the “listening instead of talking” and not trying to always compare a privileged situation to that of a minority problem in my list is because, more often than not, talking instead of listening and bringing up how an issue does/does not affect their group are methods used by privileged people that, by their nature, shut down discussion.

This doesn’t mean that one can never have a discussion about a minority that one isn’t part of. If that were the case, then I would have broken that rule on more than one occassion — I occassionally like to stick my nose in racial issues and I assure you that, despite being an Ashkenazi Jew (which in some places really is an ethnic minority), I am as lilly-white as they come and steeped deeply in my own privilege. But, at the same time, I’ve been doing this long enough to know when to keep my mouth shut and when to add my voice to the issue — and when I screw up (and we all screw up sometimes) and get called on it, I don’t argue but rather try to understand why I got called out so as to not repeat it in the future.

So, when have you learned enough that you can start speaking about minority issues without raising the ire of minority groups every time? I really don’t know. I think a big part of it is when being asked to check your privilege isn’t immediately answered with a defensive reply — “it’s not that I’m privileged, it’s that I disagree!” (the two aren’t mutually exclusive; in fact, I’d rather say that the privileged response necessitates disagreement, though not the other way around).

As for the rest… well, in terms of the way I do it, it’s all about carefully thinking about why I’m posting on the issue, what I hope to accomplish (which, in my case, has always been to show solidarity on the issue and, more importantly, to try to educate other people of my privileged class), and then check and re-check to make sure that I haven’t said anything offensive. If I do and get called on it, I apologize and take note of it for the next time.

In shorter terms, I look as myself as guest when I discuss their issues. I am not the one in charge, I am not the authority; I am a guest in their territory and therefore I need to treat them — and discussions that involve them — with the same respect I would someone who opened their home to me.

III. Conclusion

All in all, I have to say that “minority space” is a flawed term that doesn’t begin to define the complexity of privileged/minority interactions. Not only that, but not everyone will have the same exact definition of a minority space, nor the guidelines for interacting within that space, or even with a minority individual. Especially with the latter, because, being individuals, one person’s preferred interaction will differ from another’s.

Still, I use the term as a generalization in order to make clear my even more general point about privilege. Flawed as it is, I don’t think it’s altogether a bad set of guidelines for beginners interacting with groups that they are not a part of. The definitions that I use for minority spaces are used because I think that they offer solutions for some of the common problems that plague privileged/minority interactions (therefore shutting down any meaningful dialgoue) and will open up a path to greater understanding of the dynamics that govern our lives. In turn, that theoretically opens the way for discussion and, ideally, solutions to these problems.

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13 Responses to A Deeper Look at "Minority Spaces"

  1. arielladrake says:

    In shorter terms, I look as myself as guest when I discuss their issues. I am not the one in charge, I am not the authority; I am a guest in their territory and therefore I need to treat them – and discussions that involve them – with the same respect I would someone who opened their home to me.

    I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head, here. And the thing many people with privilege (particularly unchecked privilege) tend not to realise is just how they come across as placing themselves in a position of authority. Also, I wonder if there are many people who don’t realise or acknowledge that living as a minority individual does grant a certain (though varied) level of authority on how the world is for the relevant kind(s) of minority individuals. I mean, obviously few experiences are universal, but I’m generally referring to the sorts of situations where a privileged person will disagree with many minority individuals outlining similar experiences, without acknowledging the validity of those experiences.

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