The benefits of safe spaces Positive work by the McMaster Womanists helps frame conversations on race and gender

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By: Emile Shen – WGEN Contributor

The annual occurrence of Black History Month in the United States and Canada is something that most of us have been aware of since elementary school. Not officially recognized in Canada until 2008, it still served as an important reminder of the contributions and legacy of Black Canadians.

In my memory, however, the root causes of oppression were never explained well enough when I was younger. The intolerance was displaced, and I did not understand the full history and effects of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. I did not understand the continued prevalence of racism and how it is still manifested everywhere in microaggressions, stereotypes and institutionalized racism.

opinion_wgen_womanists_march2_1Black History Month is over, but it is important to continue to strive against forms of racism still present in today’s society. The McMaster Womanists, a group established in 2014 by Kayonne Christy and Kermeisha Williams to address issues affecting women of colour, is one of the organizations that demonstrates how and why the fight continues, and the importance of safe spaces in these efforts.

The Womanists focus on grassroots activism and education at McMaster and in the broader Hamilton community. The demand for justice is vital, but strenuous and emotionally taxing in a currently divisive political climate. The safe space for Black women and other women of colour allows the McMaster Womanists to create an inclusive area for those affected by the issues, and regather their thoughts.

One commonly discussed criticism about safe spaces is its contention to the freedom of speech. After all, it is difficult to hear opposing ideas or opinions in such a place, and there seem to be fears of spaces turning into echo chambers.

This is a misconception of the purpose of safe spaces. This assumption is dangerous because they serve not to self-segregate or censor, but to provide a structured time and place to cope with the toxic effects of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.

Lilian Obeng, a secondyear Arts and Science student speaking on behalf of the group, explained, “closed spaces connect those who face the same struggles and allow oppressed people to share their experiences.”

There are experiences that folks who are not women of colour may sympathize with, but cannot fundamentally empathize with because they lack the lived experience. That is okay, but that is why safe or closed spaces exist – for similar individuals to lean on one another.

opinion_wgen_womanists_march2_3The heart of the McMaster Womanists, however, is not that of safe spaces. These help frame the courses of action for their public efforts. The Anti-Racism Action Initiative, hosted in late Nov. 2016, is a prime example of the community-based and intersectional nature of the McMaster Womanists’ work. It involved discussion on how racism is a problem in Hamilton with topics regarding housing inequality, carding, police brutality and anti-Indigenous attitudes.

Broad-based community solutions were discussed to address these concerns, and the common thread between different concerns was the necessity of education from holistic sensitivity training for more appropriate responses by police officers to the development of curriculum surrounding racism and hate crimes for the public education system.

The event was hosted in collaboration with the Presidents Advisory Community Alliance, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (McMaster), McMaster Indigenous Student Community Alliance, The Anti-Oppressive Committee of the School of Social Work and the NGen Youth Centre.

Despite the Womanists’ focus on the issues that racialized women face, Obeng reminds us that identity politics scarcely exists in a bubble.

“The positive, individual and easy to identify iterations of oppression prevent us from clearly addressing the massive, systemic nature of institutionalized oppression. It also blocks us from seeing how our unique struggles are intrinsically connected.”

It is this awareness that oppression never happens in isolation that will allow for more empathy, more meaningful collaboration and more freedom in the gloomy political climate that surrounds us.

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