‘A white space is a white space if you let it’

I met up with a close friend for dinner a few weeks ago. We took to Downtown Culver City on a Wednesday night for a pizza and drinks special. On this day–and every day we meet up, really–we reflect and question and appreciate all that has influenced our decisions.

We met in college during the early questions about our identities, our presence in a micro-aggressive UCLA, our creative voices, and much more that we’re still turning and tossing. She became a mentor in many ways.

I shared with her, without hesitation, the emotionally intense preparation required of me for The Home School workshop at Pitzer College. The affirmations and alcohol I consumed. The prayers and free writes I did to release my doubt. How, too, I burst into tears before I jumped in my car to drive up there. This was legitimate fear tugging at my body, keeping me from moving, literally, sometimes, and I knew it. It was familiar. I knew exactly why I was feeling like this. Small. Insignificant. Alone. I was afraid of being in a white space, again.

I shared, too, how I pit stopped at my girlfriend’s house before taking the freeway. My girlfriend gave me a card, an affirmation all it’s own, that I desperately needed, though didn’t think I did. This card said something like: I see you, and you deserve this, and you got this, and push yourself, and you’re meant to be there. I cried right there in the alley, behind her apartment, a neighbor I imagine pretending to look busy in the background. I revisited the card every night while I was at the workshop.

My first official poetry workshop was during my first quarter at UCLA. I waited outside the classroom for the older white professor to arrive, noticed all the white poets who I’d be sharing space with for 10 weeks. The room was small, a rectangular table slicing through the room. Hardly any natural light. Dull, beige walls. The professor went around the table, had each student introduce themselves. I already felt othered. But more so when he got to me. ‘Are you intimidated?’ he asked. I didn’t even get to introduce myself.

The rest of the quarter, let me save you the long, horrible and traumatizing narrative, broke the little confidence I did have. It has, and continues to be, a struggle to muster enough, whatever that is, to inhabit the spaces I want to. Those spaces, I find, I’m working against hypervisibility. I’m not the first brown boy in these spaces, but I mine as well be.

During dinner, my friend shared her own frustrations and brave attempts to un-whiten her pathway. ‘A white space is a white space if you let it,’ she said.

She reminded me of why I ultimately decided to attend The Home School months before I took the trip up there: proof that I belong in any space, regardless of how white it may be; fear that I need to gut to continue reaching my educational goals; and to change the landscape of what a white space is with my simple, but hypervisible, presence as resistance. It took a lot out of me.

I’d lie if I said I haven’t lost a bit of myself in the process, that I haven’t had to compromise a bit. But I’m learning to be fearless, occupy public space, but also know that it’s okay too if my voice is shaky. In the process, I’d like to think that I’m stretching the pathway for poets, who, like me, have got some serious fear. I’m Latino, neurodivergent, and first generation in every which way.

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