The topic of safe spaces has been coming up a lot in my life over the past couple of weeks and I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to say about them. The short version is that I don’t believe in them, but not for the reason all of these bleating think pieces decrying “PC culture” and “Millennial sensitivity” don’t believe in them (as I’d hope you’d know if you’ve taken even a cursory look at my blog before. See, especially, this piece on trigger warnings). Rather, I think that power is complex and tricky and continually reasserts itself in unexpected ways.
Which is probably why I’ve only ever heard people with power/privilege in a given room declare it a safe space.
As a white person, there are many spaces that are safe for me that are not safe for people of colour, whether due to microaggressions, the amount of space afforded white people in that room, or past incidents of racism that I may not be aware of.
As a woman, I’ve been in many so-called “safe spaces” that stopped being safe in an instant when a guy used casually misogynistic language, bristled at being called in, or continually talked over other women and gender minorities.
As a queer person I’ve been in so-called “safe spaces” that instantly turned unsafe when my identity was called abnormal and taboo.
That’s the problem with “safe spaces”–the question is never asked “safe for who?”
And, often, once a space is declared “safe” that’s it. I’ve seen it used as a cudgel before–someone tries to call in someone’s harmful words or practices and they say “but this is a SAFE space! OBVIOUSLY I’m not being racist/misogynistic/etc.”
I’ve also seen “safe spaces” used as a way to pressure people into sharing things they’re not comfortable with. “This is a safe space! Tell us about your experiences of violence/racism/oppression.” “Why aren’t you sharing? This is a safe space!”
But a declaration of safety without actually attending to the things that make spaces unsafe (casual racism/ableism/misogyny/etc; unequal power sharing; privileging of certain voices; a history of harmful behaviour; etc) can be a form of violence in and of itself. By declaring a space safe without doing the work (which, it should be noted, is both difficult and ongoing), we unconsciously reassert all of the things that make the rest of the world unsafe for so many people. And we make it much harder for people being harmed to actually speak up.
Which is why I offered the alternate title of “we need to do better.”
I don’t declare places to be “safe spaces” because I truly don’t believe safe spaces exist. As I’ve mentioned, a space can go from safe to unsafe in an instant.
Some places can never be safe spaces, regardless of what we call it or write on a whiteboard.
What we can aspire to, however, is building “safe enough” spaces. “Safe enough” spaces are predicated on the idea that safety is not static, that those who hold power must be accountable, and that it is this accountability that makes a space safe enough for the most marginalized to speak out and have their needs met.
And “safe enough” spaces, like being an ally, are not something you can declare yourself. They are something granted by those you are working in solidarity with, based on how you attend to conflict and harmful behaviour.
Which is why “safe enough” spaces should never be a naming or a declaration, but a question. “How do we make this space safe enough for everyone to participate?”
And then you have to have the will and ability to follow through, even when it requires sacrifice and pain on your part.