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Safe [White] Spaces

My time at Brooklyn Co-op taught me a lot about how liberal democratic spaces fail to identify intersectionalities of exploitation.

Over the summer, I finally had the time for some much needed restitute and reflection over my recent cooperative living experience. Since September 2015, until this past June, I had been living in a “radical” collective co-op in the ever-changing Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Coming from a similar working-class, migrant area in Passaic County, New Jersey, I was looking forward to continuing my academic career in the culturally-rich and historical neighborhood of BedStuy. As an activist and organizer of color embracing the traditions of cultural roots in horizontalism, community and challenging power structures, I felt that living in a radical co-op was an easy decision to make. But what I soon came to realize through my naïvety that the dominant culture of liberal color-blindness and overemphasis on hollow “democratic” structures had obfuscated and further marginalized the experiences of the oppressed while serving as yet another tool of gentrification. All hip buzzwords aside, what I found was a toxic environment patched up by self-righteous, superficial white liberal gentrifiers — una cagada.

I came across this living space with certain expectations. The co-op in itself was something unique in contemporary New York City. Here was a living situation that dared to defy social standards of living by rejecting hierarchy and individualism; collective living was already a radical idea in a city known for its competitive and Darwinian way of life. This co-op stood as an island and seemed like an ideal living situation as I had recently become immersed in horizontal organization and anti-state struggles; yet for me, this went beyond poststructuralism and anarchy, as my influences derived from the Global South in the struggles of Indigenous communities and social philosophies existing outside Western thought and epistemology. I arrived naïvely believing that somehow there had been, at the very least, a clear path laid outafter 10 years of the space’s existence, but instead found a complex symbiotic relationship that had not even began to even address the systems of oppression co-op was supposedly fighting against.

The white members of the collective seemed at ease in the space they created; their seemingly progressive lifestyles fulfilling their altruistic aspirations. Most of them were transplants, foreigners now occupying the land once derogatorily known as the “borough of the Blacks,” where white New Yorkers seldom ventured off to.

The meet-and-greet for the vacancies were telling: In a city that is comprised by nearly 60 percent people of color, this house had just welcomed in its newest and only people of color. It would soon become evident that our presence there was tokenized as vindication for past denunciations as an unsafe atmosphere for people of color.

Our mere presence in the house, which was in itself comprised of culturally appropriated themes, cooking and living traditions, seemed to validate and justify the co-op’s existence in a quickly gentrifying community; devoid of any critical inward analysis, this experimental living space was gentrifying from the left. While we didn’t have naked pizza parties, many activities organized within the space were just as culturally empty and trivial.

Like any intentional community, this space had already developed guidelines and a general ideological bend. There were certain ways in which finances were procured and spent; what sort of foods were purchased and from what establishment; structures for our meetings and commitments.

While all of these guidelines facilitate the function of “progressive” and liberal spaces, created and maintained in a vacuum away from the racial, class and political context of its surroundings only serves to maintain its insular structure while replicating oppression in various forms.

The Politics and Cultural Roots of Comida

One of our first conflicts arose on the issue revolving food. The consensus had been to shop organically, sustainable and overall consciously. Now, these are essentially rational and proactive decisions that coincide with general progressive ideals, but a deconstruction of what these terms mean for different demographics demonstrates a liberal obscurity that continues to marginalize other groups outside of this dominant hegemony of white privileged liberals. Who can afford a vegan or vegetarian diet on a working-class budget?

Immediately off the list of considerations for sources of food were local bodegas, supermarkets and vendors who otherwise did not fit within this new framework for an ideal community. Yet, what many of these spaces fail to recognize is how these initiatives in many ways expedite gentrification and the displacement of communities. The rejection and essential boycott of community based stores — which have been family-owned for some decades — decimates not only the livelihoods of these store-owners, but the very neighborhood they are built around. Many of the radical spacesthat have sprouted in urban centers claim to be fighting gentrification, yet the transfer of capital out of local business to more “socially conscious” ones typically found outside of the immediate community serves to expedite gentrification through the folding of the former and the influx of upscale trendy “health-conscious” businesses. And some of these discussions were not purely based around ignored or whiteprivilege, but a classist and racist undertone. One co-op member dismissively responded to a mention of fighting for these local businesses in saying, “they’re on their way out anyway.”

