I recently read an opinion piece that claimed safety is sterility. The author argued “we” should dispense of our safety in order to reap the benefits of intellectual exchange. Now, I am all about knowledge production and reproduction – I want to be a teacher for goodness sakes. Still, something troubled me about this argument and as I ruminated on it for a few minutes I realized what it was.
You have got to have safety first, in order to give it up. This obviously assumes that anyone can “have” safety. I personally do not believe safety is a static feeling or phenomenon that can be acquired and dispensed so easily – but the author of the article did, so we’ll stick with that for now.
How often do you feel safe? My hunch is that your answer to this question will have a lot to do with context; and the context through which you understand your safety will have a complex relation to your privileged and oppressed identities. Some will feel safer than others. Some will feel safer than others at the exact same time in the exact same place.
Here’s an anecdote. During my time at Cornell, I have participated in, or have otherwise been in close proximity to, a few direct actions on campus for various issues and causes. This past week, I joined other students in a protest outside of a Cornell Board of Trustees meeting in the campus hotel. It was quite beautiful seeing members of so many different communities converge on a controversial and vitally important issue. I attended with a few of my friends, who all happened to be black (because most of my friends happen to be black here and elsewhere). We stood together around the circle as folks from a variety of communities on campus chanted, hollered, danced, and vented their frustrations. There was a moment when the crowd converged on the door, demanding to be let into the meeting. A critical mass of people formed a tight group and began banging on the door.
My friends and I stayed exactly where we were…in the back of the room…together. I looked over at them and smirked. We all laughed for a moment at the cruel irony. I whispered, “These white people ain’t scared.” We alllooked as a white male student reached for the doorknob and was met with resistance from the meaty private security officer at the door. He danced around them, actively antagonizing them in an effort to enter the room. While they were not particularly violent, they did maintain their position in front of the door and swiped his hand away from the doorknob when he reached. It dawned on me that this was something I could never do so willingly. Of course, this in no way is a critique of the other student’s behavior and I would never claim that he was not scared or intimidated. Rather, an observation of how in that moment our identities created different realities for the both of us.
There was yet another moment in which this became apparent. We had moved to the other side of the room where the meeting was being held to make noise closer to the wall in order to further disrupt the meeting. As I walked through the corridor, I saw several Cornell University Police officers in uniform. I instantly became anxious and I looked back and my friend and grabbed for her hand. I hesitated for a moment. I felt most astoundingly vulnerable standing in the middle of that hallway. Eventually, I took another step and began walking to join the rest of the crowd. In the corner of my eye saw a CUPD officer began walking too. We met in the middle of the hallway and as I tried to move and make space for both of us to pass through, he grabbed my arm and moved me out of the way.
Now, if this were not an officer, he would have at the very least gotten a few choice words. My mother raised me not to let anyone put their hands on me. However, in that moment I froze. All I could muster was a grimace. It did not even occur to me then to say something; to challenge the officer.
I sit writing this on my comfortable charcoal gray couch. The room is dimly lit and the fireplace is ablaze. In this house, I feel safe.
As a black woman, I know that there is often no place for us that we have not carved out. We are the most vigorous, talented sculptors, often finding a spot in the in- between-place and filling it with light we have scavenged from within ourselves.
As a black woman at Cornell, I know the carving of these spaces is continuous and constantly hazardous. I know that many have come before me have carved frantically while their degrees dangled over their heads in the balance.
In this house, with 9 other black women, 9 more sculptors, I am physically safe. But that safety is fragile. As I write, I am reminded of the day, decades ago, that someone or a group of someones was so overcome by hatred and fear that they planted a burning cross on our lawn, the universal symbol for “you are not welcome here and you will not be safe as long as you are here”. This house is a sculpture, a monument built with me in mind; in the in-between-place.
I recognize my class privilege and educational privilege to be at an institution like Cornell. I do not walk out of my front door with the fear of being lynched or set on fire. I am grateful that I have ever seen or known what its like to be safe at all. Yet, I am also keenly aware that I am not always safe. I do fear walking home at night. I do fear being alone in a big party. I do fear encounters with law enforcement.
Safety, for many of us, is a luxury. It is an expensive meal that we are only allowed to indulge in on special occasions and holidays. You have to savor that meal because you have no idea when you will be able to taste it again. This is why I chose to live in Ujamaa (the “black” dorm) my freshman year. This is why I chose to live with 9 other black women in a cooperative housing environment for the past two years. This is partially why I am an Africana Studies major. Self-segregation? No.
Self-preservation. Safety is a luxury that many of us, marginalized because of our varying and complex identities, simply often cannot afford. So dispense of it? Throw it away? Sacrifice it? Absolutely not. That is out of the question.
After all, how can you throw something away if you do not have it?
Noelani Gabriel is a junior Africana Studies major at Cornell University, an aspiring educator, and a writer. Did you enjoy reading? Be on the lookout for the debut of Noelani’s blog, TROUBLE, coming this Spring.