Reflections on “Safety”
Rus Ervin Funk
Jan 8, 2021
A friend and colleague of mine (a black woman) recently recounted an experience where she challenged “whyte supremacist talk” during a meeting. She reported that the responses from white folx in the room defined her behavior as “aggressive” and the need for them (the white folx) to be and feel safe – a sense of safety that she apparently threatened by calling out white supremacist behavior.
Hearing her experience got me to reflecting how gender and race matter in terms of what we mean by being safe, our access to being/feeling safe, and how this call for “safety” is used (by white folx and by men) to evade accountability and avoid difficult conversations.
Like a lot of white people and men, I have been in meetings such as ones my friend describes and was either a witness to other white folx or men being challenged or was the white person/man who was challenged. I have also been the someone who challenged other whitemen and, like my friend, was accused of being “threatening” to their sense of safety. Not so long ago, I challenged a white male colleague for some of his behaviors during meetings in which there were mixed genders and multiple races/ethnicities present. Like my friend, this person responded with a call to “safety.” To date, he has refused to talk this with me directly about this incident referring to his lack of “feeling safe” around me.
A sense of safety is important, and nothing I relay here is intended to detract from our right to be and feel safe. This sense of safety is particularly critical during these moments when we are being held to account. Being held to account is never fun, never an enjoyable moment, and can often generate a host of feelings of fear, anxiety, defensiveness, anger…feelings that can be experienced as a threat. I know that I can come across particularly strong, critical, judgmental and harsh when I am feeling particularly strong and challenging other folx behaviors. I don’t like being the kind of person who makes others feel small or inadequate. I know I am very capable of doing so.
But this sense of safety also needs to be further interrogated. Gender matters (as does race, sexuality and other factors) in both how we understand and experience safety and the degree to which we feel entitled to feel safe.
Firstly, this sense of being “safe” is largely an illusion and one that is based on privilege. I want to be careful not to overstate this, because while I do believe a sense of being safe is largely an illusion, I also believe that we all have an inherent right to feel and be safe. But this right (like so many other rights) is structurally and institutionally blocked for some of us in ways that it is not blocked for others. We all, for example, have the right to feel safe when we walk down the street, or go on first dates, or sleep in our own beds. But for many women, these rights are not accessible – consider all the “safety” precautions that women feel compelled to take in order to walk down a public street at night (or during the day), or go on a first date, or sleep in their own beds — “safety precautions” that all result in limiting their own behaviors and choices. And how many more precautions that black or brown women, or trans women, or trans black women in wheelchairs need to take. Few of which truly increase their actual safety, and all of which limit their behaviors, options and actions. Men, by and large, do not experience these same threats to their safety. Which is largely magnified for men of intersecting privilege: whiteness, heterosexuality, able-bodied-ness, adult…
Secondly, we need to deeply and critically reflect on what it is, exactly, that is making us “unsafe”. When black and brown people are inherently defined as a threat, then white people are able to justify a “need” additional protections. When women’s rage is experienced as inherently threatening to men or masculinity, then men are able to argue that women are “overly emotional” and avoid what it is that women are saying. When black women’s pain is perceived as threatening to our sense of our role and position (such as the benevolent, white male protector), then our reactive and often violent defensiveness is explainable.
Consider as an example, the “safety” that was put in place around the US Capital in response to the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests this summer (protests that were organized primarily by black women) compared with the lack of safety measures that were put in place on Jan 6 in response to the white – male led mob (one that we had every reason to believe would escalate to the kind of violence and destruction we ultimately witnessed). Since Black and Brown people are deemed as inherently a threat to white people and whiteness, we need extra (and often extraordinary) safety measures in the face of black and brown rage. Since white men are not a threat to white people or whiteness, there’s no perceived need to keep ourselves and each other “safe.” This despite the insurmountable evidence that white men pose a significantly greater threat to all of our safety than black and brown folx.
This experience and response also applies to our individual and interpersonal experiences – like the one that my friend describes. White supremacist culture creates this mythology of the inherent threat of black and brown people, which is magnified in response to the “threat” of black and brown rage and magnified again it if is black women’s rage.
Most of us as white people have grown up uncritically internalizing white supremacist culture. So when we’re in meetings or interactions with black and brown folx, our sense of safety is already on “high alert.” An “alertness” that escalates when we perceive black or brown people’s rage. Regardless of how gentle, or kind or “professional” a black or brown person (even more so a black or brown woman) may present his/her challenge to us, we (take your pic: white people, men and whitemen) have the ability to define her challenge as coming from her rage and therefore as threatening to our sense of safety.
