How many "safe spaces" actually provide safety? And to whom? | Tereneh Idia | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

How many "safe spaces" actually provide safety? And to whom?

click to enlarge How many "safe spaces" actually provide safety? And to whom? (2)
CP Illustration: Lucy Chen

How many times have you been in a room and been asked, “Is this a safe space?” Or been told that the space you are in is, in fact, safe.

Now, how many times was that space actually safe for you? “Is this a safe space?” is beginning to feel more like a call for the troll patrol to gather than to provide care. 

“This is a safe space!” A declaration I have heard all too often, but rarely proven true. In fact, these are often the spaces, even if — especially if — they include colleagues, friends, and family members who create an unsafe environment by expecting you to leave some of yourself out. 

“Safe” and “safety,” like “love” and “loving,” are defined through so many parameters and social mores. But, more often than not, our public way of showing and providing safety and love depends on the things we decide are valuable, and depends on the people we think are worth keeping safe. 

A quick trip through the neighborhoods of the city of Pittsburgh will show you whom we really value. 

I, for one, remember what it was like to go from being a child in Manchester to visiting the home of a friend in Shadyside. It was not the homes, if I am being honest. The homes in Manchester are some of the most beautiful in the city. It was everything around the homes that let me know that my friends, neighbors, family, and I weren’t considered important enough for nice streets, sidewalks, and a clear, safe, and loving passage to the places we wanted to go.  

“This is a safe space!” A declaration that I have heard all too often, but rarely with a follow-up as to how this safe space is being provided, what it looks like, or what one is to do if they do not, in fact, feel safe. 

On the first day of an artist retreat and gathering before COVID times, we began with what I thought was a promising discussion: “What thing or things would make this space unsafe to you?”

I expressed that, as the only Black artist there, I was concerned that anti-Blackness would impact me either from the artists, the staff, or from people who would come to see our work. That first day, folks nodded in agreement and understanding, convinced, like so many non-Black folks, that they were, in fact, not one ounce a racist. 

Well, of course, slowly, surely, the anti-Blackness came out — once, twice, three times, more. When I presented my concerns, reminding folks of my earlier comments about what would make this experience unsafe for me, well, then came the white tears. I, of course, finished the residency, did the work, and kept on moving. As we do. 

A year or so later, the head of the organization emailed me. “I am so sorry I finally understand what you were saying.” All I could do is say, “Thank you. I have been waiting so long for you to say it.” 

This, of course, did not improve the experience I already had. But maybe, just maybe, it would be better for the next Black artist. 

“This is a safe space!” There are whole entire organizations and elements of society who even have “safety” in their name. How many of them actually provide safety? And to whom?

Because, you see, too many of us — low-income, disabled, Black, Brown, women, queer; basically, anyone whose presence as a lead in a Marvel or Disney production would bring out the troll patrol — are not deemed worthy of being safe. And if our safe space is breached, we’re told it’s because of something we’ve done. That we deserve our precarious position, especially when we challenge or question the white patriarchal capitalism we’re all swimming in. 

Safe spaces are created when we provide the most for the least safe among us. But the way we live and suffer now are because the policies have been shaped by those who benefit the most from the injustice. Or from those low-income, disabled, Black, Brown, women, and queer folks who support the injustice with the hope of trickle-down benefits. Spoiler alert: those “benefits” aren’t coming.

When you continue to harm the most in the name of safety for the few, you are saying very clearly, “Actually, we like it this way. We like that people are in constant trauma due to state violence. We want to perpetuate that in this office, this museum, this school, this organization, on this block, in this city, in this home, in our hearts and minds, yes, we love this unsafe space.”

And then you say, “This is a safe space!” 

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