Dangerous Space: How Safe Spaces Enable Racism – Part 2 of 2

This post is a continuation of Part 1, found here.

The largely white, middle class-backed safe space movement has reached more than just the national spoken word poetry scene.  It is in our schools, on our campuses, and in our workplaces, where equally white-washed anti-bullying campaigns have exploded, creating a Pleasantville effect, in which they leave social power critiques and discussions of systemic oppression tragically by the wayside.

Nationwide, cases of online sexual harassment and extortion that ended in youth suicide have been taken up primarily under the acritical banner of “cyberbullying”.  Meanwhile, discussions of sexism and toxic masculinity in formative educational spaces remain sparse.  While I of course agree with and applaud the intention of anti-bullying and safe space campaigns alike, under their current implementation models, both ultimately reproduce systemically racist and classist side effects, by adding significantly to the silence that enables the status quo.

Intended or not, one major result of safe space is tension and infighting among the left.  In the very climate which they have created, the collective left, who are exceedingly intersectional and multi-faceted in both identity and ideology, cannot begin to agree on which topics and subjects of discussion are taboo or allowable, and in what manner, or to whom, and under what personal or creative license.  Incessant call-outs and banishment for problematic position-taking, often related to appropriation, plague the left, locking its masses in almost cyclical discord.  Ironically, marginalized people, who have been denied access to anti-oppressive and higher education, which others can easily pursue, are often banished from safe spaces in light of holding sometimes problematic views that stem from that very lack of education. Subsequently, the mainstreamers who remain in the safe spaces lose access to the real-life anti-oppressive teaching that marginalized people have to offer.

And so the safe spaces cleanse themselves of non-white, non-middle class participation and perspectives. This, while Indigenous youth and women continue to go missing or be murdered, while unarmed Black men in the US continue to be executed at the hands of police, and while water protectors in places like Standing Rock face government sponsored tear gas, bean bag bullets, dog attacks, and water cannon blasts reminiscent of the 1960s.  As much as we’d like, our safe spaces cannot help blanket these victims.  Nor can we assist in their resistance from those far-removed places of comfort and protection.

The “progressive” approach has backfired here; our constant infighting brings to mind a quote from Black Panther Party leader and revolutionary Fred Hampton: “We said all power to the people. We said no matter what color you are, there are only two classes. There’s a class over here, and there’s a class over there—this is lower, this is upper; this is the oppressed and the oppressor; this is the exploited and the exploiter. These people in this class over here have divided themselves, they say ‘I’m black and I hate white people,’ ‘I’m white and I hate black people,’ ‘I’m Latin American and I hate hillbillies,’ ‘I’m a hillbilly and I hate Indians’; so we fighting amongst each other.”

For true radicals like Fred Hampton, who was killed by police while asleep in his own bed, there could be no such thing as a truly safe space (speaking to the level of privilege that our current safe spaces embody).  In fact, Hampton advocated for organized education and for open dialogue about experiences of oppression specifically to avoid an uncoordinated and thus ineffective resistance, which he forebodingly referred to as a “motionless movement.”

Safe spaces are certainly ideal, but perhaps a touch idealistic at times.  I do dream of a day when marginalized people can enter a school, campus, or poetry show with their identities and viewpoints affirmed and valued, and where their stories are validated and believed.  But to skip ahead to this imagined ideal through self-sequestering, coerced exclusion, and policy-aided silencing is to ignore one ultimately crucial step: the work of changing people’s minds – the work of fighting oppression.  Unfortunately, such work requires unmitigated diplomatic dialogue among opposing groups – the oppressed and the oppressors – something nobody enjoys, but that is perhaps a necessary evil at the right time and place.

If the recent climate in Canadian race relations has been any indication, there is a lot of mind-changing yet to be done. Public education is an effective resistance strategy that anti-oppressive leaders such as the founders of the Idle No More movement (Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam, and Jessica Gordon) have long been using and advocating for.  Their frequent and widespread teach-ins have arguably created some of the most impactful social change in recent decades. And following the recent murder acquittals of Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier, both tried for the homicides of young Indigenous people, we have seen a resurgence of mass Indigenous-led protest and public education efforts; unfortunately these have been met with some of the most brazenly overt racist responses in recent memory.

