A few days ago, yet another story came across my feed about a black college student, this time at Smith of all places, who had the cops called on her for eating lunch in a dormitory common area. The incident was just the latest in a series of incidents involving white people inappropriately calling the police on black people for being somewhere a white person didn’t believe a minority person should be.

As more and more of these stories came to light, I began to think to myself that this was an odd way for people’s racism to express itself. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that aside from this being a racism issue, we have a safe space problem. The problem is that more and more white people are feeling that their safe space is being invaded.

What is safe space?

The irony of framing the problem this way is not lost on me. Both liberals and conservatives often complain about the fragility of young people on college campuses who are so insecure that they need to be given “safe spaces” so as to protect them from “stressful” ideas.   

But this is a misunderstanding of what safe spaces are…or at least how they are supposed to function.

For me, the best explanation of the issue was in a book by Sharon Kim that framed the issue in terms of justifying why 2nd generation younger Korean need our own churches that are separate and particularized from our 1st generation Korean speaking parent ministries.

Imagine a young Korean-American growing up in America. Like every other American kid, she spends the majority of her time at school. But that space was not designed for her. It may be accommodating and might even bend over backwards to be inclusive. But that doesn’t change the fact that every minority who enters that space realizes within 5 minutes of being there that this space was not built for them. We will call this 1st space. It is “American” space. And in the case of this Korean American teen, you can see why this would be an issue.

But then, this teen has to go home. You would think that her own house is a space that is more welcoming. But as every Korean teen living in America knows, that simply isn’t the case. Korean homes are spaces built for 1st generation people. The language, the furniture, the food, the zeitgeist…everything (except her own room) is there to suggest that this space is not hers. And she is expected to be the one who conforms and adapts.

This is not such a big deal when it comes to a 2nd generation kid living at home. Every kid of every ilk has to deal with this. Where it becomes an issue is when this set-up plays out in church.

Just like you can tell within 5 minutes of being there that a school or a house was not built for you, so you can tell within 5 minutes or less that a sanctuary or church service is not for you. It may be accommodating, and its people try to be inclusive, but you can tell very quickly that such space was designed for 1st generation people. For 2nd generation Korean Americans, this is what we will call 2nd space. It is a space “not for us.”

Sharon Kim would go on to argue that a “3rd space” is what is needed. 1st and 2nd spaces create certain unique stressors for people who aren’t native to those spaces and yet have no choice but to be there for significant periods of time.

A 3rd space would provide for such persons a “safe” space where stressors from 1st and 2nd spaces can be more easily addressed and hopefully defused. It does this by simply being a place where such people “belong.”

Everyone needs such a place of belonging. In fact, when you look at mental health studies about the most well adjusted persons in the country, you find that they are people with such a space.

An example from Hogwarts

A recent Salon article describes how Psychology professor Georgene Troseth uses the Harry Potter story to explain childhood development.

Harry is an orphan who has to live in a loveless home. Or to frame it in our terms, it is clear that his own house is a space not for him. The way Harry survives is by finding refuge at Hogwarts, which becomes a home away from home. It is a sort of 3rd space, a place where he belongs.

Troseth, citing a 30-year longitudinal study involving Hawaiian 698 children, goes on to explain why that is important:

“With good parenting, most of the children in the study who suffered birth complications or early trauma overcame any deficits. On the other hand, those who experienced some early trauma and whose families had major problems, such as divorce or substance abuse, tended to end up with long-term problems. They did poorly in school, got in trouble with the law, and had a much higher incidence of mental illness than their peers. But there was a twist to the story. Surprisingly, a third of the children with challenges from both nature and nurture “grew into competent young adults who loved well, worked well and played well.”

Werner looked back at her data to identify why some children were “resilient.”She discovered that resilient children tended to be intelligent, or talented in some way. They tended to view school as a “home away from home” where they could feel safe. They were spunky or charming, with personalities that attracted adult attention. Despite their troubled upbringing, resilient children had some adult in their lives — a coach, teacher or minister — who served as a mentor. And they ended up successful adults.”

Troseth is arguing that 3rd spaces (*not her term) are especially important for kids who are in troubled situations. They serve as a kind of “incubation chamber” that fosters resilience and allows people to safely grow into maturity.  

It makes sense then why people are so fierce and even territorial about protecting their space. Such spaces function like a teenager’s room. When an invader such as a parent or a sibling invades that space, the teen will understandably freak out.

Which brings me to my last point.

Everyone needs safe spaces, but not everyone has them.

Why would young people, in particular minority youngsters, need 3rd spaces more so than older white people?

Remember, it is mostly conservative white people who are complaining about young people needed safe space, particularly on college campuses.

