Let’s talk about Safe Spaces

“I’m a safe space.”
*wearing a safety pin*
“I attended the woman’s march.”
“You can trust me.”
          “My best friend is black/gay/lesbian/disabled”
                    “I work with refugees every day.”
In the increasingly tumultuous wake of the election, I have heard every one of these phrases, and have noticed a lot of people buy into the safety pin fad, and I can’t help but wonder if we are missing a critical underlying understanding of power and how a systemic culture of power works.
Lisa Delpit defines a Culture of Power (COP) as the following:  a system of societal norms and overt or subdued behavior that produces a class of individuals that maintain control and a degree of measured in success in the world in which we live.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m discussing this in conjunction with those who are obviously safe spaces. But, what if we are not safe spaces? Or, at least, not helpful safe spaces? What if my ability to project my undeniable, obvious, and complete safe space aura undermines any discussion regarding another’s choice to determine whether or not I am a safe space? If I ultimately believe that because I have or attended or advocate for ______, than I am a safe space, am I actually able to listen and respect critique regarding my ability to be a safe space? Or, am I too busy critiquing those who are obviously not safe spaces.

First, a few small vignettes to consider:
1. The day after the election, a white, male colleague stopped by my office to tell me that there was a young, female black student was upset about the election results and wanted to talk to him. He ended his anecdote by telling me that if I ever wanted to talk, I could talk to him because he is a safe, confidential space.

2. I recently attended a rally for immigrant and refugee rights. The march was composed of clear clusters: friends who knew one another, some immigrants, friends who knew one another. There wasn’t very much intermingling. Many people left in the same clusters.

3. A family member often approaches other minority members saying someone she is very close with is black as a way to begin conversations. This person often asks my opinions regarding racial conflict, dismantling systemic racism and oppression but only believes me when she can verify my feelings in scholarly articles or in a book. This person believes he/she is a safe space.

And, while there are plethora of stories to share, I chose these examples because I believe they pinpoint conflicting signals many persons with “good intentions” fall into, especially because they are often done so unconsciously.  

So, what does it mean to be a safe space? Does it mean never making mistakes? Does it mean never doing something even if you are doing it with good intentions? Absolutely not. However, continuing to perpetuate a culture of power that benefits ourselves and negates another’s opinion while simultaneously applauding ourselves for being a “safe space” is dangerous and hypocritical. 

I believe, that we must require ourselves to consider the following:

  • What does it mean to be a safe space?
  • Are there certain voices allowed to be heard over others in our safe space?
  • Who is allowed to speak truth into these safe spaces?
  • Are we able to consider ourselves as non-safe spaces from the very persons we are hoping to be a safe space for?
  • What does it mean if this is the case?
  • How committed are we towards becoming a better safe space?
  • Are we committed towards engaging in uncomfortable dialogue?
  • Are we committed towards hearing alternative opinions regarding whether or not we are a safe space?
  • Do we project onto others that we are a safe space without allowing them to decide?

I mentioned earlier that I attended a rally. And, I was one of those persons standing there staying in my little circle. I engaged in a few discussions with strangers about their signs and their anti-oppression work, but I continually felt this growing sick feeling in my stomach. I felt like a poser. How could I proclaim to be anti-oppression and pro-immigration when it was so hard to get to know my neighbors? It was uncomfortable making small talk. It was uncomfortable being at a rally that felt unorganized. It was uncomfortable being screamed at by strangers. Frankly, it was uncomfortable doing this hard thing. But, that’s the rub sometimes, right? It was for me. I like to do the easy things. I like to know that I am safe. I like to know that I am comfortable. But, I am continually challenged by the idea that this body is not meant to hide. This body isn’t meant to only do the easy things. This body is fully equipped to engage in peace-building and community building right here. And, maybe that isn’t your call. Maybe you have a different one. But, I’d invite you to start to listen to those little nudges, those moments when you feel uncomfortable, those moments when you are challenged to examine your own “safe space” mentality. 

Maybe we all can do better together. 

Shalom always.


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