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On Safe Spaces, Good Intentions and Personal Respo...

On Safe Spaces, Good Intentions and Personal Responsibility

It was out there and I couldn’t take it back.

I’d been walking through campus with a small group of friends. With the beginning of a new school year brought the prospect of new friends and expanded friend groups. With the lingering summer heat finally beginning to wane, our new group latched onto the opportunity to actually enjoy the scenery before work got in the way. Everything was perfect. Campus greenery blushed with the warm tinges of fall in their leaves. Afternoon traffic lulled. Crisp leaves dotted the sidewalk between Plex and the Black House, as if they’d been caught in the middle of their own little game of hopscotch.

And then I said it.

It being an offhanded joke about relationships with sexist undertones that I remembered hearing from some kids in my hometown. I didn’t remember finding it funny when I’d first heard it, but the group back home thought it was hilarious. Momentarily blinded by the opportunity to solidify the new friendship, I said it. And I immediately regretted saying it.

“That’s actually kinda scary,” my friend said. She went on to deconstruct it. She talked about the ways the joke subtly nodded to sexism, respectability politics and the trauma it could trigger.

I was mortified. It was “scary.” It wasn’t funny. And it wasn’t something I thought would ever come out of my mouth. Why did I tell a joke I didn’t even like or agree with? I would never say something like that normally. That kind of ignorance was exactly why I worked so desperately to get out of my hometown. It was exactly why I mainly spent time with my family when I was back home instead of the kids I went to high school with.

With a single punchline, I turned the safe space into a potential minefield. I was the one to blame.


 

There’s a lot of confusion around safe spaces. From The Atlantic’s infamous The Coddling of the American Mind to The New York Times’ In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas, it’s clear these spaces have become material for many debates. But it’s important to clearly define what exactly we mean by this. Simply put, a safe space is a place where anyone can fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability, according to an educational activism campaign titled The Safe Space Network (TSSN). It’s basically addressing the fact for many people, certain environments are uncomfortable, toxic, and sometimes, deadly.

With a single punchline, I turned the safe space into a potential minefield. I was the one to blame.SafeSpacesPQ1.2

But this definition hits on a crucial thing about safe spaces: they’re predicated on people making spaces unsafe. Although it’s easier to avoid when intentional, individuals can unintentionally create them. It’s the well-meaning friends saying things without realizing the impact that their words have. Then, it becomes other people’s burden to decide whether or not to engage in the work of educating and addressing issues when they arise. And it’s exhausting, mentally, physically and emotionally.

For many Black, trans women, specifically, navigating certain segments of society while fully embodying and performing their identities can potentially result in bodily harm and death. And even then, they’re identities are often invalidated evenly posthumously. And the consequences of this are just as salient in life as they are in death. Living under this stress can lead to mental wellness concerns, such as depression, anxiety, and more increased suicide rates in toxic environments. I draw on this example not to tokenize the experiences of Black trans women, but to point to one of the starkest examples of marginalized communities getting systematically erased and victimized.

This is a fundamental testament to the necessity of safe spaces. Contrary to some older generations’ opinions, safe spaces don’t exist because the rising generation demands to be coddled. These allegations tend to be supplemented by the painful “when I was your age” stories that ultimately work to invalidate youth’s experiences and concerns.  But these viewpoints are based on a flawed critique of the current generation.

Many times, these viewpoints aim to compare two very different generational approaches and experiences that inherently and wildly different. The modern social landscape is shaped by an overload of information at our fingertips, in our ears and constantly front of our eyes. It’s this constant exposure to triggering and violent material that differentiates our experiences from older generations. We’re conscious of the systems that plague our society (racism, sexism, colorism and slew of other isms and phobias). We’re always alert, and it’s draining. In light of all of this, isn’t it obvious why spaces to be free and wholly yourself without any burdens would be important? Calling for safety isn’t whiny, it’s human. And as such, someone’s safety always comes before someone else’s hurt feelings. Always.

It’s uncomfortable. And it’s a learning experience. As human as we are, we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to slip up, but that doesn’t mean we get out of working to do better, to be better. It’s not easy. Life would be easier if we could take back words, or rearrange them to fit our good intentions.

But we can’t do that. The words we craft have meaning and impact. I’m choosing to craft mine with compassion in mind.

 


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