By Hannah Black. Black is an artist and writer from the U.K. She is the author of Dark Pool Party, which was published last month by Dominica/Arcadia Missa.
The antiviolence politics of which the phrase “safe spaces” has become a metonym has inspired many criticisms, most of them condemning the participants’ lack of realism or resilience. A world without hierarchy and violence is impossible, say the pragmatists; the psyche itself is violent, say the psychoanalysts. To me, the college students who are attempting to highlight inequity seem more admirable than the people who sneer at them. To suggest otherwise is to shrug off the dismal prevalence of sexual and racial violence, which exists on an eerie continuum from Abu Ghraib to campus hazing. The safe space does not guarantee protection, but it does offer a method for thinking harder about cruelty. The contingent, strategic demand for safety is not a retreat from reality but a closer examination of reality’s contours — not in every case, yet often enough that its critics should be more careful.
A few years back, I was called out, or challenged, for using transphobic language. I know from this experience that it hurts to be experienced as hurtful, or at least that it stings the pride to be wrong. But I was wrong, and now I know it. I would have been no less wrong for not knowing I was wrong, no less hurtful if no one told me they felt hurt. Like the writers of ungenerous caricatures of campus politics, I don’t enjoy being yelled at, or hearing that I’ve wounded someone, or being made to feel ignorant. My first response is also a kind of panicked cringe, or a lashing out: No, you can’t mean me! It’s you who are wrong! But I did, eventually, thankfully, realize that my suspicion of trans people was based on the worst kind of self-justifying nonsense. There is no reason why my sense of someone else’s gender should override their own. I am grateful to the people who yelled at me, told me that I’d hurt them, and made me feel my ignorance, to get me to this now-obvious point. The experience was not intellectually limiting, or an attack by the thought police: to the contrary, my realization about the complicated untruths of gender, and of my own previous bigotry, was one of the most intellectually expansive experiences of my life. It released me into a new, gentler conception of my own body and the bodies of others. It brought new people into my life and gave me a greater, sometimes scary, sense of possibility.
Don’t the columnists and op-ed writers ever have the terror and joy of becoming suspicious of their certainties? Because of my race, perhaps, some things came easier: it is not hard for me to understand that whiteness comes with social rewards that are subtended by violence against those outside the magic circle. I mean not only that, as the child of a black father, I could sense from an early age that the appearance of my body triggered strange reactions in white people. I am also referring to how, as the relatively light-skinned and white-assimilated black child of a white mother, I became aware of the ways I benefited from racial privileges. Although it’s not anywhere near as hard as magnetizing and managing other people’s racism, it is a strange feeling to carry around the benefits accrued from histories of violence. Often innocently, just by being lighter-skinned or cis or white or male, you remind people of things that they are forced to bear and that you don’t have to. But the innocence evaporates, I think, when you can’t receive other people’s anger with grace, because the anger is a kind of grace: it insists on the importance of experience. Acknowledging this does not seem to me to be intellectually stultifying or quasi-fascist or any of the other labels that are applied to campus organizers. It is only a recognition of the fact, at once banal and extraordinary, that race is a complex constellation of historical phenomena that we all carry around as if it inhered in our bodies.
I think I know why, when given the opportunity, some people will cling to their faith in dubiously self-evident facts (“sex and rape can always be clearly distinguished”), in tautologies (“a woman is a woman”), in a narrowly shared “common sense.” It is hard to perceive yourself as invested with advantages, even as subjectively meager an advantage as a socially favored gender position, let alone to perceive that advantage as politically important. Perhaps because of this, I have met few people as painfully preoccupied with their own vulnerability as straight white men, who often seem to hear analyses of gender domination and white supremacy as if they were only claims about the relative happiness or suffering of individuals. Yes, we know that many white men are very unhappy, we have read the midlife-crisis novels and seen the quarter-life-crisis movies, and conversely we all know about the death-defying inventiveness and joy of people whose culture and communities are under erasure: black, queer, and so on. The politics of safety and violence (i.e., race and gender) concern not only affect but social organization and history above all.
There are intense debates within ultra-left, black-radical, and other circles about the meaning and possibility of safety. Many now use the term “safer space,” to indicate that we are talking about relative and not absolute levels of safety. The term “content warning” is now often used in place of “trigger warning,” partly because the leading nature of the latter term has been subject to criticism. The safer space is just as capable of self-critique as any other, which is to say: mostly not very, but somewhat. Critics seem not to have noticed this, or how their own safety is premised on the radical lack of safety of others. They are more troubled by the thought police, who don’t exist, than by the real police, who kill. They are free to speak, and believe themselves to be so, but they seem surprised to find that others are, too.