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Politics of Safe Space and Privilege

trans exclusion in women's communities and racial profiling against Arab travelers

Below is a series of postings to Forum, in which Emi discusses the politics of safety and its (ab)use as an instrument of oppression, as it is applied to trans women as well as to Arab American air travelers.

Date: 12/27/2001

<< For example, there are healthcare differences, there could be socioemotional differences in support each group might need, and I can understand that some women who have had traumatic experiences with people who had penises might want to keep away from people with that feature for a time. >>

Yes, just like some people who have had traumatic experiences with people who had white skin might want to keep away from people with that feature for a time.

The difference is that a person of color who want to avoid white skin virtually have no choice to do this, whereas a non-trans woman can easily find spaces where there aren't any trans women (or at least as far as she can tell), or even violently create such a space. This difference is called privilege. (See #1 in Peggy McIntosh's list of 50 white privileges).

<< In general, an mtf woman has probably had very different experiences growing up than someone id'd at birth as a girl, whether socially or biologically, and there might be times when that would make for good reasons to treat these as different groups. >>

In general, women do have very different experiences growing up, not just due to different sexes that may have been assigned to us, but also due to race, class, nationality, ability, etc. It is only those in the privileged position who can surround themselves with others "just like" them.

------------------------------------------------------------------------ * Putting the Emi back in Feminism since 1975.

Date: 12/28/2001

<< Hey, emi, you're right. People may fear all sorts of things because of traumatic experiences. But I don't think that's a good reason to suggest that the pain that these "privileged" women have is any less real, or worthy of respect and a caring response. >>

I'm not saying that their experiences are not valid, or that they don't deserve respect - but I challenge the sense of *entitlement* behind the argument that the discrimination against women with penises is somehow justified or less bigoted because they feel unsafe around a penis due to a traumatic experience. This argument is no different than forcing law-abiding people of Middle-Eastern descent off the airplane just because other passangers feel "unsafe" with them.


------------------------------------------------------------------------ * Putting the Emi back in Feminism since 1975.

Date: 12/29/2001

<< I agree that removing people from a plane because of their skin color is bullshit. Removing women with penises from a music festival is bullshit. But being afraid of a person with a particular skin color or anatomical feature--after you've experienced a specific trauma at the hands of someone with that trait--I don't think that's being bigoted, whether the trait is skin color or anything else. If someone lost a family member in the 9-11 attacks, and found themselves irrationally afraid everytime they saw a muslim man, I wouldn't call them bigoted, just normal. >>

Again, I didn't challenge anyone for simply having fears - and it's okay for that person to avoid what s/he fears (for example, someone might avoid flying, or going to a Lebanese restaurant after the attack), as that is their own self-care. But when they *expect* others to shut out whatever s/he fears (for example, expecting the airlines to block Arab-looking passangers), it is *entitlement*. Most Arabs in America probably do not feel the same level of entitlement to be able to remove white passangers, even though they are probably at a higher risk of being attacked by white people than visa versa.

<< I think it is a good thing to have spaces where they can know that whatever they fear isn't going to pop up. A person who is afraid of arab-americans should have a counseling group where they don't have to see someone who is going to trigger their fears. >>

Do you think that if there was a support group for people who lost family members in the 9-11 attacks, the group should exclude Arab Americans who also lost family members? No, if they can't deal with the presence of Arab Americans in the counseling group, they are the ones who should be in individual therapy. It concerns me whenever bigoted actions (not emotions) are justified under the guise of protecting others' safety, because that is the recipe for fascism.

<< Still, if you got to the plane and started freaking out because you weren't as strong as you thought you were, I wouldn't call you a bigot. But you should be the one to get off the plane. >>

Exactly. I never suggested that anyone is bigoted simply because they *fear* something.

<< I think womyn-born-womyn music festivals are a sham because they aren't designed around a cause where a penis should matter. But if someone put on a festival for abused women, as a therapeutic event, and kept out all people with penises, I'd be ok with that. >>

I do not think that a festival for abused women should exclude trans women who have been abused. I think such a festival should exclude people who have not been abused, including abusers themselves. If some people can't deal with the presence of trans women survivors of abuse in that festival, they are the one who should leave.


------------------------------------------------------------------------ * Putting the Emi back in Feminism since 1975.

Date: 12/30/2001

One last try...

<< If a 9-11 survivor finds it traumatic to be in the presence of arab-americans (whether or not these arab-americans are victims themselves), I would respect and support the creation of a space that did not include arab-americans. >>

Just what you mean by "space"? If it is their houses that you are talking about, yes, it is their choice to not invite any Arab guests to their house. But we are not talking about private party here - we are talking about group therapy, which is an *essential* medical service that is *public accommodation*. If one needs a space free of members of a particular marginalized race as part of her/his therapy, s/he needs to pursue individual counseling where such needs can be met.

Another example: there are white women who feel that their fear of Black skin is justified because they have been raped by Black men. That is fine with me, but they should not expect the therapy group to kick off Black women who equally deserve the service - if it is absolutely necessary for the purpose of therapy that she doesn't see any Black skin, she needs to pursue individual counseling. The expectation that the group should accommodate her need to be free of Black skin in sight over the Black women's need to receive therapy * is* the sense of entitlement that I am criticizing here.

Yet another example: while working at a domestic violence shelter, I've met some straight women who feel afraid of lesbians because they have been sexually abused by another woman as a child. That, again, is fine with me, except they should not expect domestic violence shelters to kick out lesbian survivors, or to fire lesbian staff. If they absolutely need to be away from (out) lesbians in order to feel safe, they will have to seek other options rather than expecting the shelter to remove whatever triggers her.

Do you believe that even in these cases Black women (in the first example) and lesbians (in the second) should be excluded, privileging the therapeutic needs of white women (in the first case) or straight women (in the second) over theirs? If not, how are these examples any different from the other cases (trans women survivors of abuse, and Arab American survivors of the 9-11 attack)?

------------------------------------------------------------------------ * Putting the Emi back in Feminism since 1975.