But finance is just part of the argument about food within radical spaces. Vegan and vegetarian diets, which have been quickly adopted as unofficial requirements for radical circles, often overlook the crucial cultural relativeness of communities of color. Communities of color are deeply entrenched in traditions centering around food and family, which has come to define their identities. It is hard enough for someone of color to “come-out” to their families as vegan or vegetarian or a conscious consumer. For the many that choose to uphold these familial traditions while maintaining a proactive role in their communities, they can be met with outright hostility from so-called radical spaces that feel they have resolved the food consumption problem in adopting a particular diet. That was the case here. When multicultural diets were brought up, advocates would be quickly shut out with references to founding principles (made entirely by white privileged members who lived there previously). More emphasis was taken on the considerations of where our dairy came from than on the cultural implications of maintaining this sort of space for its members of color. But this didn’t just concern people of color in the immediate space in which I lived, but was also contradictory.

Researching our “progressive” vendors, I came across the troubling history the Park Slope Co-op in Brooklyn had in its support for Israel and its ongoing displacement of Palestinians in the West Bank.

The ongoing struggle within the membership of the co-op was on joining the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) and the continued selling of products from the occupied territories of Palestine. The co-op itself has come under fire from its own members for not living up to its progressive ideals and joining the worldwide BDS movement in solidarity with Palestinian people and their struggle against oppression under occupation. After months of outcry, the co-op finally decided to hold a meeting in the winter of 2015 to discuss the issue once again — the agenda items for that meeting couldn’t more clearly state the partiality of the co-op management: The first, proposed selling the products manufactured in occupied territories side-by-side with Palestinian products in a farcical display of equality; as if the placement of these products next to each other would erase the imbalance of power and violence in Palestinian territories. The last agenda item was a proposal to push the required percentage to approve a proposal to boycott a product from the majority of 51 percent to 75 percent — an obvious attempt at impeding any future actions to implement BDS or anything similar. The parallels between what is happening under gentrification in neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn and the occupation of more Palestinian land are not lost, and the disregard for this from the co-op in which I lived reflected its principles clearer than any goals or mission statements.

We Don’t Need a Seat at the Table, We Need Our Own Table

It can be hard to swallow for any “activist” to realize their very existence in certain spaces is actually in some instances a manifestation of violence and oppression. The lack of a deeper understanding of the intricate subjectivities and historical legacies shaping particular communities while jumping into this form of pseudo-activism only serves to alleviate some of the white guilt of privilege and the contradiction to their existence in these communities — becoming more harmful than good.

Many voices are lost in the democratic structure of these spaces, which are used to legitimize their decision-making. In giving an equal voice to everyone, including those that benefit from certain privileges in society, you are merely maintaining the elevation of historically dominant voices above those that are just starting to acquire theirs. How valid is consensus when it is reached among a group of mostly white people within a community that has historically been Black or Latino? Or representation is skewed to favor cisgender males, no matter how benevolent?

This is a microcosm reflecting the failure of liberal democracy within the US; founded with certain groups already holding a status above others in society through their own dominant culture. A single vote for a disenfranchised and historically marginalized member of this group is not justice. It is for this reason which we vociferously cry out”Black Lives Matter,” “Black Queer Lives Matter,” “Undocumented Lives Matter” … as a way to highlight these forgotten existences in order to bring them to show that they matter just like the others.

In many of these spaces, we are asked to explain ourselves; to open ourselves up to others so that they may better understand. It is not the responsibility of those whose culture is being appropriated and exploited to have to also come with instructions. We are tired of doing the work for others — we have been doing it for over 500 years! People of color, people who do not fit under the heteronormative, patriarchal and whitesupremacist hegemonic order have been forced to assimilate for half a millennia. We should not have to explain our behaviors, mannerisms and ways of life for the comfortability of others. If at worst, you may have to put up with being uncomfortable, then you may be privileged.

Do not get me wrong. There are allies out there who aspire to continuously work to understand experiences and empathize, but these are the ones who listen, learn and listen some more. There are spaces that see the importance of autonomy and self-determination for particular groups that can complement other movements and strive for a more just society. This was the thought behind the radical movements the sprouted in the 1960s. Before intersectionality could develop organically, liberalism had usurped the left trajectory where these radical movements had built, and since the ’70s, promoted this pseudo concept of colorblindness and post-racialism. This superficial ecumenical “progressivism” of the white US left has only served to obfuscate the voices whose very existence is resistance to dominant power structures. Let us not “blend,” but construct un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos.

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