Understanding – Like Really Understanding Safe Spaces

safe space

*Names changed for privacy reasons

Kia ora e hoa mā,

This is an article about how I changed my opinions on safe spaces, and why you should too.  Earlier this year, I began writing a piece about safe spaces and why they were unnecessary.  I thought I was being original and edgy by saying that through focusing on exclusion, safe spaces did more harm than good.  If their aim was to fix social issues, then surely that required the whole of society to be involved!  From my perspective as an outsider to safe spaces, they merely cut off valuable communication between minorities and wider society, and were counter-productive to social equality.  Safe spaces have been in the news a fair bit lately, most recently in the context of Chicago University banning them on the basis that they enabled students to ‘retreat from ideas  and perspectives at odds with their own.’  Their conclusions about the effects of safe spaces were quite different from my own, but involved similar misconceptions about them.  In thinking of safe spaces as a form of escapism from the ‘real world’ and engaging in communication, or as an easy out from tricky intellectual ideas, both I and Chicago University misunderstood the purpose of safe spaces.

So why did I think the removal of safe spaces was such a grand idea?  Well, earlier this year I was fortunate enough to stay at Pikitu marae for the tangi of a Pākehā man named Sam*.  He’d been an extraordinary environmental activist who worked alongside local iwi to achieve mutually beneficial results on the surrounding whenua and maunga.  At his tangi, the tangata whenua welcomed all of us (mostly Pākehā) into their marae with open arms, patiently explaining the local tikanga and values which they ran the marae by.  As a fourth generation urban Māori myself, this was my first time ever staying on a marae, and nothing like what I’d expected.  Where I’d been told the ‘Mowrees’ would be exclusive or bristly there was only kindness and understanding.  All of us were made to feel like we belonged.  It made me think that if every Pākehā stayed on a marae like this one, race-relations could only improve.  So, when a campus group for marginalised people I was involved in explicitly excluded anyone who was not part of the minority community they provided a safe space for, I was confused, and kind of pissed off.  I had friends that wanted to be involved in this cause and could no longer offer their skills or insights.  Whatever happened to ‘united we stand, divided we fall’?  I started writing about how excluding non-marginalised people from minority-centric safe spaces caused harm to communication and relationship-building across groups.  My argument centred on the need to work together to achieve common goals, just as Sam had done with Pikitu marae.

What I didn’t realise then, and have since learnt through my own research and experiences of needing a safe space myself, was that to work through issues, you have to first know that you matter.  To talk to people that potentially may not ‘get it’, you first must be secure in knowing that the problems you’re facing are real, and that you are supported in your struggles.  This is the purpose of safe spaces.  They are not about eliminating cooperation, but strengthening it through supporting the people who need it the most.  When you go through life surrounded by people who very much don’t ‘get it’ – to the extent of being vehemently against it, having a support system is super important to mental wellbeing, and future ability to participate in discussion or activism with those outside the group.  Safe spaces are about empowering and strengthening people to go out into the world, which is something they will inevitably have to do.  It’s not about excluding the world – it’s about creating something new that will actually benefit the world.  Whether online, in physical rooms, at universities or marae, safe spaces are places for people to feel heard and safe.  My own experiences with safe spaces have been overwhelmingly positive – I come away feeling refreshed and affirmed in myself.  Exclusive safe spaces allow for this, without the threat of (even well-meaning) people who sometimes just can’t emphasise with the unique experiences people for whom the safe space is necessary.  This isn’t to say that those excluded from safe spaces aren’t welcome to participate in movements as allies or supporters – just that there is a time and a place.

I know this can all sound a little bit up in the air, so I’ll try to bring it closer to home for those who have never needed a safe space.  There are very few of us who haven’t wished for a break from the world at one time or another.  Whether you experienced bullying, disrespect, or alienation – you can understand that the world is sometimes an unjust and unfriendly place to exist within.  For most people however, these experiences are one-offs and can be resolved with open communication and/or support from trusted ones.  Then, things go back to normal.  But for many people, their ‘normal’ is a constant feeling of being unwanted and out-of-place.  Aka: structural inequality and discrimination.  This is especially true for people of non-white ethnicities, women and gender minorities, people on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, people with disabilities, and neural-diverse folk.  Unlike the occasional instances of feeling uncomfortable or attacked that many of us go through, discriminatory attitudes towards people within these communities are incredibly pervasive throughout society.

Now I’m going to get down to some concrete examples.  Because safe spaces rely on confidentiality and the safety of their members, I won’t discuss specific groups, but rather the experiences of individuals within them.  I talked to three women who have been involved in various safe spaces.  Nora* and Hailey* were both facilitators of safe spaces for the communities they identify with, respectively.  Akia* also shared her experiences participating in safe spaces.  It’s important to stress that every space will be different, but this is what these particular women thought was noteworthy about their own involvement.

