Louise Ferreira
Louise Ferreira

Some spaces exclude white people, and that’s a good thing

The Sunday morning after Mumford & Sons’ first Pretoria show, I woke up to a newsfeed and timeline going berserk — but about Beyoncé rather than banjos.

I’m not part of the Beyhive, but I watched the Formation video out of curiosity. It’s incredible. What struck me most, though, was the fact that I felt excluded.

I don’t mean that as a complaint. But it was surreal to realise, as a white person, that not only are there things that don’t include me, but that this is an unusual experience. I hadn’t felt excluded before.

This was the third time in recent weeks that I’d had a similar experience. I belong to a feminist Facebook group that prioritises intersectionality, and which recently instituted a new policy: Any POC (person of colour) may post something in the group and mark the thread for POC only. In other words, white members may not participate in that thread. This is done not to exclude or divide, but to create additional safe spaces for POC within the group.

Then, a number of women I know attended the recent For Black Girls Only (FBGO) event in Johannesburg. There were a lot of pictures on social media; it looked like a frankly fabulous event.

My immediate reaction to all of these events was, “I want to be a part of that!” It dovetailed with my interests; I like to engage, to participate. But this had nothing to do with me. It was not for me.

After watching Formation, I wanted to say something. I wanted to comment on police brutality and Black Lives Matter and the politics of black women’s hair, to show that I understand, that I’m in touch and aware and woke.

Instead, I sat on my hands and shut my mouth. I sat with that discomfort, and tried to figure it out.

Because understanding the references to Black Lives Matter and Blue Ivy’s baby hair doesn’t mean that I can relate to them. And this song and this video were so patently personal that there was nothing I could say that would add to the conversation. The only thing a comment would have done was to say, “Hey! I’m here! Don’t forget about white people!”

So I tried to interrogate my feelings of exclusion. The point is this: As white people, we are used to being included virtually everywhere. We assume that everyone will make space for us; a space that is friendly to white people is the default. We are often unaware that these same spaces are unfriendly to people of colour.

Look at the lily-white Oscar nominations, for example. I’m guessing that the people defending the white actors who were nominated as simply being the most deserving strongly overlap with the people who complain that a song like Formation excludes them. It’s just too black!

Screengrab from "Formation".

Screengrab from “Formation”.

Same thing with an organisation like the Black Lawyers’ Forum. You’ve seen and heard the comments, right? “Why is a black organisation acceptable, but a White Lawyers’ Forum would be racist? It’s reverse racism!” And so on, and so forth.

The fact that there are people complaining about something as simple as a song, or an event like FBGO that is unapologetically black, is proof that they are necessary. Effort is required to make a space safe for POC; the same effort is not required for white people because most of these spaces are already safe for us. In fact, most spaces are already for white people only – but instead of being overt, it is in the subtext, hidden behind many layers of “freedom”.

Feeling excluded, in this context, is a good thing. It gives us a miniscule taste of something that people of colour have experienced their entire lives. It means that people are doing the work of creating safe spaces for everyone. Complaining about it is a way to centre white feelings over black experience.

I’m well aware that I’ve spent a significant part of this piece writing about how I feel, which might be considered a contradiction. But what I’ve tried to say is that, when it comes to historical exclusion, my feelings don’t matter. Because they have always mattered. In excess.

We need to take a step back. Maybe get in formation, and better yet, get information.

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