when the fences fall, who will be trampled?

Safety is the womb. Warm, enclosed, suspended in liquid that forms a cushioned shield against the world outside. The infant sleeps, undisturbed, their still-forming body waiting for birth. Once born, the battle will begin. They will no longer be defended on all sides; they must cope with a hostile environment where there is no assurance of security. The ties to comfort are tenuous.

Once born, we are expected to grow up, realize that we are no longer safe, and adjust accordingly. Baby-proofed homes, plastic fences, child-leashes, tightly-held hands, and pointed warnings from our parents instill in us a guarded posture towards the world so we will never take any relative safety for granted. We will watch for danger at street corners and hesitate before strangers.

Safety is never a sealed aspect of our lives, and yet we crave returning to a space where discomfort and tension were warded off and we were not conscious of what could hurt us. But as we get older, safety also takes on nuances unpondered before as we are exposed to people different from ourselves and see that their vision of safety deviates from ours. The complications arise as we must then ask ourselves, If everyone wants to be safe and our ideas of safety differ, how do we proceed? How do we inhabit the same space without it being toxic for some and sheltered for others? 

The topic of space spaces has flared up in conversations on college campuses, pitting student versus administration, student versus student. With the University of Chicago’s recent declaration that it is not a “safe space,” other colleges and universities have followed suit, arguing that the pressure to transform the college campus into a safe space contradicts values of free speech and intellectual freedom. Administrators claim that safe spaces coddle students instead of encouraging them to engage in constructive dialogue that will challenge their ideas. If education is a stretching process that refines students’ worldviews and shapes them to be critical thinkers, investing an inordinate amount of effort to make students feel comfortable cannot further this aim.

Those who align with this thinking have a point–students’ lives should not be absent of tension. To engage with the pressing issues of our time (racial injustice, global inequity, sex trafficking, indigenous rights, LGBTQ discrimination), students must be equipped to confront tension, whether it is found between different communities, between the nuances of complex ideas, or present as their unique set of experiences and identities is exposed to that of others. Discomfort is inevitable when students delve into the realm of histories and ideas and heartaches that construct our broken world, and challenging them to feel that ache and grow through it results in better learners and humbler change agents.

There is a difference, however, between discomfort and alienation. What bothers me about how this safe spaces debate has played out is the tone of conversation towards the students advocating for safe spaces. The press releases and university articles and presidential memos appear almost as an exercise in condescension as they stamp their refusal of safe spaces in defiance of their opponents–the students. The common parlance of these official statements is telling: students aren’t to be “coddled.” Students are being “whiny” and “demanding.” Students’ self-preserving actions will lead to school-wide “censorship.” Students need a “reality check.” Students want a “bubble” or a “cocoon.”

The languaging in opposition to safe spaces assumes that students do not understand the goal of higher education, that they do not understand how free speech in America works. The arguments used also assume that what students are asking for is an absolution of tension: they won’t be forced to engage with anything that makes them uncomfortable. Thus it is the administration’s burden to protect students from themselves and rescue them from their naivete before this next generation of students become spineless, politically-correct lemmings.

Are there circumstances where the necessary tension of free speech has been threatened? Of course. I don’t think schools should always bend to the pressure to ban certain people from speaking or presenting there. I also don’t think cultivating safe spaces equates to never having difficult conversations about hot topics. A student’s reflex should not be to retreat from the room whenever it gets heated. Neither are colleges intended to make everybody happy. We are imperfect human beings, our society fraught with fractions and factions, and contending with that reality brings frustration and hurt. College, like the world outside it, will never be entirely safe.

Nevertheless, recognizing the wrecked state of our world should not lead to exacerbating it, good intentions aside. What opponents of safe spaces often neglect to acknowledge is the original purpose of safe spaces, and the lack of empathy sharpens the sting. The Washington Post article “The New Language of Protest” outlines the new wave of student activism that has emerged in recent years, providing student perspectives on this social justice movement. In the same vein as the anti-war protests of the ’60s and student sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement, students are creating new frameworks and methods to interact with social problems. These students’ stories yield a wealth of insight regarding the opposite side of the debate centered on safe spaces.

