Samara Linton | Sometimes, safe spaces scare me

“A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to 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.” [1]

The idea of safe spaces has stirred up controversy in several academic institutions.

There were rows at both Oxford and Cambridge universities over whether or not to host debates on abortion, the Cambridge Union was asked to withdraw its invitation to Germaine Greer because of her views on transgender issues, and closer to home, FLY, a feminist forum for women of colour at Cambridge University has recently become exclusive to self-identifying BME women. I have heard both sides of the debate. University should be about challenging ideas, controversy and learning. At the same time, people should be able to go to university without feeling traumatised, attacked or marginalised.


Personally, I believe that safe spaces should not need to exist. We should be able to live in environments where difficult ideas and concepts can be discussed with those most affected by them. We should be able to live in environments where the marginalised are given room to speak and the privileged engage with their concerns. Sadly, in 2015, this is still not the case. I do not want safe spaces to need to exist. But they do. They need to exist because the voices of the privileged continue to dominate discussions of issues that affect the oppressed.

These voices are the ones which continue to compare racial discrimination with discrimination based on hair colour. These voices are the ones which attribute the under-representation of BME people in managerial positions to their laziness and dismiss my rebuttals as whining and playing the race card. Yes, I believe in freedom of speech. However, it is all too easy to forget that for the marginalised, this is not just another hot topic. This is real life. What you see as interesting statistics about racial profiling, I see as a friends being stopped and searched and peers being called aside for not-so-random security checks.  What you see as a scientific research ‘proving’ black women to be unattractive, I see as the booming skin lightening industry and pride that comes from being mistaken as “mixed-race”. And because these are real life issues, sometimes we need spaces where we can have the compassion, sensitivity, and solidarity that is lacking in open spaces. I am not saying every space should be a safe space, but I do believe that safe spaces need to exist.

However, what I want to focus on is something that I think the debate often overlooks. What happens within groups or forums that are labelled safe? Mostly, what you would expect. People share experiences. The good, the bad and the ugly. Sometimes we rant, sometimes we joke around. Often we share advice. Practical tips on addressing the supervisor with an inappropriate interest in your ‘native traditions’, the friend who does not understand why that joke upsets you. And sometimes we plan. We plan discussions and events to have with the wider student population, to engage them with these issues.

Still, sometimes, safe spaces scare me. They scare me because some of the views and opinions expressed can be as hurtful or uncomfortable as those expressed ‘out there’. Often this is coming from a place of hurt or bitterness, and is not comparable to the systematic discrimination that exists in wider society, but it can be hurtful and uncomfortable nonetheless. We don’t all agree. Yet, it is often difficult for those who disagree to do so.

So the question is, whose voice is the legitimate voice? Often it is the loudest or most outspoken person whose voice dominates the room. But how is this different to the wider society where the loudest voice is measured not by decibels, but by colour, gender and income? This article is a plea to those who find themselves dominating safe spaces. Take a step back and look at the people in the room. Not everyone has an issue with Meghan Trainor or thinks the veil is a symbol of oppression. Not everyone is offended when their white friend sings ALL the lyrics in Jay-Z’s songs. We each have our own experiences and our own opinions. Why do we feel the need to police each other?
Sometimes, safe spaces scare me because there isn’t room to challenge the prevailing ideas. You are seen as passive, compromising or simply uneducated. How is this any different to what happens on the outside? In order for safe spaces to be safe for all, we must work to ensure we all have a voice. For in the wonderful words of Arundhati Roy: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.


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