Say, we can act if we want to
If we don't, nobody will
And you can act real rude and totally removed
And I can act like an imbecile
And say, we can dance, we can dance
[“Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats]
I’ve been reading about “safe spaces” more than usual lately, you know, the metaphorical and literal environment we create for ourselves with each other so that we can pretend to avoid the risk of rejection or ridicule. It comes in handy while discussing topics that may or may not be comfortable for us to discuss. I credit Starbucks although I doubt they intended this consequence when they started the #RaceTogether coffee cup hashtag. As a non-coffee drinker, I first worried that some caffeinated person wanted me to run a 5K with them. Then I read the PR and realized the Starbucks' CEO expected his baristas to engage customers in conversations about racial equality.
Smart, funny, bold coffee addicts populate the majority of my Twitter timeline; they go to Starbucks, and this past week some of them asked the barista to start the conversation. That’s how I learned that the Starbucks’ baristas have been given no script and very few guidelines on how to conduct a conversation about race relations in America, which seems risky. What if the barista is actually a closet racist faking a tolerant mindset just to keep the job? How would that conversation go? But I digress.
Whether or not Starbucks artfully executed the program, they at least started a conversation, and that is never a bad thing. But it has led to some sidebars about “safe spaces” in which to conduct difficult dialog, and whether or not such spaces exist. Earlier today, a Tweep shared an article link to a New York Times op-ed piece on the topic that piqued me.
The article begins with the author detailing the “safe space” created at Brown University in response to a debate being held to discuss campus rape culture. The potential for a nuanced and informed exchange of ideas to make rape survivors feel invalidated may or may not be a dominant concern, but a few students saw the risk and created a safe space for attending rape survivors who might experience a trigger during the debates. This space they stocked with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” The trained students and staff members made perfect sense to me, but bubbles?
The space sounded more like my old kindergarten classroom. Were the victims children? If so, I could understand it, but how were cookies and coloring books going to help college-aged women work through the trauma, talk about the nightmares, face the triggers, and learn to defeat them? How would Play-Doh educate their friends, sisters, brothers, parents, and lovers on how to better show compassion? The space sounded more escapist than safe.
I retweeted the article with my own two cents thrown in: “Cookies and coloring books? Are they ten?” I did not ask the questions sarcastically (although I own that sarcasm is my usual demeanor where retweets are concerned). I sincerely did not understand how coloring books made a place safe. My questions reverberated as snark though, and someone else on Twitter quickly reminded me that the person who created the space was “a rape survivor, but whatevs,” which is Twitterspeak for “but if you want to be an asshole, just know I think you are being an asshole and shame on you.” (At least that is how I use “whatevs.”)
Twitter likes to shame. Twitter is no safe space.
The world is no safe space.
And college is supposed to be teaching that.
Humans can create the illusion of safe space – we can fill the metaphoric room of our choice with like-minded people and promise not to step on each other’s toes while we do a safety dance of political correctness. We’ll hold conversations on pre-approved topics with expected emotional responses ranging from mild interest to active encouragement. We’ll discourage negative criticism, everyone wins a trophy, and those who disrupt the order, we will shun. In this bubble we’ll convince ourselves we are enlightened. It is the ultimate denial.
In that “safe” space, we lose our ability to think critically, to argue successfully, to change a mind, plead a cause, march for reform. I think we also lose empathy for one another – that necessary element – the only hope to keep Homo Sapiens from fully devolving into sociopathic narcissists. So many people prefer to avoid uncomfortable truths or refuse to listen to the stories told by fellow humans of racial injustice, sexual violence, abuse, and oppression. In the absence of conversation , they (we, I) never learn to understand the courage of those who experience it, survive, and press on. Those in true denial delude themselves into thinking it doesn’t happen often or only to people who deserved it. It provides their rationale to ignore the calls for change or the suggestions that one could do better. In the blind eye turned, others perpetuate the violence, parrot the old hatreds, and create a new generation of intolerance. The space is anything but safe.
More baffling is why today’s future leaders think safe spaces are necessary. No one ever taught me something by agreeing with me. I was schooled in how to debate and raised with an open mind. I learned more through hard conversations with others who, rightly or wrongly, believed I was the problem, than I learned in books and movies, which are skewed by their creators’ personal biases. As a teenager I was threatened with a beating for my whiteness while walking home after school: “Didn’t you see Roots? Don’t you remember slavery?” Rhetorical questions unanswered by my feeble “yes” and “no, I wasn’t alive then.” In that moment, I had no safe space, and it was a hard conversation.
My takeaway from that scary experience? Getting judged based only on skin color really fucking sucks. I empathized. I quit doing that to others.
I was never informed by being called a name either, and I have been called many, but I don’t care. If you have resorted to that, you have lost the debate. Your toolbox is empty, and your clue bag is filled with trash.
We each have the power to create a safe space, not just for ourselves but also for others. It’s a choice we make – recognize shared common ground, celebrate what’s different in ourselves and in others -- dance if we want to.