Safe Space, An Error
We sat around the table at Caritas Village. The time was the early 2010s, the place Memphis. We were in the back room behind the grey folding partition conducting our Memphis School for Servant Leadership Board meeting. We were probably eating chips or brownies or other snacks Board members brought for meetings. As the Board chair reviewed the Parker Palmer method of discussion, the issue of safe space arose.
The school’s classes all used the Parker Palmer method. Palmer’s method held that spiritual advancement and connection happened when the “shy soul” revealed itself. The soul, being shy, would not reveal itself unless it was certain it wouldn’t be hurt. Thus, the guiding principle for the school’s classes was to create a safe place for participants.
A member of the Board interrupted the description.
“That safety claptrap is white people claptrap,” she said.
Of course, she said it much more diplomatically. But her point was that in our servant leadership classes, Black and white folks talked about race. In that context, creating “safety” for white folks meant Black folks were not free to say something that might make white folks uncomfortable. And white folks couldn’t grow in their anti-racism unless—98% chance likely—they felt uncomfortable. So creating a safe space for white folks would beat out truth-telling.
The Board member’s other point was that, for most of our country’s history, safety has been a value only available to white folks. White people valued safety, and safety benefited white people. Not a good outcome for classes on dismantling racism. Of course, Parker Palmer is white. The Board member is Black.
Safe Space or Brave Space
I think of this conversation often these days. Because anti-racism circles now almost universally accept as their guiding principle creating “brave” space, not “safe” space. The reasoning behind this is exactly what the Board member voiced over ten years ago. I’ve heard it put, “For there is no such thing as safe space.”
A couple of weeks ago I wrote to the Board member. I told her how much I owed to her for my advancement in understanding racism. And how many things beings said today, I recognize from her so many years ago. I used the “safe space” conversation as an example. She told me that comment had not been welcome. In fact, others told her it was inappropriate to bring up in a mixed group of Black and white folks. Not even on this Board dedicated to ending racism.
Or White Space?
The point: we whites often pursue dismantling racism in a racist way. Because we don’t know any better. Or we can’t see the harm. Sometimes we don’t like being corrected. Or our core values are so imbedded, we don’t see they are actually optional values chosen by us for a reason. Ultimately, when we are in charge, what we create too often is not safe space or brave space, but white space.