Recently, the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba have both began discussing the possibility of reserved times exclusively for women and non-binary folk to use the gym facilities. Naturally, this caused a tornado of people to go absolutely bonkers on social media.
People are rushing to share their indignation, saying that they “pay that same union fees,” and “the gym is already crowded!” Other protesters exclaim, “Segregation won’t solve these problems!” And a few men cry out about the pain of “being discriminated against based on their sex” if they are to be barred from using the gym for a few hours a week.
This tension and rejection speaks to a bigger issue: the need for and acceptance of safe spaces in general. Safe spaces are used in a variety of ways around the world, but a description of them is rarely given and a rationale for their existence is rarely discussed.
What exactly is a safe space? What’s the point of them? Do we really need them? If so, why? How are they useful? Is it a perfect solution?
What is a safe space?
A safe space is a place, confined by geographical and/or time limits. It serves an exclusive, persecution population during certain times in a public space or all the time in a private space.
Safe spaces are created to give individuals who, based on immutable characteristics, feel threatened, uneasy and/or unsafe in many public spaces. As such, safe spaces work to carve out a place and/or time for these groups to feel more comfortable and safe.
Safe spaces can be Jewish frat houses, women’s gyms, South Asian student groups, LGBTI health centres, and so much more. Any space that makes a historically oppressed minority feel welcome and safe.
Yes, we do need safe spaces.
In the rationale for creating safe spaces, two issues are always at play. First, that a certain group faces explicit discrimination or harassment. This comes in the form of threats, verbal harassment, physical abuse, hate speech, etc. Second, that a group is also subjected to an inherently exclusive and discriminatory environment. This manifests itself in how spaces are created, how by-laws and regulations fail to recognize/accommodate oppressed minorities, and unspoken gestures that make people feel uncomfortable.
Those who are subjected to these explicit and implicit discriminations, tell us this through their lived experiences. These lived experiences are the most tangible, credible information on a topic. Nothing can shed more light on issues of equality, equity and justice than someone’s lived experience.
Why? Why is someone’s personal story the most critical evidence in a social justice issue? Because when it is someone’s comfort/safety/inclusion that is at hand, it is their perspective that matters.
Many don’t believe individuals who speak of their personal experiences, saying they require empirical data to prove the existence of discrimination. Please note that this demand of extrinsic evidence belittles women, trans, differently able (etc.) folks who have lived experiences of a certain unease and harassment. All bigotry continues to exist by disregarding, or rendering unreliable, any evidence surrounding racism sexism, ableism, etc. This demeaning approach that assesses one’s lived experiences as unreliable or suspicious only serves to maintain the status quo - if you can’t trust what one says then there’s no proof there’s a problem! As so accurately put by feministkilljoys, “that evidence of something is deemed insufficient is a mechanism for reproducing something.”
Why do we so vehemently reject safe spaces?
- Because we are selfish.
Why do women get their own homeless shelter when there are men living on the streets too? Why are their trauma centres for trans folk when cis people struggle with PTSD and mental illness as well? Why are there black student societies when white allies want to participate?
People pose these questions all the time when confronted with safe space initiatives. People wonder why one community gets an extra accommodation when they also have a stake in the initiative/issue.
People are inherently selfish, and this comes out when safe spaces are discussed. We instinctively consider how something will affect us before we consider anything else. While this is natural, it should not be the end of one’s analysis. There needs to be a balancing exercise. After we have assessed how this may adversely impact us, we need to weigh whether this impact outweighs the beneficial effects on the intended population.
In the scenario of exclusive gym hours for women/non-binary folk, we must ask whether the adverse impact(s) (inconvenience of limiting gym time) is more significant than the benefit(s) (helping to include a traditionally excluded population, reducing their chance of harassment and allowing them to comfortably use a facility).
How can we justify that our convenience is more important than someone’s safety? Simple, because we are selfish.
- Because we are ignorant.
No, that isn’t meant to be an insult to those who are initially wary of creating a safe space (though it isn’t a compliment either). What I mean is that often we reject notions that we do not understand.
While you may attend university everyday and always have a positive experience, that is not the case for everyone. Many people deal with homophobia, racism, sexism, ableism or transphobia, and come to define their university experience as a very negative one.
If you hold privilege(s) (be it from your race, socioeconomic class, ability, sex, etc.), such issues may never even come into your consciousness. Why would we be compelled to wrestle with these realities if they are not a part of our own world?
This is especially true in scenarios where a group claims discrimination but there is no tangible source for outsiders to grab onto. For example, when there is no explicitly discriminatory policy or legislation that you can point to, it doesn’t mean that people are not subjected to unfair treatment. There is no legislation that allows landlord to discriminate based on race, nor a national act that allows companies to pay women a lower salary than men, but that doesn’t mean there is no housing discrimination or gender pay gap? While anyone, in theory, can freely navigate society, it doesn’t mean that they do in reality.
