The phrase “Safe Space” was by far one of conservative media’s favorite phrases of the past year. Post election, particularly in the context of colleges creating them, safe spaces have been accused of aiding the creation of intolerant students, censoring opinions of others and most of all absurdly coddling those who are over-sensitive to the world. On the other end of the spectrum, safe spaces have also been criticized for being inaccurate, misleading, privileged or just simply impossible because in some ways, harm is inevitable, and saying otherwise would be unfair.
Who is a space safe for? What exactly are we trying to keep safe from? Is it possible to simply leave harm at the door?
I’ve attended a lot of safe spaces. I’ve attended safe spaces that have left me perfectly comfortable and I’ve attended some that have made me want to run out the door, that have hurt me, or simply just didnt look safe for me at all. I’ve watched colleges I’ve gone to and leftist queer groups I’ve had a part in, desperately try to create space that feel safe in a world that constantly feels unsafe. I’m also well aware of the mental and emotional toll of consistently being harmed in a world that’s full of misogynoir, and of the feeling of isolation like you have to retreat but everywhere you go you feel intensely uncomfortable. The unfortunate truth is that none of us are safe in a world that is full of misogyny, anti-Blackness and all the violences that come with white supremacy, until Black people, queer people and those who aren’t cisgender men have liberation from the violence they are subjected to, a violence that negatively affects us all.
The concept of “Safer Space” is a direct response to this understanding of how harm comes into spaces, and that harm isn’t simply something that can be left at the door. However, just because truly safe spaces aren’t a possibility this does not mean that collectively we don’t have to try and prioritize the safety and comfort of people, particularly those that are most susceptible to interpersonal and state violence. The creation of safer spaces does not mean that it’s not necessary to try and do the work to continue to improve spaces so everyone can feel as safe as possible in them. While the concept of safer space is ever-evolving, here are some tips to start creating safer space in a misogynoir world.
To create safer spaces, it is important to first ask: did the people who are in this space first even consent to being in it. It’s not surprising that the spaces I’ve felt least safe in were the spaces I never wanted to be in in the first place. In the past, I’ve been pressured to join a space only to be tokenized, or coerced into visiting a space in order to get or maintain something I desperately need. I’ve been down right threatened into engaging in hard conversations with white people about harm, with the threat of them committing more harm against me hanging over head if I didn’t engage. These are common practices.
It’s common for people to force themselves to do things they don’t want to do and be places they don’t want to in order to get through life. Because of patriarchy and anti-Blackness however, people who aren’t men are more likely to be forced, coerced or feel pressured to be in spaces or participate in situations they don’t want to. People who aren’t white, are more likely to not have access to spaces they would rather be in or be forced into spaces they because their needs are rarely centered and properly resourced.
Note: If being in a certain space in the past was mandatory, pressured or coerced, either end the space or start an active dialogue about harm done and what active consent looks like in that space. We can learn from mistakes made.
More Radical Reads: Desire & Belonging: On Blackness, Femininity, and Queerness
Acknowledge Conflict and Power Dynamics
Conflict and power dynamics are unavoidable in any given space, this is simply because each of us enters with different needs, different beliefs and differing amounts of privilege.
I once attended a community meeting with a handful of peers about racism. It took place with a between the group of people of color and a handful of staff with seniority over us. The Ombuds person leading the meeting encouraged us to participate in resonance exercises with the staff in order to have us relate to one another on the same level and for the most part, it worked. The problem was that by the time the activity was over, there no real time to adequately discuss the racism that we were experiencing. We also realized that our stories, our time, and the simple fact that we cared and were immediately affected by the issue, where being taken advantage of. I left that meeting feeling angry, exploited and worst of all –vulnerable because I was lured into a false sense of equality.
There is no way to create a space where everyone is equal or on the same footing because that would be ignoring the political realities of misogynoir in our world, as well as diversity and need. Ignoring these realites, leaving them unmentioned and unaddressed in the guise of equality will not lessen their impact. In fact they create opportunity for more conflict, because needs are going unmet. Without actively and openly addressing these dynamics there is no way to begin to create honest dialogue, harm reduction measures, or active measures that would possibly make the space safer for people. Creating safer space means making active decisions to talk about conflict and power and how our own bodies and experiences give us the potential to harm others intentionally and unintentionally. Understanding and acknowledging how we interact with the world and how we affect others allows us to be more mindful and accepting of ourselves and others. It also gives us the opportunity to begin brainstorming more creative solutions to the problems of inequality we face
Be Accountable for Ourselves
Accountability has a lot of different meanings, but in the most successful cases I’ve witnessed it as something that works from self-commitment outward. It is hard to hold someone liable for not being respectful if they haven’t first committed to being respectful. It’s unlikely that someone will apologize if they were never willing to commit to apologizing in the first place. A person who wasn’t committed to being accountable for themselves will not likely take to the idea of community accountability.
This is especially relevant when the expectations in the space aren’t clearly defined and there isn’t a clear accountability process. Processes look different across the board but probably follow a clear pattern of recognizing, understanding and apologizing.
Recognizing: Where you or someone else recognizes the action you’ve done or the thing you’ve said,
Understanding: Where the person whose done the thing understands why its not appropriate.
When I first began going to places with more intentional accountability practices I experienced a lot of frustration. I saw people use accountability as a means to humiliate or reject others. I encountered people who were were so intentional with their words that it felt dishonest and suppressed. I saw people use accountability practices as a way to cultivate power over others. I left those spaces feeling frustrated and not feeling comfortable enough to express it for fear of backlash. This turned me off of spaces that really leaned into processes of accountability for awhile until I slowly was able to understand what real accountability looked like.
Real accountability is a basis for respect for self and others and doesn’t aim to demonize or reject others. It means understanding that we will make mistakes and are willing to apologize and change. Real accountability means in order to change, we must be willing to bring our authentic selves into the space instead of lying, self-shielding and avoiding being responsible and understanding of our thoughts, feelings and opinions. This does not mean being unfiltered, boundary-less, or intentionally and openly saying hurtful things; it means choosing to be honest enough to openly admit things you might not necessarily want to admit to the appropriate people and being accountable for working on those issues. Real accountability has never been about power, its has always at its foundations been about respect, learning to cope better and boundaries.
Safer spaces don’t keep us safe but they are an important step toward implementing plans to do so. The safe space movements of 2017 taught me how important it was for people to have spaces where they can feel safe in a social climate where nothing feels safe, and that no earth exists in separation from the violence of the world. Knowing this, this year and onwards we can create safer spaces for all with the full complexities of the world and ourselves in mind. Spaces where we can destabilize misogynoir by enabling ourselves with the choice to consent to be in these spaces, to share with and to give to each other. Spaces where we can be honest about our needs. Where we can claim and admit to the powers we do and do not have, the privileges we gained or were born with. And we can come up with creative solutions to support each other. Spaces where we can openly acknowledge what we’ve done wrong, who we’ve hurt and how we can do better. With safer spaces standing up against the recklessness of misogynoir in the world, they can give us ways to magine better futures for Black women, girls and everyone else.
Safer spaces can hold us accountable to prioritizing the safety and comfort of all.
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