The Legitimacy of The Safe Space

The Legitimacy of The Safe Space

The “safe space” is becoming more of a common term. And even more popular in practice amongst feminist or identity politics and activist networks. It is the conscious attempt to build comfortable and confidential environments where people can find solidarity and support in their shared experiences and common goals.

Safe spaces can be put into action in practical terms, whether that be an organised discussion, or online, such as a closed Facebook group or a hashtag movement. #BlackLivesMatter started in America as a way for black people to talk about and fight back regarding systematic inequalities. There was also #BlackoutDay –  an online movement to encourage black people to share selfies to dismantle stereotypes. The fact that both hashtags have come under attack – take for example #AllLivesMatter in response to #BlackLivesMatter – shows that people find it hard to grasp the concept of exclusive safe spaces.


Safe spaces are not necessarily defined solely on the basis of having something in common, but they also tend to include a socio-political or sensitive underlying context. Some spaces you may recognise already operate under some form of safe guidelines, such as alcoholics anonymous meetings, the religious act of confession, a men’s only space at a counselling facility, or a women’s only self-defense class.

The legitimacy of the safe space comes up time and time again. For example, the choice for US universities and colleges to implement trigger warnings for content that might be sensitive or traumatic for students has proved controversial. Some argue that it is babying students, hindering intellectual engagement, potentially altering the original reading material and to the extreme, threatening free speech. Those in support of trigger warnings have highlighted that it is a way for students to prepare themselves for material that might otherwise cause extreme distress. Safe spaces are also known to operate on campuses for marginalised groups to access supportive communication. In this sense, it is the exact opposite of a threat to free speech, but a place for it to thrive.

People’s main concerns with safe spaces seem to run along two predominant lines of thought (or one dominant thought: “What about me?”).

Firstly, why create more exclusion? Safe space networks appear to be leaving people out of important conversations. Why would you fight exclusion with more exclusion? Why build more walls and emphasise difference? If you are nodding your head in agreement, let me remind you of that trust exercise scene in Mean Girls, with the girl who says, “I wish we could all get along… I wish we could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles.” I get it, you have nice intentions, but as Damian replied, “She doesn’t even go here.” The unnamed girl’s emotional reaction to the cruelty of the world was projected in the most unproductive manner. I mean, her concerns are totally reasonable – wanting everyone to get along is lovely – but the problem is her issue was irrelevant.

Do you see how this mirrors some safe space concerns? Ask yourself: am I relevant here?

Secondly, there are those who argue that it is some form of reverse-discrimination. It is an argument that goes along the lines of, “Oh, so you’re allowed to exclude me from a Facebook group, but we are not allowed to have our own groups! We’re not allowed to leave endless sexist, racist, bullying commentary on UNILAD, pfft double standards!” Or maybe more simply, “Oh, so you’re all allowed to talk about your feelings in a safe space. What about my feelings? What about how I feel, did you think of that? I want to feel safe too.” Remember that insecure kid back in school who made having it worse off into a competition? Well, those kids are now grown ups with social media accounts. Just saying.


Concerns over the legitimacy of safe spaces shift the context of exclusion from what is really exclusionary – who is really being left out – to something trivial. Safe spaces are exactly what they claim to be: an environment where people can find confidentiality and feel comfortable talking about things or experiences that they may otherwise never have had the support or opportunity to voice. Criticising safe spaces for leaving people out of the conversation completely misses the point.

Back in August, with the help of Grrrl Power Liverpool and XXY Magazine’s own Editor-in-Chief Tahmina Begum, I got the opportunity to co-facilitate a talk titled, “Women of Colour: Where Do You Find Yourself in the Arts?” as part of a workshop series at Grrrl Power Liverpool’s launch event, “Women: Where Do You Find Yourself in the Arts?”. The talk was advertised as a safe space for women of colour only. The point being that white men, together with a growing crowd of white women, tend to dominate the culture and arts scene across Liverpool and the North West. The discussion was an attempt to establish a creative network for women of colour.

GetIntoThis wrote an extremely positive review of Grrrl Power Liverpool’s weekend, but did mention they initially had reservations about the use of the safe space. Despite this, they attended with an open mind. The concern was, “It meant that our friends couldn’t join in and it felt quite awkward being singled out for discussion. Not only that but isn’t racism, like feminism, everybody’s problem, everybody’s responsibility? Shouldn’t we all be in on the discussion?”

Although GetIntoThis writer, Janaya Pickett, attended the women of colour discussion and reported that it was an opportunity for creative women of colour to flourish, the initial reservation is one I know still exists outside of the GetIntoThis HQ. So here is a response: the fact that you feel left out or awkward is not relevant. It is not about you. Tell me about feeling excluded once you have been on the receiving end of racism. I doubt there is a feeling on earth more belittling and alienating. The point that racism and sexism are everyone’s problems is very much true. But it is also true that racism and sexism are not experienced by everyone. The fact that everyone should be a decent enough person not to be a racist or sexist is not counterintuitive to a safe space for women of colour. It is also important to note that in reality, not everyone is a decent enough person not to be a racist or sexist (light bulb moment: this one reason is enough to justify safe spaces, surely?).

Everyone can strive for a better, safer, fairer world while allowing safe spaces to flourish; while allowing those directly affected by injustice or trauma to find solidarity between each other. It does not have to be mutually exclusive. No matter how much of an ally you are, if you have not experienced racism, homophobia, sexism or ableism, there is going to be a level of ignorance there. Arguably, the most important function of the safe space is not to shield people from offence, but to provide places where people can have difficult, sensitive and honest conversations with other people who are the most likely to understand. They are not just places of political conversation or debate. They are places where people can mend.

It comes back to the legitimacy of safe spaces because they are by definition not very white and not very male. So if I have to, I will end with an example, that is neutral in terms of race, gender and sexuality, to settle your qualms. It is kind of a requirement that you have to be a recovering addict to attend an AA meeting. A world that is more accepting of mental health or addiction and exercises compassion is everyone’s responsibility. But we do not all have to be at the meeting. AA safe spaces are necessary, even if it encourages just one person to seek support. That is why safe spaces are legit. For people to feel safe.


Written by Michelle Houlston,

New York Junior Editor

Artwork by Njideka Akunyili Crosby