The Case for Safe Spaces

The Case for Safe Spaces

Contemporary student activists recognize that their organizing must emulate their goals.

At Yale (Thomas Autumn Photography / Flickr)

This article is part of a forum on “Free Speech on Campus.” To read contributions by David A. Bell, Marcia Chatelain, and Jim Sleeper, click here.

In 1981, women from all around the world—some calling themselves feminists, some driven by a call to action just as defiant but not yet named—congregated at Greenham Common in Berkshire, England to protest the decision to store ninety-six U.S. nuclear missiles there. Leaderless, the women collectively decided to oust the few men who initially joined them. They were anti-war, yes, but beyond that, they were building a vision of an ideal community, reimagining politics in which their voices were equal but distinct. Overcoming patriarchal violence not only required opposition to military nihilism, but also a positive reimagining of personal relationships, domestic tasks, and the role of government. At the time, women-only actions, like many all-black actions today, were labeled divisive. But, as Ann Snitow wrote in a 1985 essay about the occupation that appears in her new collection The Feminism of Uncertainty, “it would be unnerving indeed to most of these well-meaning men if they could glimpse how profoundly alienated many women are from men’s groups and the political process.” Therefore at Greenham Common, cooking and cleaning was shared, and action was decided upon by popular consensus: this community of women found themselves living a version of the peaceful egalitarianism that they were fighting for.

The feminists of Greenham Common were building on decades of activism aimed at stripping away the distinction between personal and public, the foundations of the current “safe space” debate. The term “safe space” has multiple origin stories—Moira Kenney’s Mapping Gay L.A. links safe spaces to gay and lesbian bars, where, as Malcolm Harris described in Fusion, “a safe space meant somewhere you could be out and in good company—at least until the cops showed up” in the midst of repressive anti-sodomy laws and social discrimination. The “safe spaces” of sixties and seventies feminism offered a similar hope for good company: the hope for comrades with whom women could be equal partners in political organizing, a community in which individual women’s experiences were validated not simply as either emotional or political, but as emotional and therefore political.

Young people are coming of age in a time just as ridden with inequality, and are finding a personal and political education in, or from, the safe spaces modeled by their sixties predecessors. Evan Zavidow, a facilitator for AllSex, a current Barnard/Columbia program that meets biweekly to discuss sexuality, identity, and gender, defines “safe spaces” as places that try to be inclusive, value personal safety and self care without judgment, and assume the good intent of peers. AllSex members, like the women who sought to make Greenham Common inclusive to women by asking men to leave, are attentive to how exclusion operates in ostensibly integrated environments. Alongside its mixed-gender and mixed-race sections, AllSex designates sections for specific identities based on the preferences of participants of color, women, and/or non-gender conforming people. Unlike the Greenham Common peace camp, AllSex is also attentive to language as exclusionary. The group recently changed its name from “FemSex” so as not to alienate people who did not identify as females and/or women. While AllSex is not aligned with a particular political ideology, “there is something inherently political in carving out a community of relatively diverse individuals and discussing taboo topics,” says Zavidow. Similar to historic safe spaces, AllSex’s biweekly sections are not necessarily engaged in public politics, but have, in Zavidow’s experience, “political potential.” Indeed filmmaker Beeban Kidron remembers Greenham Common as a place where women found “a voice that was predicated on inclusion and difference, multiple perspectives not a single dominant view.”

Contemporary student activists recognize that their organizing must emulate their goals. Models for doing so are imperfect and perhaps intangible. In a recent Harper’s forum Hannah Black pointed out that “many now use the term ‘safer space’ to indicate that we are talking about relative and not absolute levels of safety.” But each failure to achieve safety strips away another pretense of normalcy, and raises an individual’s discomfort to a communal problem. A “safe space” is neither absolute nor literal. And the outpouring of criticism against safe spaces is a testament to how challenging creating an egalitarian space can be, and how shattering to a person’s sense of self.

In their widely cited Atlantic cover story, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued that while student activists of the eighties and nineties “challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives . . . the current movement is largely about emotional well-being.” But this is a false distinction. There is an emotional toll to being written out of your own history, which was put to use by activists in their struggles to change the canon. All politics are about emotional well-being. As Terrell Jermaine Starr wrote of last year’s University of Missouri protests, “fueling those protests was black pain.”

Lukianoff and Haidt’s piece is one of a series of recent attacks on safe spaces. The black and feminist left that built safe spaces in activism is an unfortunate blind spot in the memories of leftists like Todd Gitlin, who bemoans safe spaces as evidence of “fearful” college protesters. Last November in the New York Times, Gitlin described safe spaces as evidence that “too many students doubt that their community is, or can be, strong enough to stand up for itself,” comparing their seemingly useless emotions to the actions of sixties activists—“radical change is not for the narrow-minded or weak-hearted.” Meanwhile each sixties-era marginalized group to which he now prescribes glory—LGBTQ activists, civil rights activists, feminists—used safe spaces as a basis for their activism. Each action that Gitlin rightfully pays homage to, from bus boycotts to organizing press, could not have happened without that blissful discovery of a community in which one, at least temporarily, feels listened to and valued equally. In painting safe spaces as illustrative of the weakness of a new generation, Gitlin ignores a fundamental component of the history in which he took part. He forgets the day before a protest: the therapeutic revelation of a common experience, the thrill of bearing your soul to a room full of comrades who validate your experiences as gendered, racial, political, and important.

