I was having a cuppa with a white activist I’d recently been hanging out with, and said something along the lines of “Blah blah blah caucus”. To which they asked “What’s caucus?”. “It’s when you have a meeting or whatever that’s indigenous peoples, or women only, or coloured queers, trans peoples only etc”, I responded. To which they said “Oh right, I know now, safe space”.
I’ve kinda been thinking about that a bit. Whether caucus is actually safe space. Is it just an evolved term, that caucus from the 80’s has shifted, and its revamped name is “safe space”. I don’t really know, but I am suspicious for a couple of reasons.
To me it feels like there is a tendency from the wider liberal groupings, to equate sameness with safety.
That women spaces will be safe, as opposed to dangerous mixed genders spaces, that queer only spaces will be safe compared to mixed sexuality spaces, so on and so forth. So while I can see that this is sometimes the case, the underlying framework and its assumptions, need to be addressed. I don’t know if caucus was solely set up for safety, and nor do I think it can be reduced to that purpose. While safety, or feeling safer in regards to a certain aspect of identity and self may have been, and still will be an outcome, I don’t think it can be assumed or taken for granted.
All caucus spaces are aggregate groupings, like age or hair colour. Not all women are the same, not all indigenous peoples are the same, and not all coloured queer women are the same. Safety (whatever that means) or maybe more appropriately, freedom at a particular moment in a particular place, from oppressive operating centricisms, do not come about solely from people sharing the same gender, sexuality, ethnicity etc. If only it was that easy...haha
The point of caucus, as I see it, is not simply to feel safe. It is to get together unhindered (hopefully as much as can be) to discuss strategy, tactics and general issues of how to relate and move on certain issues that affect a certain group differently to another.
My main suspicion with reducing caucus to safe space, places difference and diversity as dangerous, is if we are to read the flipside of say coloured womens’ caucus as safe, it then places white womens’ space as essentially safe. Or even white mens’ space, without the interruption of women and coloured men and women, as inherently safe. Therefore the emergence of caucus groups which don’t tend to be the dominating groups, as being dangerous (as the opposite of safe) and something to be managed.
I see this narrative and set up as being an extension of a wider liberal working framework of governmentality, control and assumptions based on same equal good and safe, diversity/difference equals dangerous and volatile, or at least an annoying thing that must be managed by the dominating groups.
If sameness equals caucus equals safety, then it could be argued that a white supremacist groups is simply caucusing and making safe space, and its those foreigners that threaten the safety of our nation..
“The foreigners, the migrants, the indigenous people with their issues, the queers, the peoples with a differing religion from ours, the people not from round here.. they all make “our” country, city, society etc, unsafe”.
Luckily the liberals know they aren’t really allowed to say that anymore, so those things (diversity and difference) are just mitigated in veiled controlled policies and strategies. One being multi-culturalism and to differing degrees, biculturalism and talk about nationhood, social cohesion, kiwi values and traditions.
“We like your food and dancing, but that’s all of what we will tolerant and consume of your culture, we don’t want to hear of your land rights, housing, health and education concerns”.
This form of multicultural policy ( as well a bicultural lipservice) calms certain minority groups, marginalises others, and makes the majority groups feel good like they are so generous and so not racist, and does the most important thing of keeping the dominant power structures intact and able to continue to function.
The other problem with viewing caucus reducible to “safe space,” is that it lets the dominant groups off the hook in looking at their own cultures, assumptions and ways of operating. If the women, the non white, the indigenous, the queers, the differently abled etc etc, can just have a caucus to feel happy and safe, then that’s what they should do, and the rest of us can just carry on. The responsibility of changing oppressive, silencing and centric ways of operating, continues to fall upon those adversely affected, rather than the privileged group taking responsibility also.
I think I also have a chip on my shoulder about the word “safe” as I’ve experienced it used. The term “cultural safety” has its roots in Aotearoa, in nursing, Maori nursing to be specific. Where Maori nurses discussed the need for cultural safety. Cultural safety being that nurses, specifically Pakeha nurses, need to know about and acknowledge their own culture and all the workings and assumptions that come with culture, to therefore be able to work safely and with people from other cultures. So the focus was not “Hey whitey, learn about all those Asians, Africans, Maori and PI whack customs, so they don’t get upset”. But about making visible, and learning about the expressions of a dominant culture, Pakeha culture, so that one is then aware of their own actions, and therefore hopefully more aware to culture and cultural needs and workings in general.
This is a far cry from how I’ve experienced the need for safety, and “I’m feeling really unsafe” calls from white activists, feminists and just white people in general, when their racism is challenged. Then these calls fall into the “I feel unsafe cos I’ve never had to think and move outside of my white comfort zone. And when I feel uncomfortable cos my racism is being challenged, I will say that it’s unsafe that I’m challenged and derail this whole meeting, hui and project”.
Sameness does not inherently equate to safety. We have to move from this assumption, as the flipside, is of diversity and difference as dangerous, volatile and needing to be managed and controlled. This fabricated problem leads to policy of biculturalism, multiculturalism and tolerance, that sounds nice and fluffy, but in reality is manipulative and maintains and hides the workings of oppressive structures.