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July 09, 2006

How To Welcome Outsiders

Since I posted all those links to discussions on how the privileged should behave when entering "minority spaces", I think it's important to address the other side of things: how we should behave when the privileged enter our spaces.

It may not seem like a problem, but it is. Those white men (and it's almost always white men) who have entered my minority spaces were usually invited in ... and to their credit, they clearly would not have come in without invitation.

The problem, then, in the cases of "guests" behaving well, is that those of us at home in the space feel:

• unprepared to deal with the privileged in a place and time where we were not expecting to have to deal with them;
• just plain annoyed that even this space, created and maintained with such effort and sacrifice, can also be coopted by a privilege that doesn't (usually) offer a worthwhile recompense;
• threatened, especially if we've experienced the hard end of white privilege personally;
• empowered by our obvious, first-time, absolute belonging in the space, to turn around and show the hard end of our hard-won privilege right back.

All of these feelings are understandable, and the first two are even legitimate. But even the first two often lead to unworthy behavior. If this doesn't sound like such a huge problem, let me illustrate:

Seven years ago I started an annual Asian Pacific American arts festival with a group of other young APAs. As we were all amateurs in event production, we had trouble managing the technical side of things: lights, sound, stage management, etc. By the second year of the festival, we had expanded so much that we needed people to take shifts in handling tech and I had trouble finding enough volunteers.

A very close friend of mine (a white woman) had been a professional theater tech and I asked her to volunteer a shift. She was very supportive of what I was doing at this organization and very willingly took on a shift. At the event, after her shift, she mistook a young woman she saw only from behind for one of the organizers. (Understand: this was not an "all Asians look alike" moment. She only saw the young woman from behind, and realized her mistake the moment the young woman turned around.) She apologized and, as she was walking away, heard someone from their all-Asian group say "Stupid white girl." Let me add that my friend was, at this time, wearing a brightly-colored t-shirt that marked her as a volunteer for the event.

A few years (and one further incident) later, I threw a birthday party for myself at the apartment I shared with this same woman friend, and invited all the staff from an Asian American magazine that I'd co-founded a few years before. These folks spread the word and brought friends, and quite a few young Asians showed up whom I didn't know. This same friend/roommate told me later that she had overheard a conversation among a small group of young Asians who clearly thought that this party belonged to the magazine's crowd. They had been looking around them in disgust and wondering aloud who all the white people were and why they were there.

Now understand that these are extreme cases, and that the misbehavior in both cases was committed by people I didn't know, didn't work with, and who were not responsible for creating and maintaining the minority spaces they (sort of) happened in (that is, the festival and the magazine.) However, that such things were able to happen in spaces that I helped to create, or, in the latter case, in my own house and in the house of the person so insulted clearly confers responsibility for these incidents upon me. I was, and still am, ashamed that such things happened, and to one of my closest friends, under my watch. I'm doubly ashamed that it happened to someone who came into that space out of love for me.

I am not monoracial and I do not live a monoracial life. I also do not restrict my social life to people who share my sexual orientation, age, religion, etc. The circle of my life intersects many, many more or less enclosed circles---in fact, I'd venture to say that I intersect more circles than most people (not my friends, though; they're just as culturally slutty as I am). My friends, family, colleagues, models, and other loved and respected ones come from all communities. All are welcome in my life, and all are welcome to follow me into circles I belong to that are not their own. But it is up to me to make sure that anyone I invite into my life, into any room of my life, is safe there.

So if you are tired of being restricted to your enclave, or if there are important people being shut out of important aspect of your life, here are some rules to make this happen:

• Know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior.

Alot of this bullshit continues because it's not recognized as such. Using a "minority space" to talk about group privilege, or even about individual instances of it, is not only acceptable, but necessary. However, using a "minority space" to make a privileged individual feel uncomfortable about themselves or to feel unwelcome is not acceptable.

Here's a rule of thumb: if the person being made uncomfortable had risked his/her life to save yours the day before, would you let him/her be treated this way? If not, don't let anyone, no matter what race or state of belonging, be treated this way.

• Think before you invite.

