Biologist Richard Dawkins, in addition to being an Oxford fellow and a bestselling author, is a dick on Twitter. He relishes his uncompromising gadfly act, willing to go so far against the popular grain as to call famously oppressed teen Ahmed Mohamed a fraud because he didn’t really “invent” a clock. Dawkins frequently takes stands against so-called political correctness, especially when it comes to higher education. “A university is not a ‘safe space.’” he wrote in a recent and characteristically gym-teacher-like tweet. “If you need a safe space, leave, go home, hug your teddy & suck your thumb until ready for university.”
But what is a “safe space” and why shouldn’t a university be one? This tweet from Dawkins would have been a psychotic response to a school shooting or campus rape, but that’s not the kind of safety he’s talking about. The safe spaces that Dawkins doesn’t like are encroachments onto his turf by queer and feminist activists. All of the sudden a self-styled public intellectual like Dawkins has to use “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun or risk censure. He signed up for science, not social studies.
And Dawkins isn’t alone in his frustration. At the University of Missouri, the president and chancellor have both been forced to resign by student protesters who accused them of failing to create a safe space for Black students. At Yale, a residential “master” earned national condemnation after he and his wife stood up for the principle of racially offensive Halloween costumes. “Safe space” has become a rallying cry for student activists who want to change the way their campus communities operate, but it has an older history.
In her book "Mapping Gay L.A.," scholar and activist Moira Kenney traces the beginning of the “safe space” idea to gay and lesbian bars in the mid-60s. With anti-sodomy laws still in effect, a safe space meant somewhere you could be out and in good company—at least until the cops showed up. Gay bars were not “safe” in the sense of being free from risk, nor were they “safe” as in reserved. A safe place was where people could find practical resistance to political and social repression.
According to Kenney, the term “safe space” first gets used consistently in the 60s and 70s women’s movement, where safety began to mean distance from men and patriarchal thought and was used to describe “consciousness raising” groups. “Safe space,” she writes, “in the women’s movement, was a means rather than an end and not only a physical space but a space created by the coming together of women searching for community.” Kenney quotes Kathy Sarachild, a founder of the early-70s organization New York Radical Women, on those consciousness-raising groups: “The idea was not to change women, not to make ‘internal’ changes except in the sense of knowing more. It was and is the conditions women face, it’s male supremacy, we want to change.” A safe space was not free of internal disagreement, but it did mean a devotion to a common political project. Those who attempted to undermine the movement—consciously or unconsciously—would be kept outside.
As the identity politics and anti-war radicals of the 60s and 70s were defeated and digested by the system in the past couple of decades left-wing groups have adopted safe space aspirations. With the dream of a grand confrontation between rebels and society fading, anti-capitalists (and anti-globalization anarchists in particular) looked toward “prefigurative” models, in which they tried to embody the changes they wanted to see.
By the time I showed up in left-wing spaces in the early 2000s, that meant horizontal organization and consensus instead of majority rule. It has also meant gender-neutral bathrooms, asking people’s preferred pronouns, trigger warnings, internal education “anti-oppression” trainings, and creating separate auxiliary spaces for identity groups to organize their particular concerns. Occupy Wall Street gave these ideas international exposure, but they’re not new. Among the likeminded, the “safe space” designation came to signify a set of standard respectful practices.
Theory, in addition to and in the context of activism, has helped shape the development of “safe space.” In the wake of their defeat in the 60s, many left-wing organizers retreated to the academy, particularly the humanities and social sciences, where they developed increasingly nuanced political schematics based on their experience. Perhaps they could work out on paper where exactly they went wrong. French theorist and queer activist Michel Foucault developed a wide multidisciplinary following with his vision of power as a web of everyday relationships. “Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away,” he wrote in 1976, “power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations.”
For radicals in the decades following Foucault’s popularization, this insight had profound practical implications: it would no longer be enough to support the right organization or hold the right positions, we are also responsible for the ways in which we reproduce existing power relations at their most micro levels. A space isn’t “safe” just because everyone is committed to the same movement. The dominant power relations still find their way into the room.
In the 80s and 90s, American thinkers diligently worked through the particulars of our national inequalities. In 1989, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw published a paper called “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” in which she defined and popularized the term “intersectionality.” Crenshaw was spurred by a gap in antidiscrimination law, which protected women and Black people separately, but not Black women in particular. General Motors used this loophole to dodge an employment lawsuit: They were only hiring men for manufacturing jobs open to Black applicants and only hiring whites for secretarial jobs open to women. Black women were being excluded, but they had no case either as women or as Black people. From this insight, Crenshaw spun out a larger understanding of how Black women are doubly marginalized in the feminist and Black freedom movements, an understanding that continues to grow in popularity and influence, especially among young campus activists.
