The Safety of Spaces: Women of Color and a Journey Toward Communal Empowerment

For women of color, the act of belonging to a professional space is a complex battle. It’s a battle I’ve always struggled with, even as a lighter-skinned Asian American. When I returned to the urban swamp of Washington, DC after graduation, I remember registering for countless professional workshops and seminars promising to give me the tools I needed to advance quickly in whatever career I landed in. But the reality of leaving those workshops was more empty handed.

Why?

Because these spaces of professional development are rarely neutral. In fact, neutrality can be a risky proposition. As women of color: think back. In all these professional spaces, did you feel like you belonged? Were there many like you, sitting next to you in your chair? Did the experiences these speakers allude to sound like the experiences you’ve had? More often than not, the answers may be: “no.”

There’s a well-known philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, who put forth an idea of public sphere theory, which alluded to the existence of a neutral forum where people from all walks of life could join together and dialogue about matters relevant to society. And, in some ways, this is exactly what these “neutral” professional spaces claim to do. It’s the idea that — no matter your background, race, gender, income, ability — the playing field is leveled so that all have the chance to succeed!

But the reality is that these professional playing field are defined by a privileged public: the usually white, heterosexual, higher-income speakers who are undoubtedly intelligent and experienced, but lack a more intersectional approach that truly benefits all.

For women of color to succeed in these professional spaces (from workshops to the boardroom), there needs to be the creation of a safe space where we can acknowledge that the playing field isn’t level, and work from there. A common complaint I got was that I was just recreating exclusionary practices that would further deepen a divide between women of color and our counterparts. But I don’t think that’s true.

Just take a look at the status of women of color in America:

  • Women of color face high rates of unemployment compared to white women.
  • Indigenous women and Latinx women report some of the lowest salaries: $31,000 and $28,000 respectively
  • While the median household wealth for single white women is $41,500, a single Black woman will only have a median wealth of $100.
  • Black and Latinx women make up the largest share of working poor in America.
  • Indigenous women have the highest poverty rates in America.
  • Black women are three times more likely to be incarcerated, compared to white women.
  • People of color are more likely to live in high-pollution areas, increasing their risk for pollution-related illnesses.

I’ve gone to workshops telling me to get out and network — but what if I was a single mother in nightly shift work, who needed to pick up my child from my grandparent or mother right after? I’ve gotten advice to seek out informational interviews from people I admire — but what if I didn’t have internet access to find those people; or enough money to afford transportation and a coffee? (Or better, yet: who pays for the person to give you their time!)

Women of color face a unique set of challenges that hold them back in their professional, and personal, lives. So it would only make sense that we create spaces that reckon and build from these truths.

Safe space is about freedom and trust. It’s about creating a location where marginalized groups can separate our experiences and redefine ourselves away from a hegemonic or privileged group. It’s about centering our experiences as the norm — the oppression, the harassment, the discrimination — and building solutions around those realities. It’s about being honest about the histories women of color have faced and continue to face, in connection with others who feel the same.

It’s only from these safe spaces that we can work together to create a world where women of color can thrive, not just survive.

This post was originally published on Medium.