This is unfortunate, but necessary. Since these incidents with my friend, she's been wary, in any case, of coming to my Asian American functions, where she worries that she'll be unwelcome, (and can I just add here that white men are more welcomed into APA spaces than white women?), and I'm much more wary of inviting her.

Think about whether the event or circumstance will offer your guest at least safety from feeling awkward or conspicuous or on-the-spot. If the event or circumstance will not offer this, think about what you can do to offer this safety yourself. If it is absolutely impossible, don't invite them, or let them know why you're reluctant to encourage them to come.

• Don't sigh over bad situations, change them!

Thinking about your guest's safety, and the recognition that they might not be safe, does not let you off the hook. If there's no safety in the situation, but if you might be able to create safety, then you have no excuse not to do it.

In the cases I've mentioned above, I was one of the organizers of the events and circumstances. If this is the case and you've invited someone to a party, event, list-serv, or what have you that you're involved with organizing, there's absolutely nothing (but cowardice) stopping you from saying directly to your compatriots that you're bringing a guest and that you expect everyone to treat your guests with courtesy. Remind them that the honor of the organization is at stake, because frankly, it is.

If you are not a leader or organizer, but "merely" a member/participant, there's still nothing wrong with raising your voice (although if you're observing Asian America, you'd never know that.) Occasional strangers (active, intelligent strangers) have emailed me before an event or party to ask if their white friends would be welcome. This, in turn, reminded me to put the question to the organizers at large, to remind them to be thinking about this issue. It never hurts and usually helps a great deal.

• Remember that if you claim that "minority space" as your own, then you are a host to whomever enters it.

Ownership is a privilege that confers a great deal of responsibility. This doesn't just mean be polite to everyone. This means it's your duty to go out of your way to make sure that everyone there is comfortable.

You share this responsibility with all the other "hosts", but if you can't count on them to share the work with you, you still have to do it yourself. And if you're an organizer, don't be shy about reminding the other organizers of their responsibilities as hosts.

If you're at an event and you see someone standing by themselves (whether they "belong" or not) it's up to you to go up to them and draw them into conversation, draw them into a group. This is something you would imagine everyone would do for the friends they invite into the space, but that's not always the case. Make sure you introduce the guest to at least three new people. Take a few seconds to think of people who will actually talk to your guest, and, in fact, give them things to talk about. "My friend Eric is a photographer, too!" "Steve also started his own magazine. You might have seen it." etc.

• Don't let anyone of your group, even strangers, get away with bullshit.

This is more difficult, because the type of incident that I mentioned above, doesn't happen in front of me. You can't prevent all silly buggers from playing in your space, but you can go a long way towards creating an atmosphere that discourages such attitudes. And if your fellow members see you talking animatedly with "outsider" guests, they'll feel less certain about openly insulting outsiders.

But if you should happen to hear someone say something questionable, by no means let it pass! You don't need to be angry or hostile, but you do need to nip it in the bud, straight away. Often, a simple "It's funny you should feel that way, because I don't at all," will do the trick, but if you need to be more explicit, get explicit. And don't hesitate to call on someone you trust to back you up. It is a group effort, and a group atmosphere that you are striving for. You don't need to---and in fact, can't---create it alone.

• There's a difference between guests and invaders. You don't have to permit invasion.

All of the above having been said, you are not a gatekeeper, but you are a host, and as such, part of your responsibility to guests is to neutralize outsiderss who would impinge on the comfort of both guests and members.

Let me give some examples from real life (all of these invaders were white): a man who attended the above-mentioned arts festival only to buttonhole several organizers and tell them how it would have been done in their families' countries of origin; a middle-aged man who attended an open mic for South Asian young adults and took the mic for longer than his allotted time to read poems about North and South Korea and harangue the audience on this topic; a man who attended the launch party for an independently published book about Japanese American internment which had the term "concentration camps" in the title, who harangued the publisher's representatives about the Holocaust and prevented them from selling books, a man who stood at the back of a poetry reading by a Chicana poet and yelled things like "Viva la Raza!"; the father of multiracial children who hung around a multiracial list-serv, attacking everything the members wrote about their feelings as "racist", etc.