In response to the accusation of being “coddled,” one student pointed out:

So you’re really cool with the fact that one in five students are sexually assaulted, one in three people who have faced sexual assault have PTSD, students all over the country are saying their campuses are racist. Is that cool? That makes me coddled, for thinking that’s a problem?

Another student concluded:

I think that somebody who says that has had very little experience in not being in a safe space.

These students’ comments suggest that safe spaces are a response to the painful realities already acknowledged; the students advocating for them are already familiar with tension as their daily bread. Many of the students desiring safe spaces represent marginalized identities in our nation: ethnic and racial minorities, queer individuals, women. To argue that they want to remain in a bubble misunderstands their experiences as people who already eat the fruits of a spoiled society.

Much as people malign Wikipedia, it provides an apt summary:

In educational institutions, safe-space (or safe space), safer-space, and positive space originally were terms used to indicate that a teacher, educational institution or student body does not tolerate anti-LGBT violence, harassment or hate speech, thereby creating a safe place for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.[2] The term safe space has been extended to refer to a space for individuals who are marginalized to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization, typically on a university campus.[

Safe spaces are areas set aside for discourse that protect students vulnerable to rhetorical and physical actions that index their position of lesser power in our country. Instead of vacuuming out the tension, safe spaces intend to provide places where students can process the tensions they already experience without being exposed to further trauma. For example, I’ve been a part of spaces that were composed solely of black students sharing their stories and feelings around racism. For once, we didn’t need to be fully conscious of our difference, of our skins; we could just be and process life together. There was safety in that kinship, in that freedom to talk and not have to police our tone such as many of us do outside of those spaces.

I’ve also been in mixed-race spaces like a classroom where certain community guidelines were set so when the conversation became heated or something offensive was said, there was clear direction given by the teacher in how to engage it. Those measures made that learning space safe by acknowledging who was in the room and ensuring that no one group held more power than another in the exchange of ideas. That space defied the patterns of our mainstream society by pointing to the power differentials and making efforts to support the people with targeted identities in the room.

Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens, former administrators at NYU, provide another caveat to the discussion with their argument for “brave spaces” that encourage risk while allowing for the “authentic engagement with issues of identity, oppression, power, and privilege.” Within brave spaces, white and other privileged expectations of safety are dismantled and are replaced with a call for vulnerability and courage as students grapple with difficult dialogues with their peers of diverse backgrounds and life experiences.

There is much to be commended with this posture as it avoids the paternalism that can arise from administrators seeking to create safe spaces for marginalized students. Arao and Clemens’ assertion that generic ground rules inhibit participant engagement and provide an illusion of civility rather than a space for truthful and contentious engagement with tough issues illuminates the flaws within the “safe space” approach. They argue for a space collectively created where honesty is the aim and the intention as much as the impact of people’s words are evaluated and processed together.

The push for “brave spaces” addresses the obstacles that prevent meaningful dialogues from taking place in higher education settings. As Arao and Clemens put it:

We question the degree to which safety is an appropriate or reasonable expectation for any honest dialogue about social justice…. We argue that authentic learning about social justice often requires the very qualities of risk, difficulty, and controversy that are defined as incompatible with safety.

However, I don’t think “brave spaces” goes far enough in acknowledging the cost of these conversations for students with marginalized identities and experiences. Arao and Clemens highlight the extra burden these students bear in conversations that refer to their oppression, but they don’t offer much guidance for these students in terms of what to do with that pain. These students often feel alienated, like guests on their campuses when they encounter the markers that privilege whiteness, maleness and other identities as standard. They are to reflect on the tension and gain insight from it as their peers wake up to the realities of the -isms and -ias. This is all well and good, but where is the support for these students when actions go beyond the realm of merely offensive and are, in fact, undermining their dignity and worth?

