Social justice workshops often open by demanding that everyone consider the space safe and put absolute trust in the person leading it. For instance, workshop leaders will often say things like “This is a safe space. No one will feel unsafe here — but you might feel uncomfortable confronting your privilege. Understand the difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe.”
“Everyone will be safe” is a promise we can’t keep. “Everyone must feel safe” is a demand that we have no right to make.
No workshop is actually safe for everyone. Sometimes, people are going to feel unsafe. Sometimes, people are going to *be* unsafe. People who feel unsafe need to be welcome in our workshops — and all the more so, we need to welcome those who are taking significant risks in order to learn from us.
When we tell people who are feeling unsafe that it must just be their privilege talking, we make the space much more dangerous for everyone in the room. Sometimes, people who feel unsafe are responding to real dangers. If we demand that participants who feel unsafe ignore the possibility that they are right, we are demanding the right to hurt them. That’s not something we should ever do.
Feeling unsafe isn’t always privilege talking. It’s always a possibility, but it’s never the only possibility. Sometimes, presenters aren’t actually as knowledgable and perceptive as they think they are. Sometimes, presenters get things wrong in ways that make the space unsafe for the most marginalized participants in the room. Sometimes, participants are so used to being unsafe that they need a lot of evidence of safety before they’re willing to risk trusting someone.
One way this can happen is that sometimes participants are marginalized in ways that the presenter doesn’t understand. For instance, people presenting on white privilege don’t necessarily always understand the significance of ableism, people presenting on sexism and misogyny don’t always understand the significance of racism and antiblackness. No one has a perfect understanding of every form of marginalization, and we are better presenters when we keep this in mind. When marginalized people are taking risks in order to learn from us, we need to respect the risks they’re taking and not write them off as a privileged affectation.
This can also happen in other ways. We have power as teachers and presenters, and it is possible to abuse that power. Even when the people we’re teaching are more privileged than we are in every relevant way, it matters how we treat them. Being privileged in society is not the same thing as being safe in a classroom. We are all capable of making mistakes that hurt people, and when we make those mistakes, it matters.
People have the right to manage their own safety. Our students have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they trust us, and how far they trust us. They have the right to revoke that trust at any time. We do not have the right to demand that they make themselves vulnerable, and we do not have the right to demand that they allow themselves to be hurt.
People have the right to make up their own minds about how safe or dangerous something seems to them. Calling a space safe does not make it safe, and it does not give us the right to order people to feel safe. When we present, it’s never ok to demand that people trust us. Trust is always earned.