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Some thoughts on safe spaces


By Issy McConville

You know that scene in ‘About A Boy’, where Hugh Grant turns up to the ‘Single Mothers Alone Together’ meeting in order to meet women, despite not being a woman himself, or even a parent at all? The audience is like  – Hugh! What are you doing there! That is so bad! If you recognise that it is wrong for Hugh Grant’s character to sneak into a women’s support group with underhand motives, then you are understanding the basic concept of a ‘safe space’. A safe space is a place where members of a marginalised group can meet without feeling the fear of harassment or inequality they face in mainstream society. And it is important to note that this ‘space’ may be a physical area, or it may be elsewhere, such as online.

The reason I am writing about this is because of the ‘Black Lesbians 7th Annual Retreat’ Facebook event. This was an event organised in the US, which was intended to be a conference for those who self-identified as black lesbians, with talks and activities and an ability to meet as a community. This followed up from ‘Azeem’s Senior Flute Recital’, another US event; a flute recital from a college student named Azeem, which became a huge success when thousands of British University students joined the page as a joke. This was a lighthearted and completely positive joke, and Azeem utilised this popularity to set up a fund for Earthquake support in Nepal. But the subsequent joining of the ‘Black Lesbians 7th Annual Retreat’ event is not funny at all. The event page has now been taken down, but only because thousands of people joined the event, and a tirade of racist and homophobic ‘jokes’ had been posted.

Those who self-identify as both black, female, and homosexual are an incredibly marginalised group in society. The world is built upon structures and systems in which white, cis, heterosexual males are the most well off. As a feminist I recognise the inequalities faced by women. But I also recognise that other minority groups have struggles which differ from my own, and those who identify as multiple minority groups are faced with many forms of oppression and inequality, and face struggles which I can never understand. Indeed, as a white cis person myself, I know I don’t have any authority to be commenting on this, or to understand the hurt this may have caused to those who do self-identify as black lesbians, but I just wanted to bring attention to the lack of understanding that clearly exists in our society.

So I return to the concept of ‘safe space’. This event, and the Facebook page promoting it, should have been a safe space for those who self-identify as black lesbians. No-one else should have felt the need to encroach upon this space. Even by clicking ‘attending’ on the event, you did something wrong. You made a joke of people’s identities. The majority of those who clicked attending will never experience the marginalisation felt by these women, the abuse and the inequalities. For those who are arguing that the event is unfair, for excluding those who aren’t black lesbians, I have to ask – do you really believe in this argument? This event is not about exclusion, it’s about inclusion. Inclusion for those who are often not accepted by mainstream society, inclusion into a community who understands, where they can talk about their struggles and celebrate their identities together. Comments like those seen on the event wall just show why events like these are even needed – racism, sexism and homophobia are obviously still alive and well.

As a good friend of mine said, the whole incident has left her feeling heartbroken – these are our contemporaries, other British university students, who chose to make fun of a deeply marginalised group in society. Let’s stop and think about the real women who have been hurt by this ‘joke’. I hope that next time, we can all stop and think about the consequences of our actions.

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