Safe spaces don’t exist solely to keep you out
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.