By Lily Zheng
I can’t recall how long it’s been since I’ve heard the term “safe space,” but it’s clear to me that it has fallen out of favor among educators and academics. I remember when I started interacting with the idea in my frosh year, when I learned that a safe space was a place where individuals could take a needed break from the endless efforts to educate, debate and advocate on behalf of a marginalized group or identity. I hesitantly sought out so-called “safe spaces” on campus, and found that in many I would not be judged for being queer. I would not be judged for being a woman. In the handful of years I had grappled with issues of identity and social justice, this was a mind-blowing first – a public space where I could feel as safe as I did in private.
Then, last year, the idea of safe spaces on college campuses came under renewed attack. In an explosively-shared piece published in The New York Times, Judith Shulevitz wrote strongly against safe spaces, trigger warnings and “censorship” on college campuses, blaming today’s “self-infantilizing” activists, “sexual paranoia” and “over-programmed children.” These arguments are nothing new, and I’ve had reiterations and variations of these ideas lobbed at me since I’ve started writing for The Daily – activists are too sensitive; marginalized people should learn to better deal with their oppression; oh God, where is this country going given this new generation of pathetic children unable to take a joke?
In the three years I’ve been on campus, this rhetoric has only grown stronger; the rhetoric of “safe spaces,” on the other hand, has slowly faded into obscurity. Taking their place was a new phrase, a new idea and a new kind of space: brave spaces.
In 2013, Arao and Clemens published a book entitled, “The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators.” Chapter eight of that book, “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces,” asserts that students accustomed to safe spaces conflate “safety with comfort,” and may be afflicted with a tendency to “discount, deflect or retreat from a challenge.”
The power of safe spaces was this: Marginalized students could express, interpret and connect over shared experiences of marginalization and struggle as a community without fear of repercussion. A safe space is a space where I can sink into a sofa and vent my frustration with that one teacher who misgenders me in class without passersby interrogating me on what the “transgender experience” is on campus, what gender is, why pronouns are important, why Caitlyn Jenner isn’t all she’s hyped up to be, ad infinitum. What brave spaces do is take this exact interaction and formalize it within an educational setting. The “dialogue” becomes a one-sided stream of narratives, trauma, critical theory and lived experiences going from the marginalized to the not-marginalized, a “brave” space for privileged people to challenge their own preconceptions – and a miserable space for the marginalized people forced to do that labor of education.
Arao and Clemens suggest that “brave spaces” have a set of common rules: controversy with civility, where different “opinions” are acknowledged and respected; owning intentions and impacts, where participants are encouraged to communicate with each other when they have been harmed; challenge by choice, where participants can choose to challenge themselves or not; and respect, where all parties respect each other.
It’s a set of ideas that plays into some of the most tempting misconceptions about social justice that we can hold: that we are all coming from different but equal points, that we are all as likely to hurt and be hurt by each other and that, simply put, historical inequities and power dynamics are irrelevant.
Why would I respect a cisgender man who crudely assumes that my womanhood is tied to my genitalia? Why should a person of color be forced to acknowledge an opinion from a white person that people of their race tend to be “thugs” or “rapists”? Why should a woman be forced to engage in any dialogue with a man who says she dresses like a slut, is asking for sexual assault or is obligated to provide sex on demand?
Expecting marginalized peoples to perform the labor of education is not social justice; it’s exploitation.
Every single space in which we exist as trans people, indigenous people, Black and brown peoples, disabled people, women and femmes, queer people and/or working class people is a “brave space.” Those of us willing to spend even more time being “brave” to educate unaware audiences are doing them an immeasurable favor, filling in the gaping holes left by an education system that erases indigenous and people of color’s histories, a media that demonizes women and femmes and innumerable other institutions in society that reinforce a cornucopia of inequities.
To all those who interact with brave spaces, if the importance of this labor isn’t acknowledged, then your brave space sucks. If privileged people are gaining knowledge at the expense of marginalized peoples’ well-being, then your brave space sucks. And if your brave space absolutely, necessarily requires marginalized people to be doing the teaching – then you damn better be paying them a living wage for their work. Or your brave space will suck.
Contact Lily Zheng at [email protected]