The trend is continental; indeed the climate in the US has also been shifting back toward acceptable, open racism following Trump’s “surprise” presidential election victory.  People in both countries, across the political spectrum, are tired of being quiet, or feeling muzzled, and basic psychology confirms the futility of placing a gag order on people’s searing emotions. Remarkably, in many cases, even marginalized people are tired of feeling over-sheltered from the everyday reality of oppression, which persists in spite of (and partly because of) safe spaces.

If these are among the most salient outcomes that safe spaces have produced, have they really been advancing our society? What becomes clear now is the need for a return to civil, open dialogue between social factions. At the least, it would be better than the firestorm of anger in which we now live, fueled partly by the futility of safe space ubiquity.

Conservative and neoliberal white men whom I’ve met in public, for the first time, have told me that they know which places in my town to avoid, places where they wouldn’t fit in, and which places to frequent instead.  While a part of me smirks in light of the fact that they are only now being forced to learn life skills that BIPOC folks have grown up learning for their own physical safety, I remain conflicted.  Unfortunately for these white men, and for society at large, their physical avoidance ensures an ideological avoidance as well. They have learned only to insulate themselves from opposing viewpoints completely, to wander through life with their views and actions unchallenged, forever reproducing systemic colonialism, racism, classism, ableism, and sexism as they go (much in the same way that social media can help us to create our own now archetypal ideological echo chambers).  And, as privilege would have it, these men will likely go on to become the bulk of our elected officials, doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, and police (fields in which their existing values will likely only be affirmed and perpetually solidified).  Further to the irony of this situation, we can begin to see how by sequestering ourselves in our own safe spaces, we have created opposite and much larger safe spaces for those whose views we are seeking shelter from, thus only empowering them further.

Public education is messy work that no one enjoys.  Perhaps this is why safe spaces have been rolled out as widely and enthusiastically as they have, because people are tired of that gruesome messiness.  And safe spaces do spare us that.  But we know from social research that emotional or mental discomfort (the mess) is not merely an avoidable inconvenience associated with taboo discussion, but rather an essential element of progressive human change.  That is to say that people’s principles must be challenged, even to the point of cognitive dissonance, before personal change can begin.  Unfortunately, in our modern safe spaces, neither discord nor dissonance is allowed.  And those marginalized people, whose counter-narratives of systemic victimization warrant our listening, are met not with deaf ears, but, absurdly, with ones that we have voluntarily covered in the name of justice.  For this reason, BIPOC and working class people can often feel that their experiences are not validated in modern safe spaces, leaving them paradoxically at peril among well-meaning allies.

Again, I want to stress that I believe in the limited use of safe spaces, and I certainly believe in their original intent, largely aimed at preventing harassment and oppressive bullying, providing opportunities for self-segregation, and protecting marginalized individuals’ emotional and physical safety.  To this day, a safe space poster hangs on my office door at work because I believe in these aims.  But I lament the cost of misusing and overusing these spaces to prevent important (if at times problematic) discussions about oppression, in which the scourge can be confronted, refuted, delegitimized, and done away with.  In the current era, leftists will often wag their fingers at appropriation, even to excoriate minutia (at times silencing and discouraging would-be cause supporters), but the ongoing misuse of safe space may be one of the unsung but more damaging examples of appropriation in recent years.  Those whom we exclude from safe spaces are consequently excused from personal accountability, responsibility, and from unlearning their problematic perspectives. I suggest that we intervene using a community teaching response when problematic perspectives are shared. After all, the problems underlying these perspectives typically pale in comparison to the unfiltered racism that we now see publicly on an increasingly alarming basis.

Somewhere along the line, conservatives and neo-liberals alike ran with the ideas of political correctness (another initially well-intended but since misappropriated venture) and safe space, and mashed them together, decreeing collectively that no discussions of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, or other forms of human difference would be allowed in public discourse.  Hegemonically, the left has since obeyed and then cyclically reified this decree over time.

But, today, one needn’t look much farther than their own social media news feed to encounter open displays of racism, often posed more hurtfully and with more hateful pride than ever before.  These contemporary displays of hate are remarkable, but only mildly more damaging than the exceedingly widespread problem of ignorance, which is often silent and insidious simultaneously.  As luck would have it, discussions of race and difference in public fora has done nothing to change people’s lack of understanding and entrenched attitudes toward marginalized groups.  That is, it’s done nothing to change racism, which has only festered hotly in North America until recently boiling over.  Right now, the racist vitriol is sparking, and our institutions ought to be ground zero for this firefight. But the warm blanket of safe space may just be viable tinder instead.

