Place becomes space: Structural oppression in situ

Structure: the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex.


When I was finishing up my doctoral studies, third space theories were aflame in literacy research. Studies of how people created spaces that were neither school nor home, neither book nor digital, neither visual nor auditory, but along different nodes, reached beyond. It’s a robust theorization, one that makes the study of reading, literacy, and meaning making feel contemporary while still being anchored in meaning making. Third space offers a way to articulate the techniques that oppressed peoples have always used agency and self-determination to see themselves as bigger and beyond the systemic foolishness at hand.

While I remain excited about third space intellectual and creative expressions, I have this nagging feeling that we may not, as a field, understand well how places themselves become spaces, imbued with echoes and ghosts of interactions, disproportionately felt along well-known lines of power inequity. This hobbles our abilities to enact third spaces, even baseline justice, in spaces designed to be exactly those jump offs.

Education, formal and informal, happens in specific places. Indoors, outdoors, around wood, steel, and plastic, and trees. These are all elements of a place, but the ways that the interactions take place and are experienced by the beings in those places, that is space. Space is contoured, collapsed, made abrasive, and molded through lived experiences in specific places. How you talk to me in a place will create a space for you and for me, not necessarily similarly known but shared nonetheless. In societies based on decoupling lived knowledge from place and enforcing an architecture of stratified worth and humanness, spatialization, how place becomes space, is shaped, in large part, through inequity. These inequities predate us and our interactions. This is why, for example, for women of color who are subject to unwanted sexual advances, the rupture is not just about that moment, personalities or even that specific place but about the space of racialized patriarchy.

To attend to space and its consequences, we have to ask consequential questions theorized around inequity, not just marginalization. What happens when a public school is closed? What do its students, parents, teachers, and paraprofessionals learn about themselves in this mix? What does a woman learn about her power, about her very being, when she is sexually harassed at a conference? What does a differently abled person experience in a space that precludes his involvement? But these questions are about just one part of how space is created from place. On the flip side, how do students in uniforms move through a formerly shuttered school, now refurbished with a shiny charter school logo and brand? How does the man who makes unwanted sexual advances walk around in that workplace? What does the stride look like for the person who bounds up the staircase taking two steps at a time?

Places become spaces through interactions, imbued with dynamics of power and, more often than not, inequity. This is, of course, not a new insight. Culture, ways of being, doing, and acting, has long been recognized as a structure of society, sanctioning some practices as legitimate and by proxy, the people who perform those practices. The transmuting of place into space, however, is a theoretical connection not yet evident in very much educational research or praxis. Although it’s been almost twenty years since Avery Gordon beautifully theorized ghostly spaces and what the shape of a well-worn couch says of who has sat there, we’ve yet to comprehensively see education as a space, enlivened from places through both unseemly and poetic practices into spaces. While we have grown more adept at documenting the ways that school-based practices, including disciplinary, curricular, pedagogical, and assessment practices contribute to inequity, we still fall short of documenting, and therefore being able to interrupt, the positive and negative consequences for how people experience spaces.

bildeIt is not enough to document when schools are underfunded and closed, girls are harassed, black boys are disproportionately diagnosed with emotional disabilities, and on. We have to follow the material impacts of who carries the burden of removing themselves from a space of social advancement, who no longer has a sanctioned place to learn, who is blocked from social and professional promotion because of others’ deference to seated power, and then, conversely, who can saunter along professionally and who cuts the ribbon on refurbished charter schools. Places are made into spaces through practices that translate into marginalization and its complement, advancement.

We must demand of ourselves an unerring question of material consequences along lines of power and inequity. With the ongoing calls for attention to inequity, we would do well to maintain a focus on not just who bears the brunt of inequity but who benefits from the inequity. Such a focus may help us to move from questionable projects of merely raising consciousness, approaches that are often implicitly theorized in a center of whiteness, to material attention to racialized heteropatriarchal spaces.

2 thoughts on “Place becomes space: Structural oppression in situ

  1. Your blog makes me think differently about the notion of and liberal use of the term “safe space.” It’s not something that once created is in its final form but one that continually needs to be examined through multiple lenses. Space is an action word..

  2. yessss, thanks for this comment, SEW! In fact, ‘safe space’ has become a term that I have eschewed, along with ally, as it pretends that power can be erased, equalized, or suspended. And when we think that, we might just get lazy and not stay attentive to the ways that we might be or have just injured ourselves or someone else. It’s a bit like naively thinking that you’re never going to hurt someone you’re in relation with. Of course you will, but the question is with what knowledge, how you address it when it’s brought to your attention, and what happens afterwards. I think this is more our work as ‘justice’ people – seeing it as ongoing, always shifting, flawed, and yet always the right endeavor to be pursing.

    The moment that we’re in, with its heightened identity politics and hyperindividualization, produces lots of claims of victimhood and some handwringing over being an oppressor but far fewer material and structural designs to address flows of power.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s