This lack of engagement with societal inequity and discrimination is a problem. When persecuted communities speak up with their concerns or requests, we reject their claims as ‘unnecessary’ or ‘extreme’ because we have never taken the time to consider the implications of our oppressive paradigm.
- Because we are not empathetic.
As a complement to our ignorance, many of us also lack empathy when it comes to other people’s lived experiences. It isn’t very useful to accept the legitimacy of one’s lived experiences if then we do not try to put ourselves in their shoes.
By failing to engage with someone else’s point of view or personal experience, we fail to gain a deeper understanding of the entire situation. For example, as a white person, my failing to try to put myself in the shoes of a black person before criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement effectively impedes any productive conversation. If I cannot empathize with this oppressed minority when discussing issues that affect the group directly, nothing positive can come from such an argument.
Furthermore, a lack of empathy is not just unproductive in further social justice causes, but it can actually be counter productive to the movements.
For example, an individual writing in the comments section of an article discussing exclusive gym times attempted to equate the policy to the Jim Crow laws. This is a perfect example of someone who clearly cannot put themselves in the position of a) an uncomfortable/unsafe gym-goer and b) someone who lived through the Jim Crow era. Not only is this comment a slap in the face to anyone who had to endure the Jim Crow era, but it is also wholly inaccurate. To compare these two phenomena is to belittle the traumatizing and systemic effects that Jim Crow had on the United States and to inflate the negative consequences of making inclusive policies for a persecuted group.
Exclusive times are not segregation.
Proposing to create a space for an oppressed group is neither sexist nor racist nor segregationist. A policy aimed at making marginalized groups feel safe and comfortable, even if it has a direct or indirect effect on you as a member of a more dominant group, does not count as discrimination.
Put yourself in the shoes of the oppressed: If you are upset by being restricted from using a space for a certain time each day or week, imagine how the oppressed group feels because it can never (comfortably or otherwise) use that same space?
For those spaces that exclusively cater to certain communities, the same notion applies. If someone does not feel welcome, included or safe in a public space or in society in general, then they deserve to have a space in which they feel appreciated and respected.
Who are you to exclaim how someone else should feel? Who are you to discredit their personal experiences and declare those untrustworthy or invalid? Furthermore, who are you to suggest that your experience, one that involves no persecution (or a different kind of persecution), also deserves the exact same accommodation as theirs?
Having a disabilities rights centre, for example, is not segregationist. Having a centre exclusively for those with different abilities does not mean that it seeks to exclude able-bodied individuals. Rather, the centre seeks to create a space where people with disabilities can speak freely, feel comfortable, and reclaim the space from which they are so often excluded.
Just because safe spaces exclude the general public does not mean they are promoting segregation. This is a negative outlook on a positive initiative. Safe spaces seek to create space for oppressed groups, not delineate space to exclude those with privilege.
To say that a safe space is segregationist is to miss the point entirely.
Safe spaces are not the end game.
Do you think we, as women and non-binary folk, like the idea of being relegated to three hours a week in a space? Do you truly believe we prefer a designated time slot, isolated with a specific, ostracized population?
We do not. Life would be a whole lot better if we could enter a space all the time without feeling uncomfortable or being harassed. It would be dandy if women felt comfortable walking into a gym. I’m sure trans folk would love it if they did not face verbal threats on a regular basis. And I bet you my bottom dollar that black people don’t enjoy being discriminated against in their workspace, university, and residential community.
As much as you don’t like being barred from entering a space during certain hours, we don’t like feeling persecuted in that space at all other hours. If there was a world in which we could occupy these spaces without carving out a time/place for safety, we would be happy campers.
But such change does not happen overnight. Thus, it is an unreasonably denied request to carve out a few hours a week for people to access a space to which they are entitled.
That said, while we do this, actively guarding a population away from the mainstream, we should also work towards educating the masses. Society - especially universities, which are notorious for perpetuating rape culture, homophobia, transphobia, and gender inequality - needs to work towards a culture shift. Let’s put curricula in place to transform oppressive environments into inclusive communities.
If people are saying that they feel uncomfortable and/or unsafe in a certain space, we need to listen. It is not our right to tell someone how they should feel. It is not our right to place our convenience above another person’s safety. It is not our right to unapologetically monopolize, consciously or subconsciously, a public space.
Although creating special spaces or carving out times in public spaces for certain people is not ideal, it is a way to help marginalize communities stave off persecution and exist peacefully in a certain time/place. We should most certainly strive for systemic transformation regarding the treatment of oppressed minorities, but we must also find ways to support and accommodate them in the current paradigm until we have truly eliminated all forms of discrimination they face.