Safe spaces are often mocked and misunderstood. Those who are excluded from certain safe spaces feel discriminated against or feel that it is a threat to democracy. Perhaps the problem lies with not understanding what a safe space and its purpose is. The Daily Vox explains.
What is a “safe space”?
Safe spaces are communities – that can exist online or in real life – where bigotry and oppressive views are not tolerated. Insofar as they can be, safe spaces are controlled environments intended as havens for the historically marginalised. They become networks where people can discuss certain issues and support each other. Often, safe spaces focus on specific issues like racism, sexism or transantagonism.
Those who choose to enter the space agree to refrain from ridicule or microaggressions – subtle displays of bias toward marginalised groups – and follow rules about what is considered acceptable and what is not.
There are also academic safe spaces which aim to encourage individuals to speak and promote free speech. Here, while people are still made to feel uncomfortable, it’s “safe” to take intellectual risks and explore any line of thought. In academic safe spaces, “safety” protects your right to make others uncomfortable with ideas and rational arguments. However, in this article we are referring to the safe spaces as the former.
Why are safe spaces necessary?
Safe spaces give historically marginalised groups of people networks of support, understanding and healing.
Some spaces are for women only, some are for queer people or people of colour. These groupings allow people to focus on an issue that pertains to the lived experiences of its members. It allows the space to connect and share in experiences and perspectives. Sometimes a safe space just means that you don’t have to constantly explain yourself and justify yourself because everyone else in the space gets it. It allows you to be yourself.
These spaces allow that certain voices – often marginalised and underrepresented voices – can be heard without fear of hostility. It means that these voices do not have to edit themselves for fear of offending a certain group or for respectability politics.
It’s important to foster safe spaces because society panders to the privileged at the expense of the oppressed. In a safe space, members can speak freely without the threat of being silenced or discrimination from historically dominant groups.
For Black Girls Only is a space that was challenged for exclusion. Vuyiswa Xekatwane wrote in Between 10 and 5 about why the space was necessary: “For Black Girls Only is important because the luxury of being able to enter any space where I’m not required to mother, smile, assimilate or be the subject of exoticism and comparison is a treat. To be able to discuss issues of blackness without the guilt and distraction of having to explain the context to someone who does not possess the lived experience of blackness is necessary.”
When and where did safe spaces originate?
Safe spaces have long referred to women-only groups, LGBTQI+ organisations, black and ethnic minority groups, and so on. Some trace safe spaces back to the feminist consciousness-raising groups in the 1960s and 1970s. Scholar and activist Moira Kenney’s book Mapping Gay L.A. said the term originated in gay and lesbian bars in the mid-1960s. In this time, gay sex was against the law in many American states and queer people couldn’t dance together or hold hands without risking criminal punishment. Safe spaces became places where queer people didn’t have to hesitate about whether they could show affection for their partners — and just be themselves. Either way, safe spaces are commonplace and vary from breastfeeding groups to black churches or spaces for women who are survivors of sexual violence.
What are some of the criticisms of safe spaces?
Safe spaces are often criticised for being echo chambers. In echo chambers, people repeat and agree with certain ideas, reinforcing each other and not contributing to new thoughts. Safe spaces do not stifle discussion or freedom of expression.
People living in liberal, Westernised spaces hold that everything should be questioned, debated and that freedom of expression is an inalienable right.
But in this context, this line of thinking doesn’t work. For example, in a safe space for survivors of sexual violence there is a rule that members should always believe the victim, that there should be no victim-blaming. This is not up for discussion because the world outside of the safe space is hard at work trying to blame and silence the survivor already. In a safe space, the survivor should not have to fight oppressive societal ideas.
Besides, respecting one space – that you’re not forced to enter – won’t infringe on your freedom of expression.
Another criticism is that safe spaces are for fragile people who cannot handle opposing thoughts and ideas. Critics lament an emotionally weak and entitled youth who need to “toughen up” and learn how to run the world. Perhaps we should realise that belittling people’s pain is abusive and mocking emotional safety is actually not progressive.
In recent debates around UCT’s supper space for POC, many white people felt excluded. They felt that a safe space threatened democracy and the precarious state the South African political landscape finds itself in post-apartheid. A safe space is no threat to South Africa’s democracy.
It is outside of safe spaces that there is a deficit of empathy. Perhaps if we lived in a world where we treated everyone with humility, respect, and compassion, where we are willing to learn from our own mistakes, safe spaces would not need to exist.