Building Inclusive Safe Spaces: my brown dream

Two institutions have come under the radar recently for allowing their platform to spout bigotry; both apologized, and in their inner circles professed that the core consensus was to give everyone a forum to vent out their inner feelings. However offensive they might have been they had the “right” to express.

Here is my (to use the “correct” language) opinion on this topic. It makes me very unhappy and utterly exhausted to have to say this aloud in 2019, but I need to, thus, I will.

Let us say, for example, I want to tell a group of people in your building, office, school, media hub, social setup, party, that slapping two to four year old children is very good for their mental development. It might be harmful physically, nevertheless, in the long run it builds character.

Is there any doubt in your mind that this is a disgusting idea? If so, then you should completely secure help. Contact the GGZNederland, they will assist you further.

If you do think this is a repugnant thought to see light of day; you are welcome. This is the difference. It is what Michael Crichton pointed out: “I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.”

As society, community, group of people, coworkers, colleagues, classes, neighbors, fellow travelers, commuters, our basic right is that we all feel safe. Here, I use the word “safe” as “not likely to be harmed”. Therefore, as we cycle to work, collect our groceries, take the children to school, sit at our work desk, we want to feel “safe” not attacked!

When as an institution we give space and opportunity for fear mongering, what is it that we are trying to achieve? Does the productivity increase? It is time to think about how we make our people feel.

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My big problem living in Gurgaon and commuting every day to New Delhi to work in 2001 was that I continuously felt “unsafe”. Of course, many of my readers will nod their heads – oh the notoriety of Delhi, those gundas, uncivilized patriarchal nitwits, yet, the fact of the matter remains that sitting here in Amsterdam, on a work desk I have experienced that same feeling of perturbation.

I will give you an instance, when a colleague UH (unit head, I am told it is not very hierarchical here – still) was heard screaming at a coworker (diagonally below in rank), and no one said anything. UH had a reputation of being mean and abusive, and he exerted it, in front of us all, blatantly. That is his way of expressing. He, too, should have room to do so. We made eye contact, arched our eyebrows, rolled our eyes, but we said nothing.

Later, we went out for lunch, the coworker had cried, looked prominently distressed, we smiled for pictures to portray a happy team. It got put up on Facebook. 8 likes. A new high! Further on, coworker is asked to get back in the fold, to be “strong” and “take it in her stride”, “you know what that jerk is like” and my favorite: “don’t let him dull your sparkle”. We glossed it over like one dysfunctional family.

It was not okay!

This is not okay!

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Adrienne Rich writes in her book On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 that “Lying is done with words, and also with silence.” You see, we all lied that day, we lied when we did not go in and check on our colleague, we lied when we went for lunch and did not discuss it focussing on our summer vacation plans, we lied when we took the picture, and it was a lie that got the 8 likes. We could have collectively done something about it, and we chose not to.

Similarly, when we allow xenophobic ideas or supremacist thoughts to be celebrated via our resources, what is it that we are trying to say? For me the grey is a space that highlights an alarming lack of good old common sense!

Rich says, “The liar lives in fear of losing control. She cannot even desire a relationship without manipulation, since to be vulnerable to another person means for her the loss of control. The liar has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.” This is who we have become in that story. We do not want to ruffle more feathers, add fuel to the fire. We do not want to disrupt. Neither do our organizations.

What of safety then? Are we only pedaling it to the third world locations of the dark unknown, or are we ready to acknowledge it on our LED lit flex-desks?

A few months ago, my cup of calm ran over and I gave a person “my opinion” publicly. The said man ridiculed my lack of Dutch understanding and taunted my participation in a room full of people much to my discomfort. My return present did not go down well. Still, it did reveal to me the support and love my boss and colleague had for me; but the deafening silence of a room that knew better was an unveiling of sorts, “In a world where language and naming are power, silence is oppression, is violence.” I realized my right to express my fraught position was outweighed by his majority of academic rank.

I did feel that I had made the people close to me uneasy. I felt responsible and I felt guilty. We had attended the conference on an upbeat and positive note, our pitch was on point, stellar, and we were on a high, till I felt I brought it down. This is the weight of being jolted violently out of safety. I am actively practicing being mindful of these thoughts. Watching how and when they appear so that I do not succumb to the years of “refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience”. I do not want to “gaslight” myself.

The fact about institutionalized injustice is that it is ingrained and we are indoctrinated into it. Oh, we all know it when we see it. And, we very well know when we choose to keep quiet. Not get involved, “let them sort it out” – “oh you should say it in private” – I ask you today – WHY?  

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No, I don’t want to part of a joke if I don’t know you

No, it is not funny

No, you do not have the right to speak to me like that

No, you can’t toss paper on the table or slam your fist

No, it is not a cultural thing

Coming to the last point, “cultural thing” – it is an easy scapegoat. If everything else fails blame it on a mismatch of ethnic aesthetics. So, to help everyone out with that, here is small cheat sheet for all to copy paste and stick everywhere, use washi tape it does not leave ugly scars:


  1. Mean and harsh words are cross culturally the same. It does not matter if the person addressed is thick-skinned or sensitive, ever ask a victim “did you ask for it” or “can you handle it”. It is how and when things are said, and for the people there to take note immediately and respond.
  2. Staying silent is unacceptable. If your leader, or leadership, or chair, or head, does not ensure that everyone feels safe – there is something amiss in the picture. Horribly amiss – unfortunately! Mentors and leaders should care, and they should show that they care. Explicitly. That is their job.
  3. What did YOU do? But, let us not shift the responsibility to just the leadership, the talk around the water cooler, during meetings, did YOU speak up. You might feel your hands sweaty and your stomach drop when you first express how you feel, but the lightness it will bring to your being is priceless.
  4. Let Your Minority Speak. And listen to them. You will prosper. Soren Kierkegaard famously said, “Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion… while truth again reverts to a new minority.” So, that person who is trying hard to make a point, pause, grab a pen, make note.
  5. Practice Safety like a Mantra. Make it a every day habit. Like journaling. Like selfcare. Physically do it by waiting for light to turn green before you cross, don’t drink and drive. Metaphorically, rehearse it by seeing to it everyone treats you like you deserve to be treated. Extend this warmth to someone you feel could do with some TLC.

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2 Comments

  1. Amrita Suri

    So beautifully written and on point! Silence is many things (and it’s not many things), one among which is lies. I agree that by remaining silent, we not only condone bully behavior but also encourage it. Silence is the air beneath the wings of the bully/the perpetrator.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amrita Suri

    So on point and beautifully written! Silence is indeed a form of lies. Everyone deserves to feel safe, truly safe – to be, to express oneself, to stand up when wronged.

    Liked by 1 person

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