Don’t mock safe spaces if you don’t know what it’s like to feel unsafe

yale protest group

It’s hard to know what it’s like to feel unsafe in your own skin if you haven’t experienced it yourself. If you’re not a woman, you might not relate to the knot in your stomach when you hear footsteps behind you on a dark night. You may never have gone through a complex list of calculations to figure out how to get home without fear of being attacked. You might not have taken up the slightly comforting but probably ridiculous stance of weaving your keys through your fingers, as though you will be able to expertly deploy this improvised weapon in the face of danger. (Comedian John Mulaney captured this disconnect well in a hilarious standup bit). Kate Harding explores this depressing routine as it played out with her friend one night in her fantastic new book on rape culture, Asking For It

Back in my living room at eleven p.m., I was furious at myself for having a mental lapse that put my friend in a shitty situation. “I’ll call you a cab, tell them to send someone who doesn’t mind dogs, and I’ll pay,” I offered— but even as I said it, I was thinking of other possible scenarios: Molly could leave her dog overnight with me and grab any old cab home. She and the dog could both spend the night. She could go home in a cab, get her own car, and come back to pick up the dog. Or maybe one of my neighbors was still up and would let me borrow their car…

Running through this index of alternatives seemed completely normal to both of us. This is the stuff women are thinking about all the time, even as we brazenly strut through grocery store parking lots at eight in the morning, wearing overalls, with our hair in ponytails. How can I go about my life without risking my safety?

She shares a sobering exchange Robert Jensen had while interviewing women on college campuses.

In a January 2013 op-ed for the Dallas Morning News, Robert Jensen, a University of Texas journalism professor and anti-violence activist, writes of talking with two freshman sorority pledges about the specter of sexual assault in the campus Greek system. The young women impatiently explain to him that they have a strategy to ensure it won’t be an issue for them: “We always go to those parties as a group, and we never leave anyone behind.”

Jensen points out to them that “leave no one behind” is the language of soldiers going into battle, not teenagers going to a party. “I do not enjoy saying that, they do not enjoy hearing it, and we are all quiet for a moment,” he writes. “It is important, but not always easy, to recognize what is ‘normal’ in our culture.”

Roxane Gay addressed this lack of understanding of others’ profound feelings of insecurity and what it means for the protests going on right now on college campuses:

All good ideas can be exploited. There are some extreme, ill-advised and simply absurd manifestations of the idea of safe space. And there are and should be limits to the boundaries of safe space. Safe space is not a place where dissent is discouraged, where dissent is seen as harmful. And yet. I understand where safe space extremism comes from. When you are marginalized and always unsafe, your skin thins, leaving your blood and bone exposed. You live at the breaking point. In such circumstances, of course you might be inclined to fiercely protect yourself, at any cost. Of course you might become intolerant. Of course you might perceive dissent as danger.

While no one is guaranteed absolute safety, and everyone knows suffering, there are dangers members of certain populations will never know. There is a degree of safety members of certain populations will never know. White people will never know the dangers of being black in America, systemic, unequal opportunity, racial profiling, the constant threat of police violence. Men will never know the dangers of being a woman in America, harassment, sexual violence, legislated bodies. Heterosexuals will never know what it means to experience homophobia.

Many of us were drawn to college campuses by glossy brochures and a fantasy of a fulfilling, safe place to branch out and grow into full-fledged adults. We didn’t think of them as places where we needed to fear sexual assault or racist slurs.

I’ve seen plenty of people, including those generally supportive of anti-racist, feminist, pro-LGBT causes, complain about the whiners on college campuses who need to be coddled and cuddled and can’t survive in the real world. As Gay says, there can be “absurd manifestations” of some of these concepts. But before we are so quick to dismiss the backlash against racist Halloween costumes or rape culture, we should examine whether we are dismissing these concerns because we have the luxury of feeling safe in our own skin.

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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