Permitting intrusiveness from "invaders: (i.e. not "guests", people not invited into the space) is not only not necessary, it's wrong. The space was created for a reason, and the strength and power everyone draws from the space must not be made genuinely vulnerable to vulgar attack. At the same time, permitting aggressive attacks by invaders only makes members of the space more resentful toward the more polite and vulnerable guests. Effectively neutralizing invaders makes it easier for everyone to welcome guests.

This means that you have to call for group assistance and be prepared to offer assistance to others in this task. You need to stand together and support one another (and not just walk away and leave the unpleasantness to your stronger, more outspoken colleague to deal with.) You need to be polite and firm, and politely and firmly repudiate the attack. You need to not permit the attack to absorb more of your time and attention than is absolutely called for by your own sense of justice to everyone. Usually the invader is just looking for attention and the best way to shut him/her down is to withdraw attention. If the invader is offering insult or danger to others, you need to call on an organizer, or if you are an organizer, to escort the invader out and not let them back in.

One final note: there are always borderline cases, cases of "guests" who step forward to take on a more active role in the community, a role which should really belong to a community member if your community is to remain self-defining. Yet these guests remain respectful, and offer intelligent contributions to the group effort. I have encountered three such cases directly (and no, I'm not going to talk about them.) I don't have any easy answers. All I can say is that respectful, contributing guests deserve a great deal of thought and care in their handling.

• And, a special last rule for organizers: don't fall into cliqueishness within the "minority space" itself.

There are hip activists and there are dweeb activists. There are people of your race/class/gender/sexual orientation/etc. who believe what you believe, but whose faces are ugly and whose clothes are offensive to you. Who cares? If your space is an activist space (and most "minority spaces" are, by their very nature, activist) then you have no business with exclusiveness. Activist minority spaces are developed specifically to combat exclusive practices in the mainstream. You must be always putting your behavior where your politics are.

If you are an organizer, you are doubly a host of the space and doubly responsible for everyone's comfort. A fellow _______ (whatever your "minority" space addresses) who comes to you offering time, money, effort, skills, or merely attention, deserves your time and attention back; deserves to be a full member and not excluded. Although having a community, a social life, is a powerful motive for joining such activist groups, it is not, and cannot, be the primary mission of the group. Please to remember that, and act accordingly.

One last observation: those who feel the most hostile toward outsiders are the ones who feel the least confidence in themselves or in the stability of their space. Those who are the least threatened by outsiders are those who feel themselves most stable and confident in their space. For the sake of the space, and of your place in it, be welcoming to the respectful outsiders who cross your path.

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Comments

This is a thorough and excellent essay on this subject. Thank you for writing it.

Very interesting article. And true of most groups, unfortunately.

I happen to be a science fiction fan, which means my and my friends' interests are all over the place. We don't normally do stuff like that. *Normally*, but there will also be a few idiots in the bunch.

But that is we do know- it's individual idiots. We are slowly learning that there is one race on the planet, the human race. But the key word is *human* and the trouble there is most humans is such idiots at least part of the time.

thanks, ny!

holly, i'm shocked by how often i'm the idiot in other people's spaces. watching people make asses of themselves in mine doesn't inoculate me against making an ass of myself elsewhere. these rules are as much a reminder to me as to anyone else.

I was just talking with a friend about the whole issue of invasion into minority spaces. Your essay is one I'll be forwarding on to her. Thanks for writing it!

"can I just add here that white men are more welcomed into APA spaces than white women?"

The intersection of race and gender issues that illustrates is worth an essay in itself.

(Ny sent me, btw, though she wasn't the friend I was talking with.)

Hi, I'm the friend randomness mentioned above. As a white woman, I've had personal reasons lately to come at this question from both sides- I've been doing a lot of thinking about how to try to be respectful of racial spaces, cultures, and issues that aren't my own (and about ways I've failed at it in the past), and I've felt "my" space to have resisted invasion by a male friend in a way that was temporarily disruptive to a few friendships. So I really appreciate being able to read your essay; it's given me ways to think and talk about these social forces that I didn't have before.

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