A letter to guys in ‘safe spaces’
Last night I taught a workshop called “Women Learn to Code”. It was an incredible opportunity for me and I feel so fortunate to have been able to do so. Sign ups were off the charts, the place was so packed we had to turn people away. As the night wore on a group of guys congregated at the back of the room.
These were guys committed to inclusiveness in tech. Some of them were on the board of the group that ran the workshop. Some of them were friends of the organizers. I spoke with them afterwards. All of them were genuinely nice guys, and I thanked them for being supportive of the event.
“Women should get a turn.” One of them said to me. “It’s so sad, in my program, I see them leave because they feel like they just don’t belong. It’s 95% guys, that’s not right. I want them to feel welcome.”
Their intentions were so pure, they truly wanted the women to feel like there was a space for them, and that they supported that space. I didn’t know how to tell them that hanging out in the back of the room probably had the opposite effect.
I’m not sure what it is. I think it’s the pack. Packs of unknown men have roughly the same effect on women as packs of unknown wolves. Look. Guys, I know you’re nice, I know you mean well, I know you want to show support and be a part of the conversation. I know you want to know how you can be better, how you can help, how you can make us feel included, I get that. I really don’t think you’ll get it until you understand this very basic fact:
From a very young age not a single day goes by when I don’t consider my personal safety multiple times a day. I’m using Canadian stats for this, but half of all women have experienced an incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. Half of all women. We have a 50/50 chance of adding to that statistic. Unless I’m at home in sweats I guarantee I have thought about my personal safety over a dozen times before noon. Everything from what I’m wearing to who I make eye contact with factors into the safety equation. You know how there’s a part of your brain focused on whether or not your immediate vicinity is on fire? Not a large part, but maybe 2% of your mental energy is dedicated to basic awareness of your immediate bubble? My bubble is huge. My bubble is the entire city block. It takes up the whole subway car. It encompasses the entire lecture hall. I’m not just looking for fire or things I might accidentally step on. I’m looking for interactions, gut feelings, and any heads up I can get that I might not be safe. Look at the stats. Half of all women. I’m rolling the dice a thousand times a day just by leaving the house.
And you know what? I don’t have it that bad. I’m a white woman in Canada. Add being black. Or trans. Or Muslim. Or Aboriginal. Imagine how living in another country affects the bubble, the survival scan equation. Factor in that most sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. Factor in that every six days in Canada a woman is killed by her intimate partner. For some women, being at home isn’t safe at all.
I know you’re good guys, I know you want to support. I get that, intellectually. Behaviorally, I’ve been trained to see packs of men as dangerous. There’s a physiological response. I can’t help it. It’s not a matter of just not thinking about it, in some ways I’m not thinking about it. I could be reading a book, or listening to music, or learning to code. The instincts that govern recognizing and responding to danger are not cognitive thought. It’s not my mental programming that needs to change, it has evolved as a survival mechanism for the world I live in. It is incapable of changing until the situation changes.
Women are not safe in public. Trans people are not safe in public. People of colour are not safe in public. It’s not up to us to just stop thinking this way, it’s up to society to change the hard, inarguable statistics that make this our reality every day.
There are safe spaces, and there are brave spaces.
Guys (and by guys I mean guys who stand in packs, at the back of the room, who want to speak up, who want to be involved, who don’t know what to say, but want to show up): You are more than welcome into our brave spaces. We would love to talk to you about what’s happening, how we can change things, how you can help and how you can support.
But you can’t skip over that conversation and go straight to the safe space. You can’t just be in our space and expect us to be okay with it. We need to know you, we need to trust you. The best way you can support us in our safe spaces is by defending them. And the best place for you to do that is on the other side of the door. If you’re not going to verbally declare yourself as an equal and an ally, do not hover on the fringes of the room. Do not lurk in the back. If we don’t know you, you set off our survival signals. You’re not invisible, we feel you there. Get together with your buddies and whisper and we’re all on edge. I know it’s not intentional, I’m letting you know what’s happening.
For guys who want to get involved, who want to show support: find the brave spaces and be part of the conversation. Ask your questions. Empathize, learn, listen. Don’t push your way into the safe space to show support. Stand guard outside the door and let us have our space. Just for now, just for a little while. Turn around and face out into the world, defend us. Give us just a little time.
There is no way in except through the awkward, uncomfortable conversations. If you insist on skipping over them then you are always on the outside, and all you’ve done is manage to turn our safe space into your space.
You can very quickly become an ally. But ally-ship is a collection of relationships with individuals. You can’t be an ally to a movement. You’re an ally to a person. When there’s someone in the room who doesn’t know you, you’re not their ally until you’ve declared yourself. You’re just an unknown — potentially a threat, potentially not — but how are we supposed to know which?
Go to the brave spaces, better yet, make the barrier around our safe space into brave space. Have that conversation with others. Spread the word.
We don’t need your silence, we need our space.
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