The Problem with “Safe Spaces”
By Fatima Lee Garsi
Whoa FLG – what on earth are you talking about? Isn’t Sister Fit a “safe space” for Muslim (and non-Muslim) women!
YES! It is! Hold your horses and henchmen! Let me explain…
What exactly is a “safe space?”
A safe space is a place where the owner of the space can guarantee a particular and specific kind of comfort and safety to those who share the same values. That’s it!
My idea of a safe space could be different than yours…so let me tell you what my idea of a safe space is and how that shapes the culture at Sister Fit.
My safe space at Sister Fit guarantees that women of all backgrounds are free from harassment or abuse of any nature – be it verbal, physical, or discriminatory actions. If you enter this space, you will be free from any type of discrimination based on identity, race, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation. I would include “free from judgement,” but I can’t guarantee that people will not judge others in their minds or hearts.
What I do guarantee is treatment that is fair and based on the ethics and core values that have built the foundation of Sister Fit as a strong organization. I want people to come as they are and know that they will be welcomed by our team…
… if you also share the same values of ethical treatment.
Safe spaces are mere illusions.
Safe spaces are created spaces based on shared values. A safe space for you may not be a safe space for me and vice versa. If you were someone that didn’t share the same values as I did and felt free saying racist or hateful remarks about people, you could consider my gym an “unsafe” space for you because I would throw you out.
Everyone who runs a group/organization provides a safe space based on what they believe in, not what you believe in.
Groups that can cause tremendous widespread harm to others provide safe spaces for their members – it’s a safe space for specific people who share the same values as they do.
Does the KKK provide a “safe space”?
To its followers who believe in white supremacy, yes.
While this is a jarring example, it demonstrates how “safe spaces” can be used to harbour harmful systems of belief.
The difficulty here is that “safe spaces” are exclusionary by necessity. You exclude the people whose values don’t align with your own so that you can create a space where your ideas – whatever they may be – are aligned with the larger group. You can then exist in harmony within that group.
Safe spaces are about selective inclusion; they will not include everyone because everyone abides by a different system of beliefs and values. The goal of an organization is to uphold a system that protects their beliefs.
The problem with safe spaces is rooted in the popular use of the term “safe/unsafe.” There is an unhealthy expectation that all spaces need to be “safe” for us. But, the safe space we most often desire is not simply a space where we are treated with respect, but a space where we remain comfortable, unchallenged, and protected from anything that causes any semblance of internal angst or discomfort.
We’ve become part of a culture where no one can say or look at us in a way we don’t like because it feels uncomfortable. We need to always feel welcome and completely secure…and if we don’t, we’re “unsafe.”
There is entitlement and privilege at play when we begin to think that all spaces need to be “safe” like our bedrooms are safe – insular, comforting, and affirming.
When “safe” and “unsafe” become weapons.
The word “unsafe” can be used to hurt others and justify people’s internalized hatred, racism, homophobia etc.
How many black people have been killed because white people have felt “unsafe”?
How have gay and trans people been shunned, persecuted, and imprisoned because people around them feel “unsafe”? How many gay people are spiritually abused and used as scapegoats because they are “unsafe” to be around?
How have Jewish people been persecuted and maligned because people felt threatened and “unsafe”?
How have Muslims been stigmatized and persecuted because co-workers, neighbours, or the wider community feel “unsafe” around them?
In each of these examples, the word “unsafe/safe” has been weaponized by a person who has power and privilege. The person in power benefits from the vague context that accompanies the use of the term “unsafe.” They benefit from the subsequent, often dangerous impact of this vague terminology.
We need to be more explicit and specific when using the word “unsafe” because it automatically arms the “unsafe” person with ammo and weapons to maintain their safety. The word “safety” has been weaponized and used to legitimize violence, oppression, and genocide…and has been used to hurt people who are already marginalized.
Why have the above groups been seen as “unsafe?” It’s because they are not well understood and people fear what they don’t know. It takes effort to challenge your own ego and privilege. It’s much easier to just say you feel “unsafe” and stay within your own circle/ bouncy castle.
The term is also used in a casual sense to describe a dislike or discomfort. I hear lots of people say that they feel unsafe at the mosque because they don’t fit in. To me, this is not the correct use of the term unsafe.
To simply live, we need to develop resilience and self-confidence. This can only be achieved with a blend of “unsafe” and “safe” spaces…or in more accurate terms, discomfort and comfort.
We all know that vital change happens when we step outside of our comfort zone. Making sure we can properly identify the difference between “unsafe” and “discomfort” is essential.
It is important to broaden our perspective and become stronger while at the same time give full attention to matters that are actually unsafe.
Am I unsafe or am I uncomfortable?
The word “unsafe” is often used in very vague statements without context. This use of the word prevents any challenge to the person using these statements for fear of victimizing the victim.
This chart shows how using unsafe when we are actually uncomfortable can prevent us from identifying our true feelings and challenging our deeply embedded judgements. By being specific with our language, we are better able to identify what we’re actually feeling, why we’re feeling it, and how we can sit with these feelings and use them as important feedback and the opportunity to grow.
Being specific and accurate with language also helps us identify when we or others truly are unsafe and how to effectively address these situations.
We need to be specific and accountable for understanding what we are feeling so that we can explicitly identify, challenge, and isolate the difference between fear of the unknown and a legitimate safety threat.
The world is a difficult place. Comfort is not always beneficial. If you are constantly seeking spaces where you only surround yourself with people who think like you and believe as you do…what happens? You stay comfortable. You stay static. You don’t grow.
If we were never challenged by spaces that didn’t immediately make us feel welcome, how do we understand who we are? Would we be as passionate to learn about our roots and develop inner strength and resilience? Being in an uncomfortable space gives us an opportunity to call on a higher power to guide us to deeper understandings of ourselves and others.
Uncomfortable spaces can provide us with important information about how we might need to become stronger in the face of opposition.
Do you think people welcome me everywhere I go?
I create my own “safe space” everywhere I go. I make myself welcome by welcoming others first and don’t require the approval or acceptance of others to ensure my own safety. I invite difference. Not everyone has the ability to do this. It takes years of overcoming pain and knowing what you will accept and what you will not.
I will not compromise my identity, therefore I’m willing to accept that people are going to look at me with a bit of confusion, curiosity, and sometimes disgust. Differences are good and differences create discomfort. I accept that I won’t be welcome everywhere I go and see this as an opportunity for growth rather than a threat. This mindset also helps me identify situations where I assert myself to combat disrespect in a way that doesn’t place the power in other people’s hands.