Can you remember a time in your life where you felt the safest? That could be in your mother’s womb, a loved one’s arms, your grandmother’s house, or maybe even in the gym.
Can you also remember a time where you did not feel safe? What can you remember about your feelings? What would’ve made you feel safer?
In 1619, the first Black indentured servants arrived in the American colonies. Less than a decade later, the first slaves were brought into New Amsterdam (later, New York City). By 1690, every colony had slaves. These people were forced into labor in a place that they were not familiar with. Their families were separated, raped, and sold to different white colonists to serve them at their will however they saw fit.
History shows us that both the environments on these plantations and in the homes were not safe spaces. Anything perceived as “disobedience” toward the Master or Mistress of the house was followed by severe punishment. Can you imagine being in this space on a daily basis with no way of protecting yourself unless it involved death?
So, how does all of this connect to the importance of safe spaces for Black people presently? And why is it important that we as Black people have spaces without the white gaze?
Being the Safe Space
I was a social worker for 20 years, working with vulnerable populations including women and children, those who were HIV positive, or struggled with substance use, and the homeless. My primary clientele was mostly Black or non-Black-identifying people of color.
For five years, I worked specifically with homeless women and children at a New York City shelter. The women would often say that they didn’t trust my white coworkers. They would let out a sigh of relief once they discovered they’d be working with me instead. My presence was the lifeline they needed. Although our life experiences were different, I was “safe” because I looked like them.
I realize now that it wasn’t the white staff members personally who my clients didn’t trust, but the oppressive whiteness that they represented. These women only felt safe, cared for, listened to, and seen by someone who looked like them.
Making the Safe Space
After I was (lovingly) let go from my job while going through depression and a difficult divorce, I decided to put all of my energy into building a business centered around my passion for fitness and creating space for people of color within the predominantly white wellness industry. Currently, I’m a full-time Pilates instructor, writer, speaker, competitive powerlifter, and founder of a safe space called Black Girl Pilates.
Black Girl Pilates’ mission is to provide a safe space for Black/Afro-Latina instructors to discuss successes and difficulties, and support each other within the Pilates business where we are underrepresented. As a collective group of instructors, we provide education, mentorship, scholarships, and teachers’ workshops for new and experienced instructors.
I created this space out of my own loneliness when I felt there was no place to go, and rarely anyone with whom I could discuss how I felt without the white gaze. I saw a problem, so I chose to solve it with this group. Today, we are 275 members strong, with people from all over the world, and we continue to grow daily.
Throughout the past year, I’ve had several white women and men attempt to join our group in the effort to “support.” But why would I allow them inside a space that’s meant to provide healing from their very gaze that Black people battle every day?
Black Girl Pilates isn’t the only group that has shared this sentiment. I’m a part of a few groups that are specifically centered on Black women. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to be able to just talk to someone who looks like me about common experiences. There’s no way a white person could understand what we go through or provide the support we need to heal from decades of racism, prejudice, and bigotry. Healing can’t take place in the presence of those who represent the oppressor. (Note that I said “represent” as a white person may not have directly contributed to our oppression, but their whiteness represents our experiences past and present.)
Racism can appear in many forms at varying degrees. White sheets, swastikas, and skinned heads are the least dangerous to us. The most dangerous group of white people are the ones who marched against the current administration, identify as liberals, and have Black associates in their lives.
Even in the presence of those who seemingly eschew racism, we are not safe, as we never know when that person may change their mind. It makes sense because white supremacy is innate, and can rear its ugly head both consciously and subconsciously at any given time.
Keeping the Safe Space
So, why do Black people need safe spaces?
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” –James Baldwin
Because we deserve it.
The first response I’ve heard is that we are “victimizing” ourselves as a race. Well, you’re right: We are victims past and present. Surely you’ve seen the national news and social media discussing recent police brutality, unnecessary confrontations, and 911 calls by white people against Black women, men, and children. Yet, you expect us to allow you into our healing spaces?
Being with others who have shared the same painful experiences is what heals. Our rage is justified by these acts against our humanity.
“To refuse to listen to someone’s cries for justice and equality until the request comes in a language you feel comfortable with is a way of asserting your dominance over them in the situation.” –Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race
As we begin to heal, we want to be able to discuss and plan to help others in our community to heal, succeed, be represented. A white person’s opinion as to how this should be done is not welcoming, healing, or justified. This is also described as white centering and policing. White people redirect Black people’s experiences to their own and strongly request that the expressions of these feelings be palatable to them.
“Without community there is not liberation…” –Audre Lorde
We need to reunite our community as a family.
Decades later we are all trying to figure out where we belong and where we come from. Hundreds of dollars are being spent by Black people to find out their African origins. Even in our birth nation we are lost and unwelcome. We need a sense of home. Home should feel safe and be your sanctuary from the outside world. That outside world for us includes the white gaze.
In the great words of Marcus Garvey, Jamaican born Black nationalist, journalist, and activist: “We demand (and deserve) complete control of our social institutions without interference by any alien race or races.”