“I’ve never glimpsed safe teaching (and learning) space. It is a white fantasy that harms”, Katherine McKittrick.

Katherine McKittrick works in black studies, anti-colonial studies, cultural geographies and gender studies. McKittrick’s interdisciplinary work attends to the links between epistemological narrative, social justice, and creative texts. McKittrick’s work has influenced and challenged the work we do with C-FAR and how we perceive our transformative goals by complicating our assumptions of what exactly we are and should be striving for, especially in the context of fostering academic ‘safe spaces’. In this 2013 interview with Peter James Hudson, McKittrick responds to Hudson’s following question on the topic:

“On twitter, you (depressingly, brilliantly) wrote, “I’ve never glimpsed safe teaching (and learning) space. It is a white fantasy that harms.” I’m wondering if you could expand on that as it pertains to the Black student in Canada? How does such a vexed space inform your own pedagogical practice?”

Katherine McKittrick’s answer can offer us insight into the politics of safety in the context of academic spaces which are and have always been violently unsafe for many. McKittrick’s analysis challenges the superficial conceptions and expectations for ‘safety’ which ultimately mask and perpetuate injustices rather than address them. This discerning interjection into mainstream calls for ‘safe spaces’ grounds our work here in the institution, and McKittrick’s response demands us to be critical of institutional work, habits and seemingly progressive efforts that reproduce the injustices our universities were founded upon:

“Yes. I wonder a lot about why the classroom should be safe. It isn’t safe. I am not sure what safe learning looks like because the kinds of questions that need to be (and are) asked, across a range of disciplines and interdisciplines, necessarily attend to violence and sadness and the struggle for life. How could teaching narratives of sadness ever, under any circumstances, be safe!? And doubled onto this: which black or other marginalized faculty is safe in the academy, ever? Who are these safe people? Where are they? But there is also, on top of this all, an underlying discourse, one that emerges out of feminism and other “identity” discourses, that assumes that the classroom should be safe. This kind of “safe space” thinking sometimes includes statements on course outlines about respect for diversity and how the class (faculty? students?) will not tolerate inappropriate behavior: racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism. This kind of hate-prevention is a fantasy to me. It is a fantasy that replicates, rather than undoes, systems of injustice because it assumes, first, that teaching about anti-colonialism or sexism or homophobia can be safe (which is an injustice to those who have lived and live injustice!), second, that learning about anti-colonialism or sexism or homophobia is safe, easy, comfortable, and, third, that silencing and/or removing ‘bad’ and ‘intolerant’ students dismantles systems of injustice. Privileged students leave these safe spaces with transparently knowable oppressed identities safely tucked in their back pockets and a lesson on how to be aggressively and benevolently silent. The only people harmed in this process are students of colour, faculty of colour, and those who are the victims of potential yet unspoken intolerance. I call this a white fantasy because, at least for me, only someone with racial privilege would assume that the classroom could be a site of safety! This kind of privileged person sees the classroom as, a priori, safe, and a space that is tainted by dangerous subject matters (race) and unruly (intolerant) students. But the classroom is, as I see it, a colonial site that was, and always has been, engendered by and through violent exclusion!” (237-8).

The interview is well worth a read in full (and it’s not too long!), you can access it here through McKittrick’s website.

Hudson, Peter James. 2013. “The Geographies of Blackness and Anti-Blackness: An Interview with Katherine McKittrick”. The CLR James Journal, 20 (1–2): 233–240. doi: 10.5840/clrjames201492215.

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