The answer and irony is that older white people already have safe space. That space is called The United States of America. Whereas minorities have churches, barbershops and maybe their own rooms, older white people have Starbucks, college campuses, dormitories, public parks, day care centers, roads, shopping malls, grocery stores, movies, television…ect.

Safe space is a place where you belong. It was designed for you, for your health, development and flourishing. It is a place where your stressors can be mitigated, you can be vulnerable, creativity and connection can be fostered. But in order to function as safe space, like a teenager’s room, it has to be safe from invaders from above, like parents or government, or below, like siblings, strangers, or anyone you might deem “unclean.”

Why have some white people been calling the police on black or minority people? It’s because their safe space has been invaded. And in the minds of these white people, the function of the police is to make sure that their safe space is maintained.

Two Things about Safe Spaces

There are two things that you need to know about safe space. One is that it’s mostly for maturation and, secondly, it’s supposed to be temporary.

Chap Clark is a child psychology and youth expert at Fuller Seminary in California. One of his arguments is that we do a TERRIBLE job at maturing young people in this country. In fact, many of the societal problems we are having now are due to our maturation problems. We are now much more disconnected than we have ever been. And this disconnection is robbing younger generations of social capital they need in order to launch, nurture and cultivate their lives.

And what’s worse is that this maturation problem has been going on for decades now.

If Clark is right, it would explain why as time went on that each generation seemed to need safe spaces more and more. They point not so much to a generation’s weakness, but a paucity of social capital.

Secondly, safe space is always supposed to be temporary. Safe space is a tool that one uses as a kind of incubation chamber. The troubles of life are hard enough as they are. Trying to face them alone (i.e., with no social capital) is often like a premature baby trying to breathe when their lungs are not fully developed. But an incubation chamber, except in the most tragic of cases, is never supposed to be permanent.

You should not stay in safe space for too long. It is only there to help you transition back into 1st or 2nd spaces in a greater position of strength and health.

So what do we do?

First off, if you are a non-Christian minority who is being victimized in this way, you need to know that this is something that God opposes. It is a terrible thing to be made to feel that you don’t belong. And one of the best methods for safeguarding against this happening is our ability to record these events on our smart-phones. Our African American kin have been telling us that these kinds of things have been going on in this country from the very beginning.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would often say that the reason people should be concerned with anti-Semitism is because Jews were usually like canaries in coal mines. How a country treated its Jews often indicated how it would treat not just minorities, but its own people as well.

I think that in this country, it is the African Americans who take on this role. If a social injustice happens to them, it will probably eventually happen to other minorities as well. It’s important then that we record such incidents when they happen, if for no other reason than to show racism deniers that this is really going on.

But if you are a Christian, you need to remember that we are called to a higher road of action. In Jeremiah 29, God spoke to the enslaved Israelites of the Babylonian exile. Rather than setting them free immediately, God told them to use their time in Babylon to work for the Shalom of the city of Babylon. And if Babylon prospers, so will they.

I’m sure that I don’t need to explain to anyone how difficult this is. How do you love and not disdain the enemy who is actively hurting you?

In this case, the question becomes, how do you not only prevent hurtful things like being expelled from public spaces, but then go on to help mature people who: a) probably don’t know they lack maturity, and b) often don’t even realize how much disdain they have for people who are different from themselves?

When you come across a person who is ferociously clinging to safe space, the best thing to do is to nurture and cultivate that person until they feel safe enough to come out of their room, so to speak. 

This is particularly difficult when you are unjustly deemed the invader. But this is exactly what ministering in exile-like conditions is. This world is not our home. And minorities will always have it tougher simply because we are minorities. What is needed is a supernatural maturity that will help us not only realize all of this childish absurdity, but to transcend it as well.

But the way we transcend it all is by lowering ourselves as servants. We turn the other cheek. We walk the extra mile. And we serve as our King served, forgiving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.

But we do it not in a way that makes us out to be punching bags, but subversive depth charges that blow up and reshape the world, that is, into a world that ought to be.

The goal is not merely to get white people to stop inappropriately calling the cops on minorities. Instead, it’s to get white and non-white people to live together in shalom. That is going to require justice and peace. But in this case, peace might be the more difficult goal.

Posted by Joe Kim

Joe Kim is the English Ministry pastor at Emmaus Ministries in Bayside, NY. He was born and raised in Levittown, Pa. He has a BA in Music from Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa, Georgia and an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is married to Emii and has a daughter Norah. Joe has been in ministry to various age groups since 2001. He enjoys reading, playing the guitar, eating, sleeping and breathing…in that order.

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