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Supposed Security

On creating safer spaces

By Madison E. Johnson

So. I’m participating in a thing that has openly identified itself as a “safe space.” Bonding is like, half the point. There are icebreakers, massage circles, and times explicitly delineated for processing and journaling. Everyone’s having deep conversations, and relishing in the fact that they are having deep conversations. It’s great. The space is 50 shades of safe.

And then, in a group of people, someone asks me if I’m “a full black.”

So. I’m at a big international poetry slam. Being social justice minded is basically a prerequisite. All the nametags come with stickers for PGPs. There’s a Black Lives Matter discussion, and it’s closed to allies. It’s unusual to not have purple hair. The place is rife with consciousness. It’s beautiful. It’s safe.

And then a white poet gets on stage and says the n-word a few times.

So. I’m realizing “safe space” might mean different things for different people.

For many, all it takes to make a space safe is the ability to talk about their feelings without being judged. That’s totally valid. For others, all it takes is for everyone to try really hard not to say anything obviously prejudiced—or at least not on purpose. And that’s a good start. But I think I’ve been thinking about safe spaces in, perhaps, a more literal way: A space in which I feel safe, which seems obvious, and not that hard to attain. But there are a surprising number of things here that make me feel a lot less than safe.

For me, a safe space is one in which I feel that I can express all aspects of my identity without feeling that any one of those aspects will get me (including, but not limited to) judged, fired, marginalized, attacked, or killed. In these spaces, I expect to be able to let my guard down for a moment, to not be on high alert about what I can and cannot say or about what others may or may not say. There are plenty of spaces in which I enter thinking, “Okay, so here I shouldn’t bring up my girlfriend” or “Here I should water down some of my more radical views” or “Here I should choose not to fight that battle, because yeah that was racist but it wasn’t like that racist.” Or perhaps “Here I should be waiting for a comment that is going to make my skin crawl, I should be ready to respond to that in some way that is safe to respond in this space.”

Here’s the thing: If your safety obviously comes with an asterisk, your space is not safe. And you shouldn’t call it safe, because that is dangerous.

So. I was in Israel over spring break. We had a talk with a man who was in charge of LGBT issues and tourism in Tel Aviv. This was an official municipal position, I’m pretty sure. He told us this story about how he stumbled upon an online poll, asking people to vote for “The best gay city in the world!” And he noticed that practically no one had really voted for any popular “gay cities” yet. So he called all of his friends and had them vote for Tel Aviv. And so Tel Aviv was voted the best gay city in the world. Which is cool. And it was great for gay tourism in Tel Aviv. But I couldn’t help to think that that could be dangerous. That’s what we’re doing when we call unsafe spaces, or less safe spaces, “safe spaces.” Rigging the vote in a way that could endanger people expecting a space to be, genuinely, at least as safe as it gets. Façades of safety can be worse than outright unsafe places. Which is to say that there are places where I expect to hear the n-word from white people. (Unfortunately one of those places is in my dorm, from the white boys next door. I’m looking at you, Wigg.) And there are places where I don’t.

The poetry slam, though, presents the real question. At this point in reality, can there even be a truly safe space? They did all the right things. They preached all the right sermons. But that white poet still thought that shit was okay. And that was when I started thinking about Harvard.

Recently I’ve been applying for a few on-campus internships with centers and organizations that have taken up the call to create safe spaces. And, as applications often do, these asked that typical question “What can we do better?” Unfortunately, I think what they can do better might be impossible. Safe spaces that are truly safe spaces here are always, always self-selected spaces.

Of course, the thought on the issue of creating safe spaces and issues related to safe spaces is also a self-selective activity. So sure, maybe there were meetings and emails and forums and a lot of thought dedicated to creating safe spaces at that poetry slam, but that white poet and her coach did not choose to participate. Sure, there are plenty of spaces at Harvard that are at least almost truly safe spaces. There are much, much safer spaces. But the white boys in Wigg aren’t going to choose to be in those spaces. That doesn’t mean they won’t be in my sections, or in my comp meetings, or in other spaces that may profess themselves as “safe.” I don’t know how to fix that.

I do know that creating safe spaces is important, contrary to a recent New York Times article professing safe spaces as a continuation of the desire of the hyper-sensitive college student to prevent themselves from experiencing “ticklish” conversations and aid in their own “self-infantilization.” Maybe the issue is also that there are people here who agree with that sentiment. Maybe that’s understandable. If you don’t have any facets of your experience or identity that could be mobilized against you that could cause you harm, panic, anxiety, disadvantage, or other fairly “ticklish” things, it could be hard to imagine a reality in which other people’s words can actually, literally hurt you. I don’t know what we can do to change it, but openly acknowledging that some of the safe spaces at nice, progressive Harvard aren’t all that safe for some of us sounds like a good start.

Madison E. Johnson ’18 lives in Wigglesworth Hall. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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