I attended an event last night put together by the Helix Queer Performance Network on the idea of “safe space” and I have a feeling that many things that came up there will continue to pop up in my mind and in conversations in the months ahead, as they’ve already been on my mind and in the ether for awhile now.
What is safe space? (Was just talking to someone this morning about how insular and exclusive language continues to leave a lot of people out, so want to take a second to try out a definition here, as much for myself as anyone who might be reading this.)
I’ve come to know the idea primarily through my contact with progressive and radical organizations, people, and politics. I understand it to mean the desire to create a space (doesn’t need to be a literal, physical, or permanent space) where a group of people, often a group of people who have a particular identity or characteristic in common, even if only roughly (i.e. race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc), come together with one another. And the purpose of that coming together is to claim time and space outside of, away from, or at least to the side of, some of the oppressions they face. For example, a group of queer students of color gather in a private meeting room, even to just hang out, where they might not have to be asked inappropriate questions or harassed or subjected to violence. The “might not” is big though, in any of these situations, because of course, as was said a couple of times at that event, we are all capable of violence, and violence within communities is not necessarily less likely than violence by outsiders.
Many groups seem to have adopted the more moderated term “safer space,” which, with a single modifier, adds both a realism and an expression of the ideal that these spaces strive for, even if imperfectly.
Christina Hanhardt started the panel off by touching on some of the history she researched for her book Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (of course published by Duke University Press, which seems to be publishing so many books I’m interested in lately). As she started, she referenced James Baldwin a few times, mentioning his skepticism about the possibility of or even necessity for safe space, and also his interest in the idea that artists “disturb the peace.”
Another topic that came up, particularly with panelists Chelsea Johnson-Long (The Audre Lorde Project’s Safe OUTside the System (SOS) Collective) and Jadele McPherson (LukumiArts, SUBMERGE), was looking for strategies and ways to build coalitions and relationships. Not in a woo-woo sense, but in a more practical and long-term, know your neighbors, see that we are all capable of both violence and healing way. Specifically as a way to try to get people to help intervene in situations of threat or violence.
Later in the evening someone in the audience who runs a theater (I missed her name), when thinking about how to build safer space in performances, spoke about recognizing that most people are inherently shy among strangers, and that simple ice breakers can help open up easier dialogues before seeing a show that leads to much more difficult dialogues. Which ultimately, for me, brought up the idea of creating an environment of trust, shared risk, and some baseline level of respect for each other’s full humanity.
I could go on and on, but the final thing that seemed to be present in many people’s comments, both on the panel and in the audience, was a deep wariness and suspicion about the value of a call-out culture that seeks to strictly police how language and identities can be used or referenced, and how much the current righteous tone of a lot of internet commentary often creates greater divisions, particularly across generations, instead of helping to alleviate oppression. Particularly when a lot of the calling out is aimed at people who are themselves part of oppressed groups.
It’s all tricky, thorny stuff, but I really appreciated the thoughts those at the event brought to the table, and really appreciated hearing from people asking questions about what strategies succeed in creating change.