Crenshaw’s work pointed to a fundamental problem with the project of inclusion. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins in her landmark 1990 book "Black Feminist Thought "developed similar ideas, writing that “ordering schools, industries, hospitals, banks, and realtors to stop discriminating against Black women does not mean that these and other social institutions will comply. Laws may change, but the organizations that they regulate rarely change as rapidly. … As these women gained new angles of vision on the many ways that organizations discriminate, organizations searched for new ways to suppress Black women.” This idea of suppression once inside implicated inclusive liberals even more than it did conservatives.
For people who take these ideas to heart, they provide quite a practical challenge when it comes to fostering safe space. No policy or law can imagine the full range of intersectional identities, and this impossibility has driven conservatives into a decades-long frenzy, pushing them to imagine super-hyphenated minorities they will be forced to accommodate in new ways. But creating separate space for “people of color” and “women” within an organization quickly reveals intersectional divisions within the accommodated groups. If, to take Crenshaw’s example, Black women are marginalized as women in the PoC auxiliary, and again as Black people in the women’s group, where are they supposed to go? And that only considers two of many real and relevant power relations. Inclusion programs (also called “diversity”) have the same problem; they can never be inclusive enough. Neither accommodation nor diversity—the preferred liberal solutions—are good answers to an intersectional critique.
With this new conception of how power operates, the standards for what constitutes a safe space have increased. There’s virtually no way to create a room of two people that doesn’t include the reproduction of some unequal power relation, but there’s also no way to engage in politics by yourself. Realizing the full scale of what they’re up against and not wanting to engage in false advertising, some organizations like the radical feminist Bluestockings bookstore in Manhattan have switched to the phrasing “safer space.”
Despite what conservatives might imagine, safe space rhetoric is not universally accepted anywhere. Some of the fiercest attacks have come from inside queer theory itself. Scholar and author of "Female Masculinity" Jack Halberstam has written forcefully against safe spaces and trigger warnings so much that he inspired the parody Twitter alter-ego “Jock Halberslam.” Representative tweet:
“What we need are new and inventive modes of protest not more safe space,” he wrote in a blog post about whether or not The Vagina Monologues excludes trans women.
Halberstam’s criticism, with its calls for students to toughen up to defeat the gender binary, is something like left-wing Dawkinism. American studies scholar Christina Hanhardt in her book "Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence" has a more compelling line. As gays were incorporated into mainstream society during the last quarter of the 20th century, she writes, their calls for safe space became part of a real estate development agenda and abetted the process of urban gentrification. “Mainstream LGBT political discourse has substantively transformed the category of anti-LGBT violence from the social to the criminological,” Hanhardt writes. Absent a revolutionary political project, safe space could be understood as a demand for crime control, more neighborhood watch than Stonewall.
Though the ideal of a safe space seems increasingly complicated, the language has proliferated. The university campus is one place, and perhaps the best publicized, but there are others. Kareem Reid wrote for Fader magazine about trying to run a London nightlife party as a safe space: “I promoted the night as a safe space for queer, black, and brown bodies, stipulating ‘no homophobia, no transphobia, no patriarchal flexing’– and it kind of worked for a while, but it wasn’t perfect. The reality of being in public spaces is full of inequalities, and while I was dismayed to hear that women had been harassed at my night, I wasn't that surprised because of how often this happens. Eventually, I stopped billing my event as ‘safe.’”
There are dangers to turning “safe space” into a label of compliance, the way a juice might call itself “organic.” One is that, since the ideal is unachievable, people will give up on the aspiration. Another is that it’s alienating to the uninitiated, especially when those in the know come to believe that true respect can only be articulated in their proprietary dialect. A third is, if you’re not careful, the demand for safe space can itself play into existing power relations. But as the evolution of the phrase over the past 50 years shows, it’s flexible and enduring. It still means something.
Even most advocates will admit that literal safe space is a utopian idea. Without a unified radical movement, utopianism can look like petty intransigence or an inability (rather than refusal) to cope with the world as it is. But with insights gleaned from decades of experimentation, scholarship, and struggle, most leftists understand that in the web of power relations there is no real shelter to be found. No one can be so conscious and circumspect as to cleanse themselves of all oppressive ideology before entering a meeting or a party or a concert or classroom. As a result, the meaning of safe space has shifted again.
What Richard Dawkins hates about the idea of the university as a safe space is that the label is like a sign that hangs outside the classroom saying “Warning: Politics inside.” He wants to explain things, not be party to a ruthless critique of social relations and knowledge production. A safe space, despite the denotation of the phrase, is somewhere people come together and—in addition to whatever else they’re doing—wrestle with the chicken-and-egg problem of how to change themselves and the world at the same time. It’s an adventure that Dawkins would rather not risk, but he should be honest about who precisely is afraid.
Malcolm Harris is a freelance writer and an editor at The New Inquiry. He lives in Brooklyn.