Safe spa­ces don’t ex­ist solely to keep you out

Metro Canada (Vancouver) - - VIEWS - Vicky Mochama

When op­pressed groups cre­ate spa­ces for them­selves, it’s not — drum roll, please — re­verse dis­crim­i­na­tion. It is a re­sponse to ac­tual dis­crim­i­na­tion by cre­at­ing a place where they (we, de­pend­ing on the day and event) can safely ex­ist.

The mayor of Paris called for the Nyansapo film fes­ti­val, a black fem­i­nist gath­er­ing, to be banned on the ba­sis that it pur­port­edly ex­cluded white peo­ple. The or­ga­niz­ers say that the pub­lic ar­eas had al­ways been in­tended to be open to peo­ple of all races. How­ever, some spa­ces on pri­vate prop­erty would be re­served for black peo­ple of all gen­ders.

Back in North Amer­ica, the Alamo Draft­house Cinema, a movie chain based in Austin, Texas an­nounced it would hold five women-only screen­ings of Won­der Woman. The con­nec­tion here to rad­i­cal pol­i­tics is a lit­tle more ten­u­ous; I’m not sure that a hand­ful of screen­ings for a cor­po­rate sum­mer block­buster is ex­actly women’s lib­er­a­tion. But the sen­ti­ment, a safe space for women to ex­pe­ri­ence an ac­tion film, is fine. The re­ac­tion was a large help­ing of the usual: men on­line com­plained about sex­ism.

In both of these we find a deep mis­un­der­stand­ing of how the world works.

Safe spa­ces are not par­tic­u­larly novel. They have a long and sto­ried his­tory, some of which has a Cana­dian con­nec­tion.

Some safe spa­ces have been en­tire in­sti­tu­tions cre­ated to serve peo­ple who have ex­pe­ri­enced sys­temic dis­crim­i­na­tion. For ex­am­ple, his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties in the U.S. came about as a re­sponse to racist ad­mis­sions prac­tices at Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties.

Oth­ers are about cre­at­ing a place for com­mu­ni­ties at the mar­gins to cen­tre them­selves while still in­clud­ing oth­ers.

The Won­der Woman movie is the first fe­male-led comic book movie in years and the first with a woman direc­tor. Five show­ings among thou­sands does not amount to dis­crim­i­nat­ing against men.

Sim­i­larly, the black fem­i­nist film fes­ti­val seeks to give black peo­ple a space that is solely theirs within the larger event, and more im­por­tantly, within the larger ma­jor­ity-white and anti-black Parisian cul­ture.

It’s im­por­tant when crit­i­ciz­ing these spa­ces to rec­og­nize the en­vi­ron­ments they are cre­ated in. All too of­ten, the ar­gu­ments for free speech for­get that speech ex­ists within cer­tain con­texts. For women and peo­ple of colour, the big­ger pic­ture is of­ten one of a world that has chron­i­cally ex­cluded them.

When men and white peo­ple feel left out or dis­crim­i­nated against by spa­ces like these, they are ex­press­ing their dis­com­fort with bound­aries. The lines are drawn to keep the peo­ple inside them safe in a world that reg­u­larly threat­ens their peace.

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