The Sanctity of Safe Spaces

Welcome back to our series the “us” in inclUSion, where we talk about how all of us need to take responsibility in the things we do and say every day to make our society a more inclusive place for everyone. We’re in this together, but we all have to do some work individually too. It’s our responsibility, and it will take all of us contributing to make real change.

In our previous segments, we talked about what it means to be an advocate to diverse communities, examining and challenging our own biases, what systemic oppression is and what it looks like in the everyday life of people who experience it, power and privilege, and the difference and the importance between intent and impact.

There’s a lot of talk in diversity, equity, and inclusion on creating safe spaces for diverse people. We need to make our workplaces and public places and communities places where diverse people can feel confident that they won’t be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm. But this is only one type of safe space. In this segment, I want to talk about spaces that are intentionally created by a diverse group for themselves to recharge and connect.

I recently attended the YWCA Madison Racial Justice Summit. If you haven’t heard about it, look into it. It’s an amazing local resource for educating yourself, and it happens every year. One of the speakers (shout-out to Valarie Kaur, author of See No Stranger ) was talking about safe spaces, and we were directed to remember a time when we felt totally supported, accepted, and completely safe with a group of people.

Where were we? Who was there? Why was it safe?

My mind went immediately to an LGBTQ conference over two years ago where I was in a nonbinary roundtable discussion. We packed ourselves into the room they gave us. Though I didn’t know anyone there, I felt completely accepted. I felt giddy to be around so many people that shared something sacred with me, my gender identity, one that many people still don’t accept or understand even in the LGBTQ+ community. As I heard people share their stories, I sat there filled with joy, crying from a deep part of me, the depths of my soul, where I felt safe, seen, and loved.

It’s hard to describe to someone that has not experienced governmental and societal oppression what it’s like to be in spaces all of the time that aren’t safe, and the toll that takes on a person. The emotional and physical energy it drains to always be on guard with shields up, knowing that at any moment things could go horribly wrong. It’s exhausting.

Black, brown, and Indigenous people know this existence very well; it’s their everyday, all of the time. If you’re a person that hasn’t experienced it, you may not be invited in those spaces. White, cis, and straight people often take up a lot of space in safe spaces created for diverse communities. Because folx that haven’t experienced that type of oppression often don’t realize they are taking up too much space, it can be surprising for them when they aren’t invited or are asked to leave certain spaces created for diverse groups. There’s a lot of “how can we ever have unity if we can’t all be together?”

First, people need to feel safe, and those in communities that spend most or all of their lives not feeling safe need spaces together to recharge in order to survive. So yes, there will be places you aren’t allowed to be in, and if you are invited, you must respect that space and be aware of how much space you’re taking up with your voice, opinions, and feelings. You are a guest, and if you’re trusted with being a guest, be mindful so that you can be invited to that space again and continue to learn.

Deep listening; not talking over people; asking them their opinion; letting them be heard; not getting too close; and making sure you ask for consent before any handshakes, hugs, or physical contact are all ways of helping others take up more space and feel safe. I have also felt the desire in a space of people of color to share my ideas; it’s so tempting, isn’t it? Especially if you’re trying to be an ally to that community. You want people to know “Hey! I’m an ally! I want to help you!”

While that sentiment is wonderful and appreciated, white, cis, and straight people can be performative and demonstrative of their allyship without realizing it and not realize how it makes the diverse people around them feel. I have done it; I have been corrected; I have caught myself doing it, and I have to remember the best thing I can do when I’m a guest in a space created for others is to listen, not take up too much space, and be respectful of my place there.

This also goes for the expectation of diverse people helping or educating you on what you’re curious about or don’t know. True, it can seem or feel frustrating when you ask a person a question out of sincere care and a desire to learn and hear back from them that they don’t have the energy to answer it or it isn’t their job to educate you, but while it may feel off-putting, see it from the other side. You, a person in a place of some type of privilege, are asking someone who has experienced oppression of that type to talk about it, to open the wounds they’re constantly trying to keep closed in order to educate you. It’s a lot to ask, and it’s asked often.

Diversity burnout is a real thing. We want diverse populations to give and give, but we make no promises on if we will make real change or if the environment, work culture, community, whatever, will actually listen and make changes that make it better for the diverse people.

Notice in your daily life the places you take up the most space and if there are any places you can be observant about how that might be affecting other groups. It may be something you have never thought about before, but it’s important. Safe spaces are sacred, and being in them is a sacred act. Be mindful of how much space you take up.

Sandy Eichel is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Speaker and Consultant.

Photograph provided by Sandy Eichel