In the discussion sessions I’ve been attending on my lunch hours at the graduate school where I work, one issue has been brought up a few times. It is the idea of a “safe space” to have the difficult discussions about race, racism, racialized violence, racism in our world and in our school. We’ve started many, many discussions over the years with a mention of the room being a “safe space” to discuss things, i.e. “Be respectful, don’t laugh at someone’s thoughts, it’s ok to disagree but not to disparage someone else.”
A Black student challenged the idea of a “safe space”. “What is unsafe about this space?” she asked. (Excuse me while I paraphrase her). “When I think about safety, I think of growing up in Cabrini Green [a notoriously dangerous housing project that used to be in Chicago], of violence, drugs, gangs. What is dangerous about having a discussion about racism? Who is in danger?”
We worked on breaking this down. When we talk about safety or danger, the idea is that there is a threat somewhere. Who needs to feel protected by the mention of “safe space” and what about the discussion is threatening? When students of color enter our majority White graduate school, they don’t have anyone looking out for them, trying to make a “safe space” for them. This also doesn’t happen outside the school. The world isn’t worried about protecting their feelings – why should they be concerned with protecting the feelings of the world? Especially if protecting the world’s feelings means never challenging the world to examine its perceptions and beliefs about people of color. Why do White people need an assurance of a place being “safe” in order for them to agree to talk about racism?
What we came up with is that the perceived threat in these discussions is the threat of being called out. There is a threat of being labeled a racist for saying something offensive or uninformed. There is a threat of having your beliefs challenged or questioned. There is a threat of discomfort.
So what does “safe space” really mean? Does it mean you can listen to a discussion about racism and no one is going to challenge you on something you’ve said? Does it mean you should be free to listen and never contribute to the conversation?
I think at best, a “safe space” can only be safe in terms of respect. We should be able to have difficult discussions, we should be able to disagree. We should be able to challenge one another and push them toward a more-informed and thoughtful perspective about things. And we should do it respectfully. Respect doesn’t have to mean there will never be tension, or tempers, or emotional responses.Respect doesn’t have to mean you will convince others of your opinion. It simply means that in the midst of emotions, in the midst of calling someone on their attitude, you don’t call them a name. You don’t say something derogatory about them. You don’t curse at them or use body language that shows you think what they’re saying is total crap. That’s all respect is. That’s all safety can be, in this context.
You don’t get to be safe from having your views challenged. Not if you want to grow. And not if you want to engage with others who want to grow.