Safe Space Wasn’t in My Vocabulary

A friend of mine invited me to go to the beach with her partner and daughter. Her sister, who I’d be meeting for the first time, also joined us. I was thirty-four and still struggling with body insecurities even though I felt more comfortable with myself than ever before.

I was wearing a one piece bathing suit, and as I saw everyone in their bathing suits, I became more shy in mine. I decided I’d wrap a sarong around my waist. One by one, everyone grabbed their boogie boards to get into the water. Mine was still lying on the sand waiting for me to decide whether I’d take off my sarong or go in with it.

I started to fill a little bit of anxiety, because I didn’t want to look ridiculous inside the water with my sarong. Who does that?! But I also did not feel comfortable enough in my bathing suit. Mostly, because my friend, her partner and her sister were pretty slim, and I was still struggling with some overweight insecurities. I decided to go in with my sarong.

As you can imagine, between the boogie board and the waves, the sarong became an obstruction – sometimes floating up to my chest – other times getting tangled in my thighs. At some point I decided I’d had enough, and I started to walk back to the beach with the intention of freeing myself from the sarong.

As I got out of the water, my sarong was heavy with water dripping everywhere and sliding down my hips. I was trying to hang on to it with one hand while holding my boogie board with the other. As I walked toward my stuff, my friend’s sister looked at me, snickered and said, “you really are a Latina.”

In that moment I could feel my face changing from warm to hot. My cheeks throbbing with shame. My heart beating through my throat, making it difficult to say anything at all. All I could do was smile back; a defense mechanism to hide the humiliation. And then, I could only look down at the sand, wishing that I’d never gone in the first place.

I couldn’t leave because I had ridden with them. I felt stuck. I couldn’t tell my friend, because I didn’t know what to say – I didn’t know how to tell her that with just a few words, her sister had managed to evoke feelings of inferiority and otherness in me.

I smiled and went back in the water where the waves could disguise my tears. Where the shame could feel less heavy.

I hadn’t thought about that day in a long time, until I was at a workshop where we were discussing what it means to create safe spaces for people of color. I realized, it’s often not the in-your-face overt racism that antagonizes our ability to feel confident that we won’t be exposed to discrimination, criticism or harassment, but rather these more subtle, indirect and unintentional forms of aggressions that we encounter constantly throughout our day.

I still encounter these micro aggressions, but now I have the language and the wisdom to know how to better navigate through it. Now, I have the strength to be vulnerable enough to share why their actions and words are triggering. I have the language to probe and ask questions when someone commits these micro aggressions. And I have the courage to set boundaries. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still exhausting, and I don’t always have the energy for this. There are times when I don’t engage. However, there is a difference between not engaging because I made the choice not to and not engaging because I don’t know how to respond and stand up for myself. It is thanks to all the healing and research that so many are doing that now we have the tools and the language to speak up and stand up.

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