The phrase “safe space” has been tossed around liberally for the last few years. You’ve probably come across it if you belong to an institution like a university or other large organization that values diversity and inclusiveness.
A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability. – The Safe Space Network
Safe spaces are intended for people of an oppressed minority to feel like they won’t be judged. They’re for people to freely express stories of their lived experiences. Examples of safe spaces include gay-straight alliance clubs in high schools, sexual assault survivor support groups, and mental health communities. It’s important to note that anytime I’ve been in spaces like these, often a facilitator will remind us that there is no such thing as a truly safe space because one can only control so much.
As people who care about oppression, we put a lot of effort into reaching out and supporting oppressed minorities. However, after the results of the 2016 American presidential election, I’ve been spending more and more time thinking about the people we haven’t reached—that is, the people who genuinely don’t understand certain social issues. I’m talking about people who don’t think feminism is necessary in 2016, who think Black Lives Matter is racist against people who aren’t black, or who don’t understand what being transgender means.
There has been speculation that the reason Trump got voted in as the next president of the United States is because this group of people have felt ignored in the recent years. Apparently, working-class white males have been disillusioned by governments who seem, to them, to be giving too much of the country’s resources to historically oppressed minorities, such as blacks. I doubt any of these people would openly support the Black Lives Matter movement. I also doubt these people truly understand how and why that movement came to be.
Now, changing people’s minds is challenging. Many people are so dead-set on their worldview, it’s impossible to change their minds. But there are also people on the fence, who, say, may have heard about Black Lives Matter but haven’t thought much about it. They may see and hear both sides of the argument and see logic in each, but haven’t made up their mind. These are the people I believe need reaching out to. They may not necessarily be part of an oppressed minority, but they may be in positions of power that could help oppressed minorities.
I’m sure we’ve all met people who are on the fence. They hear about social justice and feminism, for example, but don’t quite get it. Yet. They often have questions, and they’re often scared of asking these questions for fear of ridicule, or for fear they’ll be branded a racist or sexist or whatever. They’re afraid of being preached to when they genuinely don’t have adequate education on a subject.
There’s a belief within the social justice community that allies should educate themselves rather than put the duty on someone else, but information isn’t as accessible as we like to believe, even in this day and age. The Internet is full of information, yes, but it takes time, knowledge, and experience to sift through this information. After all, you can read feminist stuff by a teenager on Tumblr (which you should take with a grain of salt) and also feminist academic essays on JSTOR (which you may need help understanding).
And within social justice spaces, there is a range of opinions. If an on-the-fence person reads a very radical opinion and doesn’t have the context for it or doesn’t know that alternative less-radical opinions exist, they may come to believe that that opinion is held by all in the community and give up on the community altogether.
That’s why I wonder if we need a new safe space, a space where people can ask ignorant questions and not be disparaged for them. And these questions will undoubtedly be uncomfortable. For example, many people don’t understand how two women can have sex, and thus dismiss female same-sex relationships. Places online have tried to explain, such as this Buzzfeed video, but in a roundabout way that appeals more to the eye-rollers who already know how it works rather than the genuinely ignorant. Watching/reading these explanations, those who are aware of the issues can laugh cynically and collectively at those who are ignorant in a “wow, some people really don’t get this” way, but that’s not effective activism.
Of course, there’s a difference between a genuinely ignorant but curious person and a troll. I can imagine ally-to-be safe-spaces as breeding grounds for trolls to ask uncomfortable questions for the sake of making people uncomfortable, or showing up just to argue. Somehow, we’ll need to make the space safe for allies-to-be not only from condescension of their ignorance but from disingenuous trolls. And frankly, I’m not sure how we can do that yet.
Still, I do believe serious outreach is needed. It’s time we talk to the privileged and the misunderstanding public. What do you think?