White Spaces

February 28, 2016

I wrote this post several months ago and never published it. My ideas on this topic have become more refined since then. I plan to write more about this in the future, so this will serve as a good starting point.

I was recently introduced to the term "white spaces". It's a term that refers to spaces that are... too white - either dominated by white people or their culture. It is not a term of endearment.

I looked it up later and from what I can tell, the term originated from segregation. "White space" was space for white people in which blacks were not allowed to enter. However, at least in the context that I heard it, the meaning has now been expanded to refer to any space where white people are dominant either in numbers or in power (whatever that means).

In its current form, the term is meant to identify spaces where minorities could be at a disadvantage or where covert racism of sorts could be taking place. The key here is that the racism is covert - unlike the racism that the origin of the word refers to. You can't readily identify it, but - people who use such terms would have you believe - it is imperative that we partake in eliminating it, because it is wrong, unjust, and it is having an adverse effect on minorities.

This is not a new concept. We've had a long history of eliminating hard-to-quantify social issues and threats - witches, jews, communists, and now white people who without even knowing it and merely by their presence are making life hell for poor minorities, who just want a fair chance at success. This topic really irks me, but it is also a very interesting phenomena. Historically, there's no shortage of instances of bigotry where people blamed an entire group for the perceived misbehaviours of some of its memebers. The "blacks are criminals" narrative is a classic example - we instantly recognize it as poor logic. There is also no shortage of instances where members of a minority group were blamed for the actions of their ancestors for generations (eg. blaming Jews for killing Jesus). This is also unacceptable today. But somehow it has now become OK - indeed fashionable - to blame "white people" for everything, perhaps best characterized by this headline from Salon (try to picture what would happen if a publication posted a similar headline with some other race instead of "White America").

At least part of the thinking here is that white people being the dominant group in society, the same sensitivities need not apply to them - they don't need the protection. Indeed, their dominance in society must be curtailed to make life better for the minorities.

There are too many problems with this line of thinking for one short article. I'll only point out the one flaw that you'd think would be most obvious to proponents of racial equality: that the logic of blaming all white people for racism of few is not made more sound by the dominance of "white culture".

The most interesting thing in this latest instance of bigotry is that it is applied by members of the dominant group to the dominant group. This bigotry is not stemming from some Us-vs-Them mindset. It is, for the most part, middle-class white leftists (commonly, and mistakenly, referred to as "liberals") who are championing these ideas about safe spaces, eliminating invisible threats, and curtailing free expression where someone's feelings might be hurt. This is, as was the case with the Salem witch hunts, nothing more than pious posturing. Instead of religious piety, in our modern times, sensitivity is the name of the game, and we're seeing an increasing amounts of it as people try to communicate their own moral virtue by an ever-increasing list of things to which they are sensitive and by which they are offended.

Needless to say, as people try to keep up with the inflation in sensitivity (you might say we're in a sensitivity bubble) they reach ever more absurd levels of rationalizing it. We're at the point now where having a 'trigger warning' at the opening of an article is not sensitive enough because the word 'trigger' might itself trigger readers who are sensitive to violence.

I digress.

Let's get back to white spaces. It's a concept that betrays bigotry, and even if bigotry against the majority is not a significant problem, it at least exposes the fact that the people who throw such terms around have learned nothing from our history of mistakes with bigoted opinions - that zero-sum thinking and tribalist mindsets are what lead to terrible human behaviour in the first place. In other words, the cure to real bigotry is in greater commitment to hard, logical reasoning, and by using terms like "white spaces" these champions of minority rights cannot claim the moral high ground over the very people whose legacy they try to overturn.

The second significance of this term is its suicidal, masochistic nature. Go to any non-western country on the planet and try to find someone with an equivalent masochistic worldview. I would bet you can't. People in Japan aren't entering spaces and thinking: "You know, I think there are just too many Japanese people here." Or "Japanese culture is too dominant here". No, Japan is where Japanese culture must be dominant. In fact, by all accounts, they will take pains to let you know that you don't belong there if you are an outsider. I may not necessarily agree with that, but one must acknowledge that that wall creates cultural resilience. Similarly, in North America, the culture of the descendants of Europeans who built this place must be dominant - that culture is what made this place so great. Rejecting this notion is nothing short of cultural suicide. And that should not be encouraged - specially not in the world's most advanced civilization.

I get the impression that so many people who partake in this sensitivity bubble are worried about minorities because they can't find a middle ground between the complete dissolution of "white culture" (also commonly referred to as WASP - white Anglo-Saxon protestant) to having people shipped to Auschwitz in cattle cars. I think there are a few shades of gray in between those extremes. And my own experience, at least in urban Canada, tells me that if you are willing to make yourself a contributing member of society, you can reap every reward that a "white Canadian" peson might. In fact, as I've mentioned before, I do not think there is a culture or society out there that is better at valuing people by their individual worth and accomplishment. Western culture is what has led to Western civilization, which is at the moment, the best thing we've got, flaws and all. I'm all for admitting mistakes and correcting course, but we'd all do well to stop bashing what is dominant and instead ask what makes it so dominant that others lack.

Racism exists, and insofar as it can be quantified, it must be addressed. But minorities don't need to worry about "white spaces" or invisible racism or other scary figments of imagination. They probably do need to worry more about how their own cultural values/beliefs might put them at a disadvantage and how they might need to change that.

And that's a topic for another post.