Two black girls with blossoming afros cross paths on their college campus. They make eye contact. They smile. One shyly compliments the other’s hair. She returns the favor. Instead of continuing on their way, they step in closer together. And like dams filled to the brim with water, they overflow in one another’s presence. In a matter of moments, they’re giving each other twist-out advice, spewing off product recommendations, and laughing at how confused white boys get when they show up to class with short hair one day and braids the next. These girls don’t know each other’s names. But they’ve created a sacred space between themselves. A reprieve before rushing off to a class full of students where they’ll scan the room and realize, oh yeah, I’m the only one. This space, this small stretch of concrete containing two sisters, whose experiences intertwine like their very DNA, is holy ground.
Whether it’s biological, spiritual, sociological, or anything in between, there’s no doubt that as humans, we are drawn to people who share our experiences. We look for ourselves in people. And when we find it, we cling. For marginalized peoples this bond is especially strong. There is overwhelming comfort in the realization that someone has hurt the way you have hurt. That our pain is not imagined, as our oppressors would often have us believe. For a student of color at a predominantly white university, or a woman at a male-dominated company, or a person with a disability in a space that doesn’t accommodate them, the shared experience of even just one person in that space is invaluable.
So, we congregate. We find the people in our communities who speak our language and share our hurt, and we build a stronghold. We start clubs on campuses. We institute art spaces. We gather together at lunch tables. Through these soul connections we lay the cornerstones for what pop culture has called “safe spaces.”
Safe spaces are often criticized as outlets furthering the segregation of marginalized people groups. Those who make these criticisms fail to recognize, however, that safe spaces exist primarily because of systems that have forced marginalized people groups into isolation. When the marginalized are denied entry into the neighborhoods, churches, sororities, night clubs, hair salons, grocery stores of the privileged, what are we to do but to carve out those spaces for ourselves? These spaces are not meant to exclude the dominant culture. To be quite frank, these spaces have nothing to do with them. Safe spaces are a mechanism for survival for those of us who abide in them. These are places where we recharge and recover. Where we hang up our armor, and for twenty minutes in the barber’s chair, for three hours in a narrow pew, all night under a sparkling disco ball we get to just be. In these spaces we are not the token, we are the norm. We are not the spectacle, we are the bystander.
Most importantly, we are human. The prefixes to our humanness—black woman, Muslim man, gay person—are not our sole identifiers in these spaces. These qualifiers that cling to us like chains are suddenly broken upon entering a space full of people who look like us, live like us, love like us, move throughout the world like us.
Because when all the black kids are sitting together in the cafeteria, the last thing they’re talking about is their blackness. They’re talking about box braids and bantu knots. They’re roasting and freestyling and milly-rocking. They’re laughing at vine compilations and twitter beefs. They’re singing the theme song to the Proud Family—loudly. Because for 45 minutes, this lunch table is the only place where they don’t have to code-switch, assimilate, perform or explain themselves. To criticize them for not integrating during the lunch-time social hour is to rob them of the thing that keeps them going. It is to rob them of the space in which they feel most human.
Still, many will argue that safe spaces only un-do all the “progress” we’ve made as a culture. That by shutting ourselves in to havens of comfortability we are somehow prolonging our oppression. This, however, could not be farther from the truth. The marginalized could not eradicate safe spaces even if they tried. As long as hate continues to threaten, de-value, and demean the humanity of any collective group of people, safe spaces will always exist. Because safe spaces are not built upon foundations made with hands. It is not the classroom that the Hispanic culture club meets in, or the warehouse in which the art show is held, that constitutes safety. It’s the people, and the comfort in their mutual experience.
A knowing look from across a room is a safe space.
A shared laugh under breath is a safe space.
A nod from a complete stranger is a safe space.
A compliment on a hairstyle is a safe space.
Wherever two or more people, who share the same experience are gathered, there exists a haven of safety. Until marginalization ceases to plague the lives of many, safe spaces will be carved out and they will thrive.