8 ways to exist in white spaces when setting them on fire isn’t an option
Pay attention to what your gut tells you. If something feels gross, it probably is.
by Briyana D. Clarel
This summer, I attended a conference for community-minded artists in New York City. Despite the conference’s commitment to activism, days passed without any Black presenters and the few presenters of color spewed dangerous rhetoric like “We’re all immigrants” and “It’s about class, not race.” Of course, the Black contingent came through, publicly naming and confronting these realities with the hope that the organizers would make changes and our fellow peers would learn.
Several undergraduate students of color shared that they wished they were able to do the same at their schools—to speak up about oppression quickly, coherently, and with conviction.
Being able to confidently address issues of oppression is a skill I have acquired through years of trial and error. Below is a list of tactics that have allowed me to reclaim my time and protect my peace while navigating suffocatingly white spaces. Whether you’re being targeted specifically or getting lost in a heavy cloud of white supremacy, here are some tips for self-advocacy.
1. Trust your intuition.
When I learned the word “microaggression” during my first year of college, I felt both overwhelmed and affirmed. Memories from high school rushed back and I understood that it was weird for suntanned white girls to say they’re as Black as me. This academic word confirmed what I knew all along—that small comments and moments like these are damaging too.
Pay attention to what your gut tells you. If something feels gross, it probably is. Did it feel like you were ignored for a promotion because of your race? Does it seem like your boss has a secret experimental lab in her basement? If you get vibes that something is not right, listen. Even if you don’t have the words to explain why a comment, email, or smirk is stressing you out, trust yourself. You’re most likely right about that feeling.
2. Remember you deserve to feel safe.
My first full-time job was at a horribly toxic non-profit that looked great on paper. I was paralyzed by anxiety every time my supervisors would step out of our too-tiny office to have a private conversation in the hallway. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t normal or healthy to feel such dread in the workplace. We deserve to feel safe. We deserve to exist in classrooms, in workspaces, in community spaces, and in public without harassment and intimidation. Remember this.
(Also, look up the symptoms of anxiety. Many of us experience heightened levels of anxiety and even have diagnosable generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorders, but have accepted it as normal.)
3. Know your worth and reclaim your time.
Good intentions don’t create change. Helping a company, non-profit, or department truly change takes work. People work full time as diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants and trainers for this exact reason.
When I’ve raised issues to people in power, they have offered to “meet and talk about it.” I’ve shown up to meetings caught off guard by white women who wanted to “pick my brain” or “hear about my experiences.” Often, I would share and nothing would change, or the situation would escalate.
Now, I ask what the meeting is regarding, usually in an email so it is documented. I decline the meeting if it’s clear it’s not going to be helpful. Or, I meet with them and let them know they can hire me as a consultant if they’d like more coaching or guidance. If your job or school truly values diversity, equity, inclusion, or whatever the buzzword of the day is, they will invest in hiring people who know what to do instead of overburdening their students or staff.
4. Be prepared
Know what you want the outcome to be. Do you want a policy changed? Do you want a safer environment for yourself? Do you just want your degree? How do you want to use your anger? It has been helpful for me to channel my rage with intention and purpose. When I was less clear on what I wanted, I ended up in power struggles.
Be direct. Be concise. Be prepared. It’s okay to bring notes into a meeting and read off them. Know what your goal is and know when you’re willing to walk away. Be unapologetic in reaching your goal.
5. Document everything.
A paper trail is your friend. Take notes. Bring a friend, and have them take notes. Record conversations (check laws if you’re into that, or ask permission). Ask for (read: demand) information in writing.
You might need the documentation in a legal setting, but sometimes you need to just show the receipts to others for validation. Keep what you can. Maybe you can even make an art piece out of it.
6. Always have witnesses.
Witnesses help you by being a second person to attest to what’s happening, and to perhaps diffuse tense situations or abuse of power. Avoid being trapped behind closed doors in one on one meetings. It’s a trap. If you do meet, bring a friend. You could ask in advance, inform them someone else is coming, or just show up with a buddy. Figure out who your people are. Not all the Black people will have your back and having someone who appears “less threatening” on your team can be helpful. I’ve found it helpful to meet in public spaces instead of offices. If I do meet in an office, I don’t close the door.
Have witnesses online too. When a white visiting professor used the n-word twice in a meeting with me during my senior year of college, I copied half the world on the email to the administration. It is helpful to let people know they’re being watched.
7. Know when to walk away.
It’s okay to move on. I shuffled through five jobs in three years after graduating from college, never staying at a job for longer than one year. I left in pursuit of better opportunities and to remove myself from toxic work environments. I walked away from my graduate program with half an MFA because it wasn’t serving me any more. I made plans, asked for support, and kept it moving.
And don’t be afraid to burn bridges on your way out. This depends on your industry and your goals, but don’t be afraid to end relationships fully. Do you really want to be working with this person five years from now? Do you want to be working with anyone who trusts their opinion? For me, the answer has generally been no. Even when I’ve raised hell at an organization, those that I admire have been supportive of me after my departure. It’s a huge world. You will find other non-racist, non-oppressive, beautiful people to work and collaborate with.
8. Care for yourself.
You don’t have to change the world, at least not every day. You can’t change everyone. You also can’t make change if you’re sick or unwell. Take breaks. Prioritize. Heal. Laugh. Experience joy. Express gratitude. Shine. Be brilliant. Thrive. You are wonderful. You got this. Keep shining.
Briyana D. Clarel is a Black queer writer, performer, and educator passionate about musical theatre, mangoes, and memoirs. Briyana is the founder of The Starfruit Project, an initiative supporting healing and growth through creative writing and performance. Learn more at briyanaclarel.com.