“No white people allowed:” The Power of a Separate Space

Ashley Zhou

(Dis)Locations

“Separate” is too easily read as a dirty word within our contemporary mode of moral thinking. We have come to inhabit a multicultural pluralism sharing the whitewashed bed of liberalism. But self-defined “separatism” is a thing of value. It gets erased in the language we use to talk about integration and desegregation, of diversity as inherently valuable. That same particularity of liberalism perpetuates the constant drive toward allyship.

What defines allyship is that it stands beside and with a movement that has had the chance to outline its own body, if only in chalk, on its own terms. The debate that takes place in a movement’s action and conversation is the debate among the people concerned, among the people who are being spoken of. There is no “speaking for” in an act of allyship, though there may be amplifying and an interrogation of the particular ways that we can use our positions of privilege to mobilize and enact change. But you do not put an army of cis men at the vanguard of a movement for gender justice. You do not situate a collective of white people at the head of a movement for racial liberation.

The power of a separate space comes from our right to define it ourselves. This is not to say that segregated spaces are inherently powerful because of the identity-affinity of those who inhabit them. Rather, the ability to define and claim a space for a collective or an individual that is not accorded a privileged position—or the ability to be the unmarked category in society (i.e. middle class/upper class, educated, white, male, cis-gender, hetero)—is important. Essential. Something about having that space is a crucial part of self-definition and realization. Where else will the terms of any revolution be decided?

Probably not at Harvard. Probably not in marble halls of power and the ivory tower. What are the tools we can craft that may be of use? For one, we can attempt to change the environment of a “liberal” society imbued with a forceful drive towards multiculturalism that too easily becomes an equally coercive demand for assimilation. We can stop talking about separatism as though it is a thing that white supremacists invented and instead talk about how, in the assertion of affinity groups, their separate space in the world will be a place to define their own speech acts, their own aims, their own methods.

Wars are not fought without allies, but we enter battles for justice from a position that has been defined by power structures aligned across variant metrics. The way difference is inscribed on our bodies and then arranged within various hierarchies has put each of us in a position of partial perspective. But this standpoint is a significant epistemic place from which to come. It is essential to understand the immense power and the clarity of such a point of view, limited though each of us is. No one of us has the view from nowhere, the putative objectivity our science would love to claim. It is equally vital to be able to recognize the ground on which we stand (and pontificate) as individuals, not just the knowledge we create from there. What placed us here? Who is sharing the ground with us? We should feel able to place a stake in that ground under our feet, because, until we can stake a point of beginning, how can we move? That shared ground, defined as our own, is the separate space that is not imposed as a form of segregation but is claimed in a profound act of subjecthood. This is the ground fecund with the potential for generative discourse that we must be allowed to sow, and where we can put up a sign that says, this is who I need to engage in conversation—and this is who, for an intentional moment, I need a break from being forced to involve.

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