Subtle, systemic racism thrives also.  I for one was saddened, though not surprised, to learn that the recent Stanley and Cormier murder acquittals would both not be appealed by the Crown.  The question is not whether or not there were trial errors constituting grounds for appeal, but rather how and why the justice system, which operates on Indigenous treaty lands, is designed to consistently allow the wrongful deaths of Indigenous people to go unaccounted for.  In the case of Gerald Stanley, this question applies to everything from the RCMP’s handling of the investigation and evidence, to the jury selection and verdict, through to the lack of appeal, which, coming from the Crown, feels like little more than an apathetic pass.  Adding insult to injury, following the Stanley acquittal, the RCMP in Saskatchewan have begun hosting town hall meetings across the province to address rural property theft concerns from primarily white farmers.  It seems the RCMP in Saskatchewan are focusing on reconciliation, but, in this case, with non-Indigenous people.

At our own University of Saskatchewan campus, the Indigenous Students’ Council (ISC) has recently protested that university’s reconciliation efforts by encouraging non-participation from Indigenous students in university-led reconciliation events.  It’s apparent that the university had planned, like so many of our institutions, on moving forward with a “safe” version of reconciliation, without engaging in what Pam Palmater has called “the hard work necessary to make amends.”  Again, this type of idealistic jump is not possible. Not as long as it’s evident that colonialism and racism are still burning so brightly in this country.  In this self-preserving model of reconciliation, our institutions are comparable to Hamlet’s Claudius, who famously sought forgiveness for his sins while still benefitting from them. The ISC have embarked on what I believe is one of the most important solutions to the violent racism we’re currently facing in this country, and that is to hold institutions to account.  Considering the issue of racism is systemic to our society and goes far beyond the individual, sequestering ourselves in comparably tiny safe spaces beyond the reach of racist ideology would seem short-sighted.  Especially as, outside of those privileged safe spaces, people like Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine continue to be killed without repercussion.

In our society, the amnesty for oppression is ubiquitous.  Safe spaces have been misappropriated to the extent that, through their silencing effect, they now serve to protect oppressors from feeling like they are oppressing, rather than protecting the everyday victims of oppression.  Only this month, a Canadian anti-racism educator (whom I’ll not name here) received hate mail and personal threats after delivering a lecture critiquing systemic racism at a university campus.  Ironically, much of the backlash has positioned the white lecturer as a racist himself.  This notion would represent an incredible new twist on internalized racism with which I’m not familiar.  At any rate, it would seem that neo-liberal colourblindness, the PC movement, and safe space have gone so far as to bar even basic anti-racist discussion from reaching the public discourse.  In this peculiar version of social progress, racism itself is not taboo, but calling it out is.  See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, I suppose.  But alas, we know that the evil of racism and oppression thrives when unseen.

We need to see that evil.  We need to fight it.  And we can’t fight what we can’t see.

– KD


Dangerous Space: How Safe Spaces Enable Racism – Part 1 of 2

One effective way to educate well-intentioned but misguided people on issues of oppression is to illustrate the often remarkable difference between the intention and impact of their actions.  I’ll use a personal anecdote as a starting example.  When I first began my teaching career, and was the lone Black teacher on a small staff in a rural Saskatchewan high school, the staff and students began planning a mock “slave auction” in order to raise money for charity; this was apparently tradition at the school.  After some reflection, I decided to raise issue with the auction, addressing the school’s vice principal in private.  The mortified response I received was that it was never anyone’s intention to offend, and that they hadn’t thought about it from my (Black) perspective before.  People often take this position in situations like these, and it serves one main purpose: the maintenance of their own innocence.  But the offending parties remain culpable of having had a negative impact on those with less power in the situation.

I’d sat through a mock slave auction as a student in elementary school already, that one having been aimed at somehow teaching about Black slavery itself.  The jokey atmosphere and sexualizing elements (yes, even in elementary school) did not make me feel like the right type of learning had taken place, nor that the experience of my slave ancestors had been validated – quite the opposite.  I felt as if it, and I, had been trivialized, forsaken, forgotten.  As an eleven year-old boy, I didn’t quite have the full analysis at the time, though I certainly had the rotten feelings, and nor did I have the power to speak up, only the courage to endure.  As an adult working professional, I was not about to let my peers put me through the same rottenness, though they almost did.  In the end, the more recent event was re-branded as a “student auction”.  Baby steps.

