The uproar that descended on the Goldsmiths diversity officer Bahar Mustafa leaves a lot to be desired about the mainstream media’s knowledge and understanding of safe spaces. The incident was framed as Mustafa “banning” white men from an event intended to “promote diversity.” This would be ridiculous, if it were true. Events aimed at marginalized groups are not intended to “promote diversity” and obviously, because of their agenda, the Daily Mail conveniently did not emphasize that Mustafa alluded to a separate event that would be aimed at allies which all could attend. There are a number of ‘space spaces’ at this university, from FLY, the BME Women’s network, to events held by the Women’s Campaign and the LGBT+ Campaign. These are crucial in liberation work.

Safe spaces are essential because they are just that - safe. Living in a world of racial and gendered violence can often be very difficult. There is something affirming about walking into a space where you are temporarily free from such threats, physical and physiological that perhaps cannot be articulated. There are things women know that men do not by virtue of socialisation, there is understanding that exists amongst people of colour because we are able to talk about feelings of alienation - what it means to have your name butchered at matriculation, what it means for people to touch your hair without permission, what it feels like to experience micro-aggressions that sometimes ruin your day. It is these experiences that make safe spaces so crucial to any fight against an oppressive system. That is not to say marginalized groups are homogenous masses. Even within said groups differences exist, and this can make safe spaces more complex.

Often individuals who don’t understand the importance of safe spaces are individuals who have never been made to feel uncomfortable in the spaces they occupy, because those spaces have been created and populated by people who look like them. Cambridge is a good example of this. This is an institution that for centuries excluded anyone who was not a middle class, able bodied, white, cisgender, heterosexual male.

The simplistic and common counter-argument to jump to is, “safe spaces do the same thing! They exclude people! Shouldn’t we all just work together?” This Kumbaya argument ignores systems of power that favour some individuals at the expense of others. Yes, working together is important, and the organisers of the event of Goldsmiths made this clear in their allusion to a separate event open to everyone. But safe spaces exist because we cannot ignore that sometimes working allies can be problematic if they are not constantly making an effort to unlearn racist, sexist and other discriminatory behaviour. Allies can be unintentionally oppressive. Sometimes, allies demand to be educated, saying, “I don’t understand how racism still exists, educate me” or “explain to me why this is sexist”; and whilst educating others is important, it should not be the main priority for marginalised people. The main priority should be their liberation. Safe spaces allow marginalised people to refocus their attentions on the issues that affect them on the basis that everyone starts on the same page.

Marginalised people need allies from privileged groups to give them platforms, speak up but not over them, exercise militant empathy and, most importantly, to listen when they tell you about their experiences of oppression.

Listen when they tell you that you that some events are not created for you. We need allies who won’t demand uncritical access to our spaces and allies who understand that a shared experience of oppression is important. You cannot take centre stage in someone else’s struggle for liberation. Quite frankly, sometimes your opinions as an ally are not necessary. Sometimes being an ally means keeping quiet and letting the members of the communities you are trying to help hold their events without reframing the discussion to focus on how you, a person who has historically been privileged, might feel excluded. It is sometimes comforting to be able to talk to people who experience the same form of oppression that you do, and safe spaces help to facilitate this. Anyone who calls themselves an ally has to be sensitive to that. 

The safe spaces that exist in this university are for individuals who do not fall into categories that have historically been privileged. They are not for individuals lucky enough to feel comfortable talking about experiences that might be alien to their peers. There are only a handful of people at this university that I can talk to about experiences of misogynoir (what’s that, right? Google it) and other types of discrimination that I experience because of the intersection of race and gender. If you call yourself ally, your job is centered around critically analysing your own oppressive behaviour and calling people out in spaces that people from marginalised groups cannot access. Your job is not to police the actions of said marginalised groups. Your job is not to demand access to spaces created specifically to relieve the burden of discrimination.