Are safe spaces really safe?

OVER recent years, the language of creating and sustaining safe spaces has become one I hear more and more often, especially in feminist spaces. For a time, I accepted this language uncritically, neither thinking more broadly about what a safe space truly requires nor introspecting around the various problematics that such spaces often bring with them. As such, I think it’s important to reflect on some of the issues and factors often working against this idea [or ideal], ironically turning spaces that should provide us greatest safety from societal rebuke and judgement into some of the most toxic environments for our politics.

What is a safe space? 

Before I enter into my critique, I think it’s important that I first expand on my own understanding of what a safe space is, as it is this understanding that forms the premise of my argument. Safe spaces, as I understand the concept, are intended to be physical and virtual environments which welcome the voices and views of the who claim some sort of collective political kinship, most commonly through sharing an othered identity, or identities, as mostly represented through gender, sexuality and race.

In an article titled ‘Safe spaces, explained’, Emily Crockett observes that safe spaces may take the form of hair salons, gay clubs or black churches; spaces that may not necessarily be oriented around discussion of a politics, but which – by virtue of the personal being political – become places of both leisure and reinforcement of shared politics.

Another article by Malcolm Harris titled What’s a ‘safe space’? A look at the phrase’s 50-year history traces the beginnings of the use of the safe space concept in reference to the gay and lesbian bars of 1960s America.

Adds Harris,

“Gay bars were not “safe” in the sense of being free from risk, nor were they “safe” as in reserved. A safe place was where people could find practical resistance to political and social repression.”

The terminology of ‘safe spaces’ then starts to become more prominent in 1960s and 1970s America within the women’s movement with women coming together in community and pursuit of some sort of freedom from the patriarchal control over their everyday lives. In a broader reading of women’s movements beyond the US, one begins to see more recurrently the idea of ‘women-led spaces’ in literature of the 1980s and 1990s.

But feminist scholar, Patrica McFadden, warns that such spaces tend to encounter context-specific challenges in the global South;

“…when we take a really close look at notions of space and its occupancy in gendered terms, we realise the shocking fact that it was only in the 20th century that women have occupied limited space in patriarchal societies in their own right as women and or as persons. Space was and continues to be largely defined as a male construct in every way conceivable, and for most societies of the South, one cannot even refer to the changes that have occurred in Northern societies around this issue to make any generalisations. The majority of women in the South exist outside space as a politically defined resource.”

Another important observation I’d like to make from my understanding of what a safe space is, is that this is a space that is not intended to be free of disagreement, or difference in political views and opinions, but one in which healthy debate is encouraged from an understanding that everyone within the space shares a basic set of principles and values informing their politics.  Also, consensus – as opposed to majority rule –  is encouraged as an alternative form of collective decision making.

Women Drinking Beer.jpg

How much range in political disagreement is truly acceptable?

In an article for Everyday Feminism, South African feminist Sian Ferguson lists 6 Reasons Why We Need Safe Spaces . On Point 1, Ferguson writes “Your Freedom Of Expression Is Not At Risk”. And on Point 2, she writes “Healing Is More Important Than Debate”. While I appreciate that in the latter point, Ferguson is largely referencing people of privilege entering safe spaces and engaging in confrontational debate, I still feel that the two points present a high level of contradiction and grayness about what a safe space should actually function to achieve. Is a safe space where, as many would encourage, “a space where no question is a silly question”? Or is it actually, a space where one must censor their “silly question” so as to avoid coming across as not so woke, or politically incorrect?

And what is the line we draw at what constitutes ignorance, and what constitutes offence?

The challenges of NGOised safe spaces

NGOisation – and the power dynamics that money often creates and dictates – is a challenge that is often spoken about in feminist spaces. And with the current ‘coming into fashion’ of feminism, the challenges in politicising feminism are only increasing. So while it’s all well and good to overtly declare that one is a feminist, it is equally important to interrogate what the contents of that feminist identity are. What is your politics?

While helpful to state that feminism is “the radical notion that women are people”, one has to go through a deeper level of evaluation around personal stances on a range of critical issues that inform one’s feminist politics. For example, what are your views on abortion, sex work, queer and trans identity, capitalism, patriarchy, ableism, ageism?

I recall once attending a workshop in such a safe space where each participant introduced themselves as a feminist but distanced themselves from conversations about some of the issues I raise above because “while I am a feminist, I don’t believe in all of that”. What this amounts to, at least to me, is a professionalised and NGOised form of feminism where one accepts the basic premise of feminism – that women are people – but is not willing to engage in a deeper intersectional analysis of how equality is not possible amid a range of other oppressions.

The barriers of language

 If we seek to be inclusive but use exclusionary language, we are again not creating safe spaces. And here, language can mean the use of a language that not all persons are conversant in, but also language that is insular and only understood by those with a deep reading of feminist theory and analysis, unless of course the safe space is predicated upon those within it having this language. Of course, there is also great possibility in bringing people together into a space where language – and identities – are hyphenated, complex and diverse.  But how do we make it safe without intimidating some into silence?

 Inclusivity without transformative analysis

 Sometimes we bring people into a space together without deeper reflection on their needs. We think we are being inclusionary and transformative, but oftentimes we are perpetuating the very same power imbalances that people are living with outside of the spaces that they should be feeling safe within. A friend once told me of a safe space where a woman who used a wheelchair could not access the meeting room because it was on the first floor of the building. She crawled up the stairs to the room to shame the organisers for not factoring this important access issue into planning for her participation. Who is it that we are creating the safe space for? Ourselves as individuals and conveners? Everyone? To tick off a funding requirement box? Who is the safe supposed to be safe for, because if it isn’t welcoming to the person experiencing the most marginalisation, then the space is not safe.

With that said, I would like to problematise my own last sentence – the part about “experiencing the most marginalisation”, as this too is a slippery slope. ‘Who is the most oppressed person in our space and how do we ensure that they are safe?’ Not only does that line of questioning reveal privilege and differential power dynamics; it also tries to quantify marginalisation and oppression which – while structural and systemic – are also very personal experiences. How do we decide who is the most oppressed person in the space, and should we?

 As you see, I offer many questions with very few answers. My intention with this line of questioning is not to deride the concept of safe spaces but to poke holes into it in the hope that we can do better.

Because we really can.

2 thoughts on “Are safe spaces really safe?

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