I am a white woman, and I enjoy attending Payton People of Color (PPoC). This should not be laudable nor condemnable, although it might be perceived as both. According to its description on Selenium, PPoC is “open to anyone interested in having a safe space to discuss issues related to race, culture, and identity specific to Payton.” The Thursday enrichment was created by Payton’s newest administrator and Director of Student Engagement, Dr. Erica Bauer; Payton student Jessica Osemwengie ‘18; and local pastor Chi Chi Okwu. Topics include “microaggressions, the ‘n-word’, and the confederate flag,” according to Paw Print co-Editor Nadiyah Pate. Not surprisingly, the majority of students at PPoC are people of color … so why am I there?
To be honest, after graduating from Payton, I’ll most likely forget the majority of Calculus theorems and APUSH factoids (sorry, Dr. T and Mr. V). But years after receiving my diploma, I’ll never forget the difference between being uneducated and being ignorant. Being “uneducated” is a matter of opportunity: education is defined as learning of new skills in a formal setting. “Ignorance,” however, is much more intentional: while the facts might be available to you, an ignorant person might choose to ignore them for a number of reasons.
Payton has ensured I’m not uneducated; I must ensure I’m not ignorant.
It was because of this distinction and simple curiosity that I attended my first PPoC meeting in early January. Although I still have much more to learn, I’ve realized a few key points after a handful of meetings:
Safe Spaces Have Their Benefits
The entire concept of safe spaces has been crucified by the media for stunting free speech and being a playground for “coddled infants,” according to the New York Times. On the contrary, the conversation at PPoC is mature and topics discussed by students are often impossible to solve. From my experience, the “safeness” of PPoC allows for vulnerability to discuss shared experiences, not an opportunity to villainize white people. Race-based safe spaces are not dissimilar to support groups meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous: both give patrons a place to gather and empathize with those who have experienced similar struggles.
PPoC is not Discriminatory
Although the title advertises to a specific demographic, PPoC is in no way discriminatory. First, it’s simply illegal to offer a class at a public school that excludes a specific race, gender, etc. But legality aside, white people are not dissuaded from attending PPoC (or any other race-based safe space at Payton, in my experience). The first time I attended PPoC, I worried that I would receive the weird, sideways “you shouldn’t be here” glance. The whole idea is now laughably self serving: the only one who seemed to be apprehensive about my presence was myself.
Listening > Speaking
Technically, anyone of any race is allowed to contribute in all enrichments. However, as a white person, PPoC is simply the wrong place to trumpet my own beliefs and experiences. Attending such groups necessitates self-awareness: just because I can contribute, doesn’t mean I constantly should. Ultimately, it’s not about me: I consider myself a guest, not a core member, of PPoC and don’t find anything wrong with that premise.
Don’t Try to Earn an Ally Badge
I don’t go to PPoC to receive my culturally-aware star for the day. I know that attending a handful of meetings by no means makes me an expert on the struggles of people of color. On the contrary, I believe that there is no number of meetings, events, or rallies I could attend that could truly allow me to empathize with the struggles of people of color. I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over for driving while black. Unlike Crystal Valentine and Aaliyah Jihad in their piece, “To Be Black and Woman and Alive”, I don’t know “brands of hydrocortisone by heart” nor have a “Pinterest board dedicated to lemon juice recipes for lightening skin.”
But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to be an ally. It’s a goal I’m working towards, and attending PPoC has helped me to walk a half-step closer to that goal.