Although all three supported the need for safe spaces, they also highlighted some of the issues within these groups.  As facilitator of a safe space for queer people, Nora saw first-hand both the positive, and more problematic effects of safe spaces.  She warned about the danger of safe spaces becoming ‘echo chambers’ where ‘dissent isn’t tolerated.’  To combat this, Nora made it clear to members that many viewpoints were tolerated, and that the space wasn’t about one specific shared view.  Rather, its main focus should be as a place for understanding each other’s identities and experiences.  Nora also highlighted that within the umbrella term of queer, there are many different experiences, particularly between the letters of the LGBTIA+ acronym, which can cause tension, as some ‘letters’ will inevitably occupy different power structures.  Facilitating this safe space for queer people was a challenge, as it required balancing these diverse needs with creating a space where everyone was ‘able to chill.’

The campus group for marginalised peoples that Hailey helped to start up had issues with disagreement and fighting, occurring to the extent that it compromised the safety of the group.  As a division of political ideology was the main cause of this, Hailey advised against having one specific shared ideology.  Having banded together on the basis of shared identity, Hailey pointed out that this may indeed be the only thing members have in common.  So, while the group could be a place to discuss these issues, Hailey concluded that safe spaces work best as a place to ‘learn from each other and feel welcome and comfortable’.  Ensuring that a space is safe is far more complex than just excluding people who are not in a certain community.  Being aware of power structures and oppression even within safe spaces – such as that between the LGBTIA+ acronym letters, or between different ethnicities and the varying levels of privilege they benefit from – is integral to making a space safe for all members.

The final woman I talked to, Akia had a different experience with safe spaces, in that she didn’t feel like there was one that fully encompassed all the parts of her identity.  As a queer, Muslim person of colour, she struggled to find a queer or feminist safe space that made her feel welcome.  Seeing hostility towards religion in these communities, as well as feeling like she stuck out, made Akia feel uncomfortable in the one safe-space event she did attend (an inter-faith rainbow panel organised by Rainbow Youth).  Akia hopes for a space that can reconcile faith, sexuality and feminism, but thinks it’s unlikely she’ll find such a space anytime soon.  Akia suggests that spaces with more people from different backgrounds, experiences and faiths would be helpful for achieving a space safe where she can be comfortable enough to share her story.

Another important thing to note is that irl (in real life) safe spaces can be places of privilege in themselves (they are often on university campuses).  One vlog post by a group of feminists that I watched discussed how online safe spaces tend to be more accessible, to a larger number of people.  Online safe spaces can also connect people with less common identities to each other, such as the latter letters in the LGBTQIA+ acronym, and people like Akia who have multiple intersecting identities.  Connecting people who feel marginalised even within groups for the marginalised can be an incredibly positive thing in terms of creating networks and making friends.

At the risk of sounding like I’m aiming this towards people who don’t need safe spaces, I want to stress that safe spaces do not take free speech, or anything else away from society: they add to it.  Along with trigger warnings, safe spaces let people know they are respected and supported.  They are a valuable tool in reducing anxiety, and act to empower diverse groups of people to bring forward their perspective into the wider world.  Through safe spaces, society gains the perspectives of people who may previously not have spoken up about their experiences.  By encouraging, rather than repressing safe spaces, the world will benefit from the different viewpoints, experiences, cultures and backgrounds that people of different genders, ethnicities, sexualities, etc can provide.  For Pikitu marae, the place that triggered my whole train of thought on this subject (excuse the pun), inviting a Pākehā family into their marae was something they felt safe to do.  For other marae or safe space groups, it will not be.  That is their right, and it must be respected.  When safe spaces are led by and for minorities, they are able play it by ear and do whatever they feel comfortable.

So, although a knee-jerk reaction to safe spaces might be that they’re anti-free speech, are unnecessarily exclusive, or don’t have any benefit, that is not the reality.  From my own experiences, research, and discussions with others I’ve seen that they can function as many things.  They can be a place to discuss ideas and viewpoints, or merely a break from a world that constantly rejects who you are.  As Nora, Hailey and Akia mentioned, there are issues within safe spaces including internal power dynamics and issues of inclusivity that are important to note when facilitating safe spaces.  Although those excluded from safe groups may feel hurt, they do need to look at the larger picture and see the benefits that safe spaces have for those within and outside them.  Supporting minority voices is absolutely necessary for a healthy democracy, truly free speech, communication with wider society, and fixing social issues.  That, e hoa mā, is the point of safe spaces.


One thought on “Understanding – Like Really Understanding Safe Spaces

  1. There is a great deal of backlash mockery about safe spaces here in the US. I think about how much better I function in the world when I’ve had time alone – in my own safe space, where I am not judged or mocked or even noticed. I think it expands out to the larger principle of safe space for people who share the same issues, who can feel validated and then are able to be more expansive and engaging. You’ve explained that nicely here.

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