I’ve seen the concept characterized as a “protective bubble against the wrong kind of thinking,” a position tenable only if you have never actually accessed a safe space. In reality I might just want to talk about something without some dipshit shrieking “MAN! UR A MAN!” into my ear through a blow horn. You would never know this judging by the complaints leveled about safe spaces by people who don’t use them, though–such as apologists of white supremacy and colonization calling for the banishment of scholarship on colonial history.
Nigel Biggar’s research project proposes to take a cost-benefit analysis of British imperial history, weighing the bad things against the good. In defending the project he called on “usBritish to moderate our post-imperial guilt” (emphasis added) in an article in The Times. There have been some excellent critiques of the naive simplicity of the research methods proposed, most notably an excellent open-letter drafted by a range of prominent Oxford academics of different disciplinary backgrounds. This led to a backlash from right-wing newspapers against these academics.
For me, any defence of British imperialism is by implication a defence of white supremacy. To take the example of British India—my own field of study—there were always exceptions and protections for white populations written into the laws. Similarly in the political sphere there were always positions of authority reserved for white rulers only. Elizabeth Kolsky’s amazing book on white violence in colonial India is a great place to learn more about how these privileges operated. To judge British colonial rule by its effects without taking into account its fundamentally racist legal and bureaucratic structures is to suggest that there are circumstances when white supremacy is acceptable. The argument that positive things were done through British imperialism that might excuse its inherent racism (let alone the numerous atrocities committed by British colonial regimes across the world) is, thus, also a subtle defence of white supremacy.
The claim that colonial rule did good because it “developed” colonized societies (with proponents of this position often citing improvements in medicine and infrastructure) rests on the implicit counter-factual that without imperial intervention these societies would not have participated in modernity. The assumption here is that pre-colonial polities were stagnant, static and disconnected from wider historical changes. This is an assumption that work on pre-colonial histories have shown to be demonstrably false. For instance, Victor Lieberman’s colossal comparative global history shows that there were parallels between Europe and other parts of the world prior to 1830. Moreover, colonized people engaged with modern practices without the direct instigation of the colonial regime, and sometimes in the face of imperial opposition. The assumption that the apparently “positive” changes that occurred during colonialism can be attributed to the British presence is unsustainable. It implies that only white rulers could have brought about these changes.