An early manifestation of such safe spaces were the consciousness-raising groups of sixties feminists, which provided intimate environments for sharing personal experiences with the ultimate goal of political action. Like the safe spaces of Mizzou activists, consciousness-raising groups prioritized personal experience in making political decisions, and were often formed on the basis of shared identity and/or oppression. Barbara Epstein has described consciousness-raising groups as a means of questioning “abstract principles (so often used by men to legitimize their power)” and recognizing “personal experience and perceptions as a legitimate basis for political analysis.” Activist spaces, and especially academic activist spaces, have long been dominated by the masculine preference for theory over experience. But as River Bunkley, an Emory student involved in the NAACP, Black Student Alliance, and Advocates for Racial Justice, among his many intersectional activist engagements, points out: “being able to hurt, cry, laugh, and thrive in spaces that don’t seek to exploit or negate these emotions is incredibly important to the progression of my community.” Emotional honesty has political significance when a community has been repeatedly silenced and dispossessed. “When people of color decide to indulge in their feelings,” Bunkley told me, “there is a level of healing, unifying, and empowerment—I think—that comes with it.”

Among leftists, those who have reacted most strongly against safe spaces have been white men, perhaps because grounding politics in the ability to hurt, cry, and laugh together threatens traditional notions of masculinity. Men are taught to repress emotions, associating emotional vulnerability with femininity and therefore weakness, so it is expected that some should react so violently to the idea that political discussions might take place on explicitly emotional grounds. Once emotions are given intellectual weight, how do men retain their control of political decisions? The safe space debate often appears to be a crisis of masculinity, as many criticisms are, in short, a message to students to “grow a pair.”

Unlike early consciousness raising groups, contemporary models for safe spaces grapple far more with the inequalities and privileges underlying a simple conversation. Professor Shirley Geok-lin Lim, who encountered sixties consciousness-raising groups as a recent Malaysian immigrant to New York City, recalled unintentional, yet destructive and unrecognized, exclusion from groups of white feminists in her essay in The Feminist Memoir Project: “the very smallness of the consciousness-raising groups, which allowed trust to flourish, meant that large numbers of other ‘non-mutual’ women were not admitted . . . women of color, immigrant women, blue-collar women whose class and familial positions did not permit them the time to participate.” Such exclusion continues to pervade the student left, particularly given the elite nature of institutions of higher education, but it does not remain as blatantly unchecked by students today. Columbia’s anti-sexual assault group No Red Tape, for example, dwindled in popularity within activist communities despite its national recognition in spring 2015, largely due to its failure to take on an anti-racist and anti-imperialist agenda. This year, No Red Tape has returned as a force to reckon with; its members are now in solidarity and dialogue with a range of other campus activists, including Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, and Mobilized African Diaspora. Creating activist spaces in which inclusivity and collectivism are valued allows attention to individual needs and forces malleability in political demands. Bunkley describes “understanding that there are multiple ways to serve a community and multiple identities that need different things within a community” as fundamental to his experience in college activism. We owe much of this attention to individual needs to the historical development of safe spaces.

A real concern for the activist left is that safe spaces might be institutionalized and used against the very people that created them. Should safe spaces be appropriated from activism into institutional policy, we risk something like the replacement of unions with a corporate conflict resolution center. This is unlikely to happen because safe spaces are a theoretical framework for political organizing, not a problem-solving policy. The few attempts to codify safe spaces have been in “diversity workshops” led at university orientations, and by the definitions created by critics themselves. But even in these examples, safe spaces have not been offered as solutions to problems so much as communities in which to discuss them and delve into the nuanced ways in which they impact individuals. They have been places of tension, joy, and discomfort, not places in which we declare institutional oppression resolved through a conversation. Emotions are fluid, evolving, intangible. They do not disappear at the end of a workshop. So if “the current movement is largely about well-being,” it’s because every political movement is. Jean Stead, a former news editor at The Guardian, recalls the blatant emotionality of Greenham Common, as women confronted by the police were “hugging each other, singing and crying.” They may have appeared more “fearful” than their male counterparts, but they built a resistance and model for egalitarianism that survived generations, to the benefit of all genders.


Anne-Laure White is an undergraduate at Columbia University and a former intern at Dissent.

Return to the forum to read contributions by David A. Bell, Marcia Chatelain, and Anne-Laure White.


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