One of my own realizations as I continue my path towards allying is how deeply I am attached to my identity as a whiteman (in ways that I am ongoingly uncovering and attempt to challenge). When my whiteness, my masculinity or my white masculinity is challenged, I often take is as a personal affront – and react as such (hopefully this reaction is lessened as I become more aware of and effectively challenge my attachments to my white, man, and whiteman identities). Far too often, men and white folx, and whitemen use a call for “safety” as a means to avoid accountability.
I have to remind mySelf that:
- Entering spaces where I am the only or only one of a few men; or the only or one of a few white people often feels uncomfortable – but I am not at risk.
- Being challenged on my racism, sexism or racesexism feels pretty damn bad – but I am not at risk.
- Facing women’s anger, or the fear of black folx, or the rage of black women feels awful – but I am not at risk.
- Being held to account for the ways that I have (intentionally or not) expressed my white privilege or male entitlement is humiliating – but I am not at risk.
- Black and brown people marching peacefully up a street may seem like an awesome expression of blackness – but I/we are not at risk.
Finally, it seems to me that we need to examine whether or not feeling unsafe is necessarily a bad thing. There are a lot of really good and healthy reasons, in plenty of other situations, for us to experience some level of unsafety and push through anyway. While not necessarily able to articulate it, it seems safe to assume that children who are just learning to walk feel really unsafe as they take their first tentative steps. Most of us felt unsafe in those first few pedals of bike-riding; or the first time we drove on a highway in a car; or the first time we stepped onto a plane; or the first time we spoke in public; or the first time we confronted someone else’s racism or sexism. Feeling unsafe is not (or should not be) a reason to stop being challenged. Even when (or perhaps especially when) these challenges make us feel the most uncomfortable.
Growth is never easy and is often painful (they’re called “growing pains” for a reason). There is little safety in taking steps beyond our comfort zones, in stepping into unchartered territory, in exploring unexplored wilderness, in leaving the map behind as we travel forward. As a man, directly and personally bearing witness to women’s pain and anger about living in rape culture is a growth opportunity. As a white person, listening-to-hear the experiences of black and brown folx of living in white supremacy is a growth opportunity. As a whiteman, attending to black and brown women’s experience of surviving white supremacist rape culture is a growth opportunity.
Being accountable and making amends for my expressions of racism, sexism and racesexism are growth opportunities. Even when (or especially when) I don’t want to be accountable.
Growing can feel threatening. It is scary to bear witness to women’s pain and anger about living in rape culture – in part because some of what I hear exposes the ways that I contribute to rape culture. It is scary to truly listen-to-hear the experiences of black and brown folx to living in white supremacy because, in part, listening will expose my duplicity. It is scary to attend to black and brown women’s experiences of surviving white supremacist rape culture because, in part, it will highlight my part.
But here’s the thing – The best way for me to personally accept my responsibility for being a part of the solution and to concretely and meaningfully know the ways I can be a part of the solution begins with me concretely and meaningfully identifying the ways I am part of the problem.
And yes, this feels terribly deeply unsafe. Sometimes, it’s okay (even good) to feel/be unsafe.
One aspect of my privileges (white, male, and whitemale) is the degree to which I assume the right to be and feel safe regardless of the situation. I’ve learned (and continue to learn) that I need to pause when I’m feeling unsafe and interrogate what’s going on with me. Sometimes this is my Self telling me that there is something to pay attention to – there is a threat (physically or emotionally) that I need to attend to and do something in order to keep mySelf safe. Sometimes this is my Self telling me that I need to do something to protect my privilege or my entitlement.
I’m going to say it again – we all have the right to be and feel safe! But gender matters (as does race, and sexuality and a physical ability and more…) in our access to being safe. As such, safety is also a privilege, and like all privileges need to be critically interrogated.
© 2021 by Rus Ervin Funk, All Rights Reserved
Gender Matters is produced and distributed by Rus Funk Consulting – offering a range of services, training and TA to work meaningfully with men and boys to promote gender and racial justice.
Rus Ervin Funk is an activist and consultant based in Louisville, KY. You can learn more about my work at http://rusfunk.me/.