November 17, 2014

Commentary | February 4, 2013
Complicating space
“Safe space” and the politics of privilege and marginality
Written by | Visual by Amina Batyreva

I’m not entirely sure what “safe space” means. Perhaps it refers to a space that is safe, is believed to be safe, or should be treated as such. But what does “safe” even mean? Does it mean without-fear safe, I-feel-comfortable safe, or I-can-(truly)-be-myself safe? I’m not quite sure and it is not at all obvious.

More than that, it is the implied accessibility of the phrase that makes me feel uneasy, and distrusting of the term as well as the practice that follows from it. I say this because the politics of “safe space” does not account for the continual and visceral feelings of unsafeness that marginalized individuals feel and experience – have to feel and have to experience.

As we walked across campus, he, tall as ever with a distinct, darkened pigment, walked erectly. Never looking down or appearing as if he didn’t belong, he strode. With every step, he firmly claimed the space, this space, as his own. But the stares, they said otherwise. 

Space is imbued with difference and distinction and is made inaccessible to certain people because of that. To put it bluntly, space is more accessible to the non-marginal, to those stacked with social capital: heterosexuality, maleness, able-bodiedness, whiteness. Space, in fact, is this: it is heterosexual, male, able-bodied and white; and any individual outside of that – not privileged enough to possess the beauty that is normativity – is not afforded the same access to space. I painfully figured this out while walking across campus with one of my friends the other day. As we were walking together, from the library to the McConnell Engineering building and back up again, I noticed the stares. I’ve always gotten the stares. I didn’t necessarily know why I received them; I just did. And no, these stares weren’t particularly any different, not more intense or more off. They were the same. The only difference was there was another person there, another person of colour. Him, a black man, and me, a black woman. And before I could even turn around to say anything, he turned to me and said (something along the lines of), “I hate when people [though I believe he meant “they”] stare at me.”

In moments like these, I become so aware of how our bodies – racialized and Othered, deeply sexualized, and mine, gendered – were never seen as belonging to this space. Our bodies and our beings appear foreign, to them, to the normative. The blackness of our skin and its implied (hyper)sexuality do not belong in (this) space. Because, when seen, we are met with stares – unjustified stares – processing and registering the placement of our non-normative bodies in (this) space. Each stare, continuing to scan our bodies, further displaces us, telling us that we don’t belong.

“Safe space,” as such, was introduced to make the marginalized feel “safe,” to make space accessible to all and not just the normative.

But this (oddly enough) is exactly what I take issue with, because “safe space” politics, in making space accessible to all – normative and non-normative alike – erases the reality and intensity of the experiences I, as a person of colour and member of the marginalized, experience. It, in becoming accessible to everyone, also becomes accessible to those who already have immense access to it. And because of this, its politics can be, and in fact have been, co-opted by the non-marginal – the white, the heterosexual, the able-bodied, the male – and have been used in these really problematic, “I’m affected by oppression too, even though I’m not marginalized, so remember this is a safe space (for the normative as well),” counterproductive, pejorative ways. “Safe space” hides specification and gets recycled into this oppression-erasing, liberal-humanist rhetoric of “we all suffer from the (same) unsafeness of space” – even though we don’t. This move is dehumanizing and oppressive, and it produces the same unsafeness that it attempts to rectify.

I, as a marginal body, need something specifically for me. I need something for members of my communities, for the oppressed, and not something that can be easily co-opted by the privileged. I need something that sees the marginal as its sole and intended beneficiaries. I need something, and unfortunately, that something just isn’t “safe space” politics.

This piece is particularly dedicated to the black men I know in universities across the country (my brother being one of them). To the black men who are students, whose bodies are continuously treated as foreign, forced to endure the constant stares of confusion and delegitimization that scour your contours daily, having to affirm and confirm your place in the institution as legitimate bodies, intellectual and deserving to be here. I see you.

Christiana Collison is a U3 Honours Women’s Studies student. She has little to no fucks (care) left to give to either McGill or its oppression. Get at her at christiana.collison@mail.mcgill.ca.

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