“For Us Only”: on safe spaces, exclusion, and privilege

[CN: examples of TERF arguments, and arguments about “reverse racism”]

White text on black background that says - when you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. (source: afropunk.com)
(source: afropunk.com)

There is this quote: when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. No example is more proof of this than any discussion around the creation of safe spaces in the context of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc.  Since I can remember I have gotten myself into conversations defending safe spaces that were women’s only, trans only, people of colour only, etc. And in each instance reactions came of reverse racism and “exclusionary politics”. The opposite also is very common, especially when it comes to TERF* spaces (i.e. trans women’s exclusion in women’s spaces), where then the right of a “safe space” from “men” is flaunted, ignoring the problematic and violent discourse behind trans exclusion and how it is perpetuated. Some people might argue that there is something illogical, or hypocritical in my reasoning when I defend certain spaces that are “exclusionary” while denouncing others; however, there is a clear line that defines when something is a safe space, as opposed to exclusionary.

It is really important to understand the issue of privilege in order to properly contextualise why a space would be stated to be “for _____ only”; privilege is what defines whether it is exclusionary and problematic, or whether it is about creating a safe space. To provide an anecdote to this: a few years ago, the one in nine campaign – a social justice organisation working on the sexual rights of women in South Africa – organised a training which they announced to be for “women who are assigned female at birth, socialised as women, and identify as women”; this phrasing was clear, and carefully crafted at that, to exclude all permutations of transness… transwomen, transmen, non-binary trans people. Of course this led to an outcry from trans activists and organisations, which were met with a very defensive attitude. But what I want to get to is a conversation I had with a prominent (cisgender) Black feminist who is (or was at that time) affiliated with the One in Nine Campaign**; at the Q&A at an event immediately after this controversy, I asked her why One in Nine was excluding transwomen from a women’s space. Her answer was that “there should be times where we should be allowed to organise in exclusion”… And here is the thing, her response completely ignored the cisgender privilege that was at play here; the context should be clear, transgender people are oppressed in ways cisgender people cannot phantom, and thus cisgender women – while of course facing misogyny and sexism, like any other woman – have privilege that transgender women have not. Therefore, the position that One in Nine took was trans-antagonistic, it was TERF to its fullest extend, and it was violent and problematic… as was the defense of that position.

Picture of the back of a white T-shirt, with text in red reading: The revolution will be black-led and intersectional or it will be bullshit
(source: Rhodes Must Fall)

The opposite of this, trans people organising themselves in a safe space that does not allow cisgender people to enter, is thus also different; such a space is for those who do not have cisgender privilege to be safe, to perhaps share, heal, or organise. Such safe spaces are necessary, yet they often elicit very problematic responses from those who posses the privilege that those safe spaces are meant to protect people from. An event organised by a Black queer woman in Cape Town called For Black Girls Only, drew criticism of “reverse racism” almost immediately. In fact, I recall a conversation with a white man, where he could not understand why such a racist even would be organised; what he, or any of those in the “reverse racism brigade”, didn’t seem to understand was the white privilege that this space was seeking to create a refuge from. Rhodes Must Fall, a radical Black student movement at UCT that aims to decolonise higher education, organises itself around Black Consciousness and does not allow white people to take up leadership in their spaces; their approach has been called exclusionary and racist, but it is not. In fact, in many social movements, when white people are allowed to come to meetings, one white person can drown out a hundred people of colour with their voice;  white privilege emboldens white people to take up space, even if the space is clearly stated to be Black led. In such a context, it is sometimes (or, actually, often) simply necessary to create a space that is specific and safe for people of colour, for Black people***. This is not racist, it is subversion and disruption of white privilege at its very core… by denying them the power to either control the narrative in a space, or to derail it.

