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Gordon C. Nagayama Hall, Ph.D.

Creating Safe Spaces

Safety for one group may not be safety for another.

Source: Designermikele/Pixabay

Following last November’s election various groups scrambled to create “safe spaces.” I was asked to join a group of people planning to create a safe space. They wanted to have a regular meeting time where people could discuss their concerns about safety. I was the only person of color in the group. I suggested that people of color may not feel comfortable in such a discussion group. The leader of the planning group said that we need to keep talking. I thought to myself that we need to start listening.

So, why would people of color be reluctant to join a safe space? Studies indicate that contact between Whites and people of color indicates is more beneficial for Whites. A safe space created by White people may not be safe for people of color. Being in a group of primarily White people may be a reminder of minorities’ devalued status in society. Some Whites may need education about people of color. In contrast, people of color are constantly educated about White people. So, a safe space created by White people may mean additional work for people of color.

A few months after the November election, I was invited to a coffee hour that was intended to be a safe space. I thought I would give it a try. The meeting was at one of my favorite coffee shops. Things got bad as soon as I arrived. I assumed that a coffee hour meant that there would be free coffee. I found out that everyone had to pay. As I scanned the group that had gathered, I was the only person of color. This made me have that sinking feeling of entering a group of sports fans wearing the jersey of their rival team. I talked to a few people. But I didn’t feel safe.

The idea of creating a safe space is well-intentioned. But I have some ideas for those who want to create them:

  • Listen. If you want to include people outside your own group, seek them out. Find out if they actually want to discuss their concerns in a public group. Maybe they are already doing this and don’t need you to create something else. My church has created a good model for listening. We periodically have Listening Circles, where we invite leaders from outside our community to listen to them. The purpose is not to talk or help. The purpose is to listen.
  • Make your group inclusive. A single member of a minority group may not feel safe in a group. Including at least two members of a minority group prevents any single person from feeling isolated. Or having to speak on behalf of a whole group.
  • Actions speak louder than words. Saying that a space is safe doesn’t make it safe. What has your organization done to create safety? Has it made efforts to include and listen to minority voices? If not, the space may not be safe for everyone. Creating a safe space takes work. And if you invite someone for coffee, pay for it!


Tropp, L. R., & Pettigrew, T. F. (2005). Relationships between intergroup contact and prejudice among minority and majority status groups. Psychological Science, 16, 951–57. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01643.x

About the Author

Gordon C. Nagayama Hall, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon with a focus in culture and mental health.