Actually, There's No Such Thing As A Politics-Free Space
Updated: Jul 24
Talking about politics can be uncomfortable.
I understand wanting to keep politics out of conversations with coworkers or extended family members in an effort to keep the peace or just to keep things from getting too awkward. I get that.
But politics is everywhere-- the “politics-free” space is a myth.
From your opinion on Tom Brady to your qualms about that big pothole in front of your house, you are steeped in politics. In the fourth century, Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote a book called Politics, the title of which literally translates to “things concerning/to do with the people.” Politics is how we communicate our view of the world and our vision for the future. It’s natural to disagree with others about what’s best for society and the world at large, that’s actually what politics is all about. Navigating the gridlock of mismatching ideals and opinions is the challenge of it all. And that challenge is what makes people shy away from politics.
And now is a great time to reflect on that. For example, on July 4th, the holiday wasn’t only about the red, white, and blue, and the fireworks, and the good parts of being an American. Because that isn’t the whole picture. This July 4th was cast in a different light by a summer of demonstrations calling attention to the deep inequality fracturing our country. The American reality is that we are a nation divided, and something is finally being done about that, and you can be a part of it. Instead of seeing politics as a shame-or-be-shamed situation, now is the time to see politics and protest as a sign of hope. One of the aforementioned “good parts” of being American is the individual freedom we hold dear-- the ability to do and say what we will. Not everyone in our country has had the ability to exercise these rights freely; things like police brutality and voter suppression are tools our country continues to use to systemically silence Black Americans.
It’s understandable to not want to “get into it” with the politically discordant views of your extended family, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion. You don’t always have to ardently argue your opinion, the whole concept of not having an opinion is couched in privilege-- white privilege.
If you are White, you have the ability to set aside your politics when you are having dinner and an aunt or uncle says something racist. It isn’t a direct threat to your own personal freedom; their comment will not subtly remind you that society views you as Other because you have darker skin. Sure, it would be ideal if some spaces weren’t political-- like routine traffic stops (Phliando Castile, 2016), quick runs to the convenience store (Trayvon Martin, 2012), asking for help after a car crash (Jonathan Ferrell, 2013), and sleeping peacefully in your home (Breonna Taylor, 2020). Not everyone can just ignore politics, because People of Color and Black people are a part of a community that has historically been both politicized and left out of political life when it comes to agency and change.
All too often, the onus falls on Black people to explain to White people the intricacies of racism-- the way discrimination is an institutionalized process, the power of microaggressions, how to pick up on a dog whistle comment in the media, and why you can not say the “n” word, even if it’s in a song.
This is why there is no such thing as a politics-free space. As a White person, you can help take some of that burden off of Black people and take it upon yourself to not only learn about institutionalized racism and the sociology behind racism, but you can take that extra-- albeit uncomfortable-- minute to explain racism to your White friends or family members.
Maybe you won’t change anyone’s mind by arguing over your dinner table. But talking about how and why Black communities are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 or pointing out Hollywood stereotypes like the angry Black woman can make a major difference in the way the White people in your community see racism. Taking the time to talk about race and racism is an investment in your community and its future.
Political things are things concerning the people, and you are one of those people.