After spending all morning at the Women’s March on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with two toddlers, my friends and I decided to grab some lunch on our way home. While sitting and enjoying some much needed food, we spent some time time reflecting on the day. At one point, the topic of safe spaces surfaced, and I recalled my experience in college with a roommate (maybe she will read this post–it would be great if she does) who moved out of our house senior year.
My roommate, an African American woman, had, I believe, been having a powerful experience that year exploring her identity with her Black peers. At the time, she was living in our house with all white women, and, I believe, it became harder and harder for her to live in the house. At the time, when she moved out, I don’t think I really took the opportunity to discuss it deeply with her, and I regret this deeply. I know that my hair, which I had let turn into dreadlocks after the braids my Senegalese adoptive family put in my hair during my semester abroad began to fall out, offended her. Another one of our roommates cut her dreads off because of the situation.
I remember being shocked and being hurt that I had somehow unknowingly offended her. I wished that she had explained things more, and I felt that I really wasn’t trying to offend anyone and I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong. At the time I think I almost felt like I had become a victim of her journey into self-realization. I now know how small my thinking was and I have a newly found respect for my roommate, who did not stay silent and made a change for herself. I didn’t at the time, realize that, by no fault of my own, I had privilege; that I had a membership card to a part of society that not everyone has access to.
This was 2001/2002 (I can’t remember the year, but it was post-9/11 and pre-graduation) and Oberlin College, my alma mater had been at the forefront of safe spaces and social justice for a long time. We had non-gendered bathrooms for trans students, a college-sponsored Drag Ball, a Kosher Co-op, Afrikan Heritage House, Asia House, Baldwin Collective for female and trans students, as well as a number of other houses centered around various heritages. There were times, honestly, when I was intimidated by some of these communities. I felt that something powerful was going on there and that I was not a part of it and, honestly, I didn’t always feel welcome. I was never upset or offended, I just felt like an “other” and kept to the perimeter. This was, of course, my own psychological wall, but I can remember feeling it from time to time.
Fast forward to lunch in 2017 and I find myself telling the story of my roommate and how safe spaces can sometimes feel exclusionary and cause people to recede to their spaces and mistrust or avoid others.
As I reflected tonight on this thought and the perception that I had, I think I may have “woke” a bit to my own shortcomings.
Exhibit A: It was not my roommate’s job to explain herself to me. It was my job to find out what was going on. Of course, now I have a better understanding of the importance of hair to Black women and the frustration with white women with dreadlocks who wear them because it is trendy without understanding the battle that black women fight over such a simple thing as hair.
Exhibit B: That feeling of “other” that I had, that exclusivity of communities centered around a culture that was not my own, well, I got a taste of what it was like to be anyone marginalized by society. It was my loss that I rarely went outside of my comfort zone to learn more aside from a few conversations or attending an event.
Exhibit C: I had my own “safe space” in the co-op I lived in. I’m sure, to many, my space was intimidating and unwelcoming.
Still, however, I am grappling with this idea of safe spaces.
First of all, the need for them suggests that the larger society is not a safe place to be.
Second, they serve an important role, but we cannot hide in them.
Third, how can we create spaces that are safe and open to everyone? It feels like that is getting harder and harder to do.
So now what? What do I do now that I have reflected on my own shortcomings and their implications as well as the implications of my own experiences?
In this uncertain time for our country, here is what I can do:
- Understand my privilege and use it to help others*
- Model inclusivity and kindness
- Support and give the best education I can to all of my students
- Raise my son to be kind
- Speak out when I witness injustice
- Listen, even if I don’t agree
- See others for how we are similar, instead of how we differ
- Show up
I regret that it took me over 15 years to get to this point, but I hope that my story will help others reflect on their own experiences and think about them in new light. I also hope that we, as neighbors, friends, relatives, co-workers and co-inhabitants of this planet can find a way to create spaces where we all feel safe. How can we get to a place where it’s OK to disagree because it leads to a deeper understanding of each other, and, in the end, a deeper understanding of ourselves?
*I want to clarify the difference between understanding our privilege and “white guilt.” I do not feel guilty for being born who I am, but I understand the implications of being born who I am and the status that it gives me in society.