In organizing a couple of recent events for men, the question of “safe space for men” came up.  The question and the conversations that followed allowed me an opportunity to further reflect and explore this issue and what it means, particularly for me as a man with white skin.   For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to focus on this specific version of the conversation – that is, women attending “men’s” events.  I recognize that there are parallel conversations in regards to spaces for people with white skin, for heterosexual folks and for others as well.

In the planning process for both of these events, the question emerged about if and how women of any and all races; and black and brown men would or should be welcomed.  One perspective was that this should be man only space, another being that women should be welcomed and allowed to participate in whatever ways they felt moved to or comfortable participating.

This is a common question that often emerges when exploring space for men to talk about our experiences of gender and sexism.  A part of this conversation seems to respond to our experience as men witnessing women claiming “women only space”.  The argument is routinely something like “we (as men) need (deserve?) a safe space to say what we really think and feel.”

In almost every case, it is other men with white skin who raise this argument.  As someone who does a significant amount of multi-racial organizing specifically with men, it seems notable that rarely do black or brown men raise this issue.

The premise seems to suggest that men can’t have honest, open conversations about gender and sexism with women in the room.  A premise that I suggest needs to be challenges on its face.

On the outset, as an organizer, I should acknowledge my own bias about this practice:  I do not, have not, and will not organize events that are explicitly male only.  While I have organized events that have resulted in only men attending, this was not the intention.

In many efforts to call men together, there is a call to ensure “safe space” for us to share our feelings honestly and talk about our experiences of gender, sexism, race and racism.   While I think acknowledging the need to have clear boundaries around any kind of space where emotionally charged content is shared.  These kinds of spaces need to have some degree of care and attention in order to encourage honest reflection and sharing, while overtly discourage hostile, judgmental or shaming interactions.

I do wonder about labelling this as a “safety” issue.

If we frame this as an issue of safety, then we’re suggesting that there is some danger that needs to be attended to.  What is the danger to men of having women in the room listening as we talk about our experiences of gender and sexism?  I get that these are not necessarily comfortable spaces.  But discomfort is not a bad thing.  For most of us, truth be told, our most expansive growth occurred either as a result of discomfort (even pain) and/or we experienced discomfort or pain as we grew.  We call it “growing pains” for a reason.

To be fair, in order to be willing to fully experience these “growth opportunities, we all need (and deserve) to know that our vulnerability will not be used to inflict greater harm, pain or discomfort. I recognize the desire to refer to this as an issue of emotional safety.

But discomfort, even pain, is different than danger.   I understand why women needed, and still need, woman only space – especially when talking about their experiences of gender and sexism. I get that black and brown women in particular need to carve out that is exclusively for them as they talk, listen, heal and plan.  Men pose a real threat.  Men really do threaten and really do victimize women when women share their honest experiences of gender and sexism.   Men really do shut women down, and intimidate women…even well-meaning men, even men who define themselves as allies.  And the intersections of privilege (white skin, male-ness, age, class, professionalism, etc.) only add to the means that men have access to intimidate, threaten or violate.

It also seems to me, as an older man with white skin, that a lot of this conversation and these arguments are based on privilege.  It’s worth asking, in what circumstances are women ever safe?  When are black or brown women truly safe?  Especially when addressing sexism, racism, or oppression.   In my experience, when women gather together to talk about sexism, men tend to react with a lot of defensiveness that often escalates to threats (or worse) that gets directed to the women who are organizing and gathering.  Similarly, our historical pattern of responding to black and brown folks who gather to address racism is systemic threats, surveillance, disruption, arrests and escalating violence.

In my experience, both as a participant and as an organizer, the idea that having women in the room with men, or having black or brown folks in the room with people with white skin, changes the conversation is true.  In my experiences, it does indeed seem to be a different conversation when its only men, vs when there are women in the room.  It is a fallacy, however, to suggest that being different equates to being worse.  Having women in the room changes the dynamics and the results are a differently rich conversation.

In it also my experience, particularly around gender and sexism, and race and racism, my discomfort is in fact a good thing.  Admittedly, it may well not feel good in the moments that I’m in it.  But feeling good, and being good for me are not the same thing.

This is particularly true when the “discomfort” was on the edge (or just beyond) being painful.  I, for one, don’t tend to learn much, or grow at all, if I’m comfortable.  When I am comfortable, I get lazy, complacent, and contented.  Racism, sexism, violence , the ways these intersect, and the ways that I am inadvertently complicit are not issues that I have any business being complacent and content about.  See for me, when I’m having these kinds of conversations only with other men (even if this is only one conversation) It becomes far too easy for me to collude with my own privilege rather than challenge it.

Further, in my experience, other men with white skin do not challenge me as thoroughly or as passionately as will women, or black or brown folks.  And quite frankly, even when I’m being severely challenged by women or black or brown folks it tends to be done more passionately, compassionately and respectfully then when I’m challenged less than half as severely by other men.

Safety is important, even critical.  I do not intend this blog to dismiss the value of being safe.  I do, however, think it important that we locate safety within broader context of privilege, accountability, and an intersectional analysis.  There is a real danger of men using the call for safety as a way to avoid examining privilege and being accountable.


© 2017 Rus Ervin Funk