Open conversations like the one I had with my vice principal are important.  In retrospect, I wish I might have had the chance to address the whole staff and student body about my reason for the complaint.  Although, a conversation of that depth and magnitude may have been too progressive even for 2006.  I should hope that such conversations might be acceptable, encouraged even, in the “safe spaces” of 2018, but I have my doubts.  What is needed now is a large scale discussion of intention and impact within the broader so-called anti-oppressive community itself.

There are many factors that play into the currently cold climate within the multi-faceted progressive wing of this country and continent: liberal multiculturalism, the misuse of the safe spaces, the appropriation of political correctness, and the ongoing institutional silencing of the oppressed, among others.  But what these inter-related factors have collectively amounted to is an unfortunately self-destructive, disorganized, and anti-intersectional left, which has, in light of all its infighting, become easy for those on the right to critique, or, worse, ignore.

Infighting within oppressed communities has always bolstered the position of the oppressor.  One needn’t look farther than Tupac Shakur’s poignant analysis of state-assisted Black on Black crime in his song Changes for a striking example: “Give ’em guns, step back; watch ’em kill each other.”

Let us look to the microcosmic national slam poetry scene for insight.  Formerly regarded as one of the most compelling, progressive, critical, and radical art scenes in Canada (see my thesis, coincidentally titled “the safest place”: Anti-oppression in Spoken Word Poetry), the once afri-centric genre’s popularity and anti-establishment reputation are currently waning.  A well-intentioned, hardworking group of mostly white liberal organizers began making efforts to ensure the safety of slam poetry participants and spectators beginning shortly after the scene’s resurgence across Canada near the turn of the century.  The advent of trigger warnings for potentially upsetting content began to gain popularity shortly thereafter, opening a floodgate of other presumably progressive community actions ranging from coordinated audience protests of stage content, to informal excommunication and public shaming of poets, whose social crimes ranged from the very serious (i.e. actual crimes) to the mildly questionable faux pas.

The overall impact: a gradual decline in participating poets and spectators of colour, in anti-racist stage content, in literary merit, and in national interest in the once powerfully anti-oppressive genre.  Regarding trigger warnings, it would seem poets of colour generally didn’t like having to warn people that they were about to share their life experiences onstage (you know, in case anyone should like to leave and avoid hearing about them).  And since people of colour are statistically more likely to experience trauma, they are disproportionately affected by trigger warnings and other censoring mechanisms.  As Kendrick Lamar states on his track DNA, “Shit I’ve been through prolly offend you,” later clarifying for Rolling Stone that “I can’t tell you the shit that I’ve been through without telling you the shit that I’ve been through.”  I would posit that more offensive than sharing, without warning, what one has been through, is deciding that one’s life story and experiences of oppression ought to come with such warning to begin with.

Perhaps this is part of why here in Saskatoon, a more recently formed Indigenous Poets’ Society, separate from the mainstream local scene, has arisen, creating a truly safer space for Indigenous experiences of life to be freely shared and affirmed.  This freedom may have something to do with the tendency of dominant groups to informally (or, unintentionally, they may say) boycott minority events, sadly thereby avoiding potentially mind-changing and life-changing stories.

Of course, the intentionality behind trigger warnings is righteous.  And certainly, they do serve effectively to avoid re-traumatizing people with certain mental health conditions and past trauma.  Unfortunately, the bolder impact, or side effect, has been a continuation of the historical silencing of marginalized groups.  Indeed, a number of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Colour (BIPOC) who are poets in Canada have been disenfranchised and have felt devalued by the spoken word community, many of them eventually disengaging with their local scenes and with the art form itself.  The irony here ought not to be missed: spoken word is, after all, a modern extension of the oral traditions unique to the histories of Black and Indigenous peoples.  Their recent disenfranchisement from their own art form is not the fault of organizing committees alone, but rather of inherently oppressive systemic changes to the organizational format of spoken word, and socio-cultural changes that have permeated the national culture, the slam scene, and the spoken word community.

What has been lost is not just the important onstage presence of several BIPOC performers, but the radical anti-racist and decolonizing themes that they brought to the fore of the public consciousness through their art.  The ultimate result is their silence; once an outcome ensured by the oppressor, it’s now taken up via an inside job.  It seems the colonial reach is deeper and farther now than it was just a decade ago, which would suggest that those among the resistance ought to quickly change course.  Organizers everywhere must ask, safe space for whom and for how many?  And this extends far beyond slam.

Continued here