I find that when I am attacked enough in the same area, my skin calluses in that place so I don’t have to experience the pain constantly. I developed a callus after years of people labeling me “exotic” and rifling through my curls without permission. I smiled and retreated to spaces with people who just got it when I ranted my story with trembling hands. Students with experiences of being the Other, whatever that may be, develop defense mechanisms that help them cope with the equivalent battering ram of comments, images, and physical actions that reinforce the idea that in this country, they don’t fully belong. We live with being undesirable and learn to navigate a society with white privilege as its axis. That’s why safe spaces were born–because we are reminded that 90% of the space we inhabit in America doesn’t belong to us. From its beginnings of slavery, exploited labor, and discriminatory economic practices, this country was not designed to cultivate our flourishing.

When the emotional and physical hazards are a daily reality, where do young people find spaces where their stories are validated and their understanding of their own oppression is taken seriously? The classroom, the college campus should be such a space that challenges and expands their worldview without further denigrating their humanity or diminishing the profound impact of their experiences. They shouldn’t be asked to fill the roles of educator, martyr, student, defender of their people, and apologist the moment they step onto campus. They should not be asked to apologize for their victimization and chastised for challenging it.

Instead of wrestling with the definition of what safety looks like, educators and administrators and students must ask: What is unsafety? What does it mean to be unsafe in a way that threatens someone’s livelihood rather than merely their ego or fence of privilege? Students of color, LGBTQ students, Muslim students, students with mental illnesses, immigrant students can tell you what unsafety looks like–and it goes beyond callous comments in the classroom and bad Halloween parties. It’s walking into the world with a shield up to ward off the inevitable while knowing that beneath your feet, the machinery of your country is set against you. The news headlines remind you of that everyday.

Instead of safe spaces, brave spaces, I challenge us to pursue accountable spaces. I challenge colleges and universities to construct learning environments that fully acknowledge their unequal power dynamics and exercise transparency and humility in engaging them. Beyond taking ownership for one administrator’s racist speech or one problematic student event, schools must take ownership of their student body and institution as a space that replicates the unjust systems and patterns of behavior of our present society but should seek to transcend it. For instance, instead of placing all the burden on black students to politely deal with the racist imperfections of their peers, administrators and educators should actively defend these students and acknowledge when problematic attitudes and actions cause harm.

Instead of acting as the patronizing liberators for supposedly oversensitive students, people in positions of power should re-evaluate how their actions promote anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-xenophobia. I think everyone can agree that spaces of intellectual freedom are vital to the life of the university; intellectual freedom without accountability, however, only creates stagnant thinkers detached from the lived experiences of others and how their lives are interconnected with them. Literacy in the work of demolishing systems of injustice requires our realization that when one member of the body hurts, the whole body suffers.

Students must also take ownership of the challenge to create spaces of accountability where they mutually contribute to each other’s learning experience (similar to the collectivism Arao and Clemens suggested). They must take responsibility of their words and actions and realize that when they err, when they do something that hurts someone more vulnerable than they, they will have to answer for that and learn from it. Rather than blanket censorship or the totalitarian-esque environment detractors argue will result, accountable spaces acknowledge the tension, embrace the controversy and difficulty, but they go one step further by actively defending the most vulnerable in the community.

In practice, accountable spaces require a direct challenge to injustice. Student activism is doing the work that administrators should already be championing. When these members come together and respond to the question How is our school unsafe?, it encourages a fluid dialogue about how wrongful words and actions should be addressed. Together, they ascertain the needs of their community, see the vulnerable among them, and fertilize the ground for a environment that does not take racist and other oppressive behaviors lightly. There are ideologies and words that are inherently harmful and others whose harm is dependent on context. Those directly affected should lead the way in processing injustice as a community and deciding how to respond.

This does not mean that any person who errs in this area will be cast out or demonized; in fact, it adds weight to each person’s actions while simