Making safer spaces takes all kinds of work.
Safe(r) spaces are environments – classrooms, club meetings, workshops, friendships, relationships with co-workers, etc. – where folks recognize, oppose, and undo the oppression of members of marginalized groups. All sorts of efforts can make the spaces we participate in safer for members of marginalized groups.
Using the terms that people choose to describe themselves, believing people when they share their experiences, naming problems even when doing so is uncomfortable, and encouraging people to be accountable to one another – these are all examples of work we can do to make our shared spaces safer. Learning to do these things takes time and effort, and in environments where people come and go a lot the effort might be repetitive. Learning from one another and passing on what we have learned is an important part of maintaining a safe(r) space.
Safe(r) spaces don’t just exist. We live in a world where oppression is normalized. For example, despite the high representation of Anglo-Caribbean, Black, Haitian and West African people in Montreal, most people are unphased by the low numbers of Black students, staff, and faculty at McGill. Safe(r) spaces shake up the patterns that make this kind of mistreatment or exclusion invisible – and that can feel uncomfortable.
Creating spaces where oppression is not the norm takes conscious effort because the world we live, work, and go to school in does not already provide for the dignity, well-being, access and participation of members of marginalized groups.
Terms to Know
Below are some important terms and some basic explanations of what they mean in the context of equity work at McGill!
Calling Out/Calling In
Practices of identifying oppressive behaviours and statements, asking for accountability, and (sometimes) working together to resolve the harm done. Both practices leave room for anger on the part of members of marginalized groups impacted by the action. Calling in was proposed by Ngoc Loan Tran as a way of resolving the tensions exposed by calling out in cases where a valued relationship with a known friend, peer, colleague, etc. is impacted.
Rejecting ideas and practices that advantage your own social group over someone else’s; listening to and taking direction from members of marginalized groups who are working to end their oppression.
An unintended or unconscious, commonplace action, behaviour, or statement that plays into stereotypes about a marginalized group. First coined by Dr. Chester M. Pierce in his 1970s research with Black Americans, research on microaggressions has since expanded to examine the experiences of indigenous people, people with disabilities, women, LGBTQ people, a number of racial, ethnic, and religious groups, and more. Taken in isolation, one instance of microaggression can seem like a minor event; members of marginalized groups often experience the same microaggression repeatedly over time, producing adverse emotional, social, psychological, and health impacts.
Unearned access to resources and social power. While members of all social groups face challenges and hardships in life, systematically, society grants advantages to some groups over others. Privilege is built into our institutions and environment, and passed down from generation to generation. E.g. settlers of European descent given parcels of land for free by the British and later Canadian governments, while Indigenous people were forced off of the land they had lived on for centuries and Black Loyalists were denied the land they were promised by the same governments.
Like oppression, accountability can happen interpersonally and structurally, in our communities and in our institutions. While histories of oppression are beyond our control, oppression is a lot more than history’s greatest acts of cruelty, and we all take part in enacting it. Accountability means acknowledging, accepting, and taking responsibility for the ways we all sometimes benefit from and enact oppression. This can include: listening, making amends, and not repeating the same actions when someone tells us our behaviour contributes to oppression; ensuring that equity-enhancing policies are implemented; taking action against policies and decisions that target or exclude members of marginalized groups.
There are many myths and misconceptions regarding diversity and equity work, read up on some of those myths below!
Safe(r) Spaces Are About Being PC
Safe(r) spaces do not exist to create bubbles in which debate or disagreement is banned, or to satisfy a requirement that we not offend one another. Rather, safe(r) spaces exist, or are worked towards, to carve out areas wherein certain oppressive attitudes are challenged rather than accepted, expected, or celebrated. Safe(r) spaces are necessary because in most of the spaces we spend time in, people’s right to self-definition, or to express experiences of discrimination, are denied and silenced. Part of safe(r) spaces might include attending to, and ceasing to use, oppressive language, but being “politically correct” is not a goal in and of itself. Instead, creating safe(r) spaces means respecting people’s needs and identities, particularly when they are not respected outside of these spaces. Safer spaces create environments that foster creativity, openness, and learning among all who share the space.
Feelings of Discomfort Are a Violation of the Safe(r) Space
The goal of safe(r) spaces is not to make everyone comfortable, or even to make everyone happy. Not only would this goal be impossible to meet, but it would direct energy and attention towards the wrong problem, and ignore the necessity and utility of discomfort being felt by some people. Being confronted with one’s own privilege, and how one benefits from and is complicit with oppression is rarely comfortable, but it is impossible to work towards combating a problem if you do not first acknowledge that it exists. Feeling uncomfortable is much different than feeling unsafe, and in some cases feeling comfortable requires that we do not challenge each other to address the ways that we are contributing to making others feel unsafe. A safe(r) space is one in which safety is prioritized over desires for comfort or avoidance of awkwardness.
Every Safe Space Should Welcome Everyone Equally
The idea that every safe(r) space must be available for everyone’s use is often mobilized by people who are privileged in a certain way and are excluded from a space open exclusively to people who are not. For example, a white person might become angry to hear that they are not welcome at an event organized by and for people of colour. The privileged person who is excluded might even condemn this space for appearing to replicate the same oppressive and discriminatory forces they’re ostensibly made in response to. However, just like a given safe(r) space is not dedicated to the goal of everyone feeling comfortable, but rather to serve a sort of refuge from prevailing systems of oppression, closed or designated spaces are created because of the understanding that sometimes even well-intentioned people make mistakes that might disrupt the feeling of safety for the people those spaces are designed to help.
There is an important difference between being surrounded by people who share your experience and being surrounded by people who are simply open to, or accepting of it. The criticism of closed or designated spaces almost always ends up prioritizing privileged perspectives and feelings. Real allyship means accepting that sometimes you are not wanted or needed, and taking direction from the people you are committed to supporting rather than prioritizing your own interests or comfort.
In this video Jaime and Leigh (formerly Lily), from the Union for Gender Empowerment, explain what safer spaces are to them, including that they require constant education and reflection.
In this video Samanthea Samuels, co-president of the Black Students' Network at McGill, discusses her understanding of 'safe space' with particular regard to race at McGill, and notes the importance of education for the creation and improvement of safe spaces.
In this video Frances May and Bianca Tetrault discuss their understandings of 'safer spaces' with regard to sexual violence, noting the importance of education and support for survivors.
In this video Jaime and Leigh (formerly Lily), from the Union for Gender Empowerment Collective, discuss the complexities of safer spaces and communities, explaining the importance of understanding, accountability, and compassion.
In this video Sarah Malik, Equity Educational Advisor specializing in Race and Cultural Diversity at SEDE, discusses the importance of sharing the work of challenging racism at McGill University, including in classroom settings, in order to shift how race and racism are discussed at McGill and who shoulders the majority of the burden.