Such Black only, people of colour only spaces are not the same as “white only spaces”; again we need to contextualise why such a space was constituted. White people have privilege, white privilege, and there is no valid reason for them to create an exclusionary space. White people – when it comes to race – do not need a safe space, because their whiteness gives them safety. The incredulous responses from white people are in many ways an expression of white fragility; their reactions stem from an irrational fear that they, as white people, face “reverse racism”. But even further than that, it often simply is a way to perpetuate white racism, and their defense of “white only spaces” are in ignorance of the fact that on any level, white people – even in South Africa – have plenty of spaces where they dominate as white people, where any person of colour who enters the space will be profiles, scrutunised, and need to justify why they entering “their” space. And there it is, the white privilege, the perpetuation of white supremacy, through white fragility and fears… A clear example was the comment on an article that I shared on my Facebook page about a “whites only dating site”:

Screenshot of a facebook comment by Henry Krinkle stating: Congratulations, this will probably the dumbest thing I read in 2016. Where's the "supremacists" part? Why is it wrong for white people to have a dating site when literally EVERY other group in the world has one? is it racist to want to date within your own race? If I were a white Jew, is is OK that I join the Jewish dating sites? This is an absolutely pathetic article. - And response by HJKim: If you understand the inherent dynamics of strucutral racism and white supremacy than you would know. People of colour creating spaces for themselves is so they can be safe from white racism. Whites creating whites only spaces is just apartheid-throwback.

When white people equate the creation of safe space by people of colour to the racism inherent in any “whites only space” – whether through underlying attitudes in white dominated spaces, or through explicitly organising them – it shows how they experience the creation of safe spaces by people of colour as oppression. That is where the arguments of “reverse racism” stem from why people of colour create safe spaces. To the privileged, equality feels like oppression… and it is very much the ignorance of that privilege that leads them to feel “oppressed” while being in exactly the opposite position.



* TERF stands for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism”; it is the radical feminism that has promoted “womyn born womyn” frameworks that are inherently violent to transwomen.

** I would like to state that since then I have not had an in-depth discussion about this with her, and I would not preclude that her views might have changed on this.

*** I am using the terms people of colour and Black both, as both For Black Girls Only and Rhodes Must Fall base their definition of Black in an understanding of Black Consciousness; this understanding of – as the organiser of For Black Girls Only put it – “Biko Black” encompasses “people of colour”. I am not implying that these terms are the same in any way, or that they should be used interchangeably, or that it is this simple; nor am I stating that I agree with these formulations. Rather, for the sake of the argument I positioned them next to each other in reference to the context of the paragraph.

4 thoughts on ““For Us Only”: on safe spaces, exclusion, and privilege

  1. I agree with the sentiment of this article but would like to respectfully challenge some assumptions.

    I think safe spaces are really more about experience than identity.

    Do you agree that cis women face discrimination, violence, and denial of civil rights? And that many of these experiences are different from the discrimination, violence, and denial of civil rights faced by trans women?

    Yes some experiences overlap but there are chasms that neither group will ever understand about the other.

    And safe spaces aren’t where one group has to do the work of closing a chasm by educating people about isms and phobias. That’s saved for every other moment of our lives. And similarly, besides the dumb “men only” protests, safe spaces aren’t where a group gathers to trash other groups who have been excluded from the space.

    Safe spaces are about the need to be with people who share your life story, as explicitly as possible. I think it’s important that cis and trans women come together more to support and understand each other through dialogue and just being together. I’m just saying that in designated safe spaces, where people only visit and do not live, we should all be more open and less demanding to the specific needs of specific oppressed groups.


    1. Perhaps yes, that’s true… but the reality is the clear power dynamics when it comes to trans issues, and the “cis women only” argument is an exlusionary ones as dripped in privilege as the “white women only” one is… that is the dynamic that must be broken down


  2. Another lovely read, thank you HeiJin.
    I’ve enjoyed every article on here.
    You’ve touched on some important points and what you guys have been preaching has been read by many of our students here too. They all seem to be in support of this movement.
    We’ve slowly managed to push out all the whites of Zimbabwe – and it’s been difficult, but well worth it. I’m glad you people are seeing the same thing we did years ago. We’ve got a massive following in the Kadoma area we’ve managed to push out all the white businesses and residents.
    We needed our safe space and by them living in our city it was infringing on that.
    I’m saving up to come to Joburg next year and hopefully continue with my studies.
    Are you guys pushing out all the white people too or are you letting some stay as a way of easing the process?
    Anyways, thank you for all you’re doing – it seems to be influencing my country too – and for that I thank you.
    There will be a day in which the blacks can live in peace without any whites in our country.
    I’m writing this with the support of many of the students who have all loved the read!


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