There is a Muslim woman on the walking trail this morning. I spot her in the distance, coming my direction, her black from head to toe. I look forward to the chance for kindness, anticipating a warm “good morning,” a smile. And dare I be so bold as to offer “As-salamu alaykum”? Or would I be appropriating culture to weave my own humble-brag cloak of magnanimity? Maybe just “hello.” As she gets closer, I begin to calculate the odds of us meeting on this trail today. A trail in a small southern town. A town that only desegregated its high schools in 1970. A town where one can still see the old slave quarters, and plantation houses are still occupied. A town Trumpier than Trump himself. And here, on this walking trail, comes this woman, bravely hijabbed, shoulders back, not curved with the fear that I seem to feel so often these days, striding with purpose along a path in a town perhaps far, far away from her homeland. When we get closer, I become sure of this. We smile and say hello. She makes a comment about my dog, a friendly comment. A friendly accented comment. Pakistani? Afghan? My ear is not good enough to discern. But not American. Not USian. Not Southern. Her warm rounded vowels, the soft r’s, the hard t’s like d’s. I hear almost Indian. Pakistani, I feel certain. I have friends who are Pakistani, and I wonder how lame it will sound to tell her so, so I don’t. I just smile as warmly as I know how. I try to create a smile that says, “I’m really glad you’re here. No, really. I’m not just saying that. I welcome you, and I honor you, and I will stand up for your right to be here.” But the smile is just a smile, and its sincerity is enough, I suppose. I tell her to have a nice day, and I hope that I’m not the only one who ever tells her that here in this confederate backwater, but I fear I could be. And after we pass, I realize that she handled our encounter with so much more grace than I. I walk about 50 yards and turn around to see the woman in black walking away, shoulders back, with purpose. And then I think about how I’m too afraid to even put a Biden sign in my front yard, and I realize that her smile was saying to me, “Darlin’, if I belong here, so do you. You don’t have to hide.” And my liberal, socialist-democrat, progressive, lesbian self says out loud, right there on that path, in the heart of Dixie, “Wa-Alaykum Salaam.” © 2020 Deborah E. Moore, All Rights Reserved
How Do You Say “Safe Space” in Conservative?
The student held the placard boldly over her head. “No Safe Spaces Here,” was printed in handwritten scrawl. The protective part of my Aries nature kicked into high gear.
Those of us who work in higher education operate from the position of in loco parentis, a Latin term meaning “in place of the parent.” Our students are adults (barely) and have a lot of freedom, but they are also in our care. One of the first responsibilities we have is to keep students safe, hence the endless emergency drills and sexual harassment trainings.
Seeing this sign, I thought first not of the person holding it but of the students walking by and reading it. I summoned all of my authoritative energy and approached the small band of protestors.
In the short exchange that ensued, I became aware that our primary difference rested in a basic communication challenge. We were, quite simply, defining terms differently. I define “safe space” as a place where people of diverse races, religions, sexual orientations, and ideologies can relax in a sense of security and personal safety. This group of students defines “safe space” as a pansy-ass kowtowing to political correctness. They interpret the phrase to mean a restriction of free speech, while I see it as fertile ground for free speech, albeit while maintaining a level of mutual respect. They see it as a liberal agenda to make everyone warm and fuzzy (which is a perfectly fine agenda, in my personal opinion), and I see it as the very philosophy that allows them freedom to express without fear.
Despite the difference of definitions, I had to wonder why anyone would ever want to send the message “No Safe Space Here.” Do we only allow dangerous spaces here? Is this a demand? A warning?
Interestingly enough, I had already been thinking about definitions this week. In fact, I was toying with the idea of posting a Facebook request to my conservative friends to define “conservative” as they understand it. I was beginning to think that perhaps the real problem is that we simply define our terms in different ways.
I think many conservatives define a “conservative” as a fiscally-careful, small-government, bootstrap-pulling individualist while many liberals would define a “conservative” as a racist, homophobic, misogynistic, gun-loving bully. Conversely, I think many conservatives define a “liberal” as an out-of-touch, tree-hugging, politically correct socialist while many liberals define a “liberal” as an intelligent, sensitive, big-tent/big-picture lover of democracy.
We are quite simply speaking two different languages. We’ve created code words and buzz words and spun words until we sometimes aren’t quite sure what our own side is saying, let alone the other. It is so rare to hear a politician speak in a simple, declarative manner that we become practically weak-kneed when they do. We ask for clarification on matters, the politicians dance around it, and then we whimper back into the woodwork with a mild, “well, ok, then.”
Before I left the exchange with the protestors, I turned to the few students who had gathered. “My office is SRB 317. It is a safe space if any of you ever need one.” I don’t know how to fix the linguistic challenges we face as a nation, but I do know how to do parentis, and I’m a flat-out genius at loco. While we figure it all out, my students will have a space space. And we can play with puppies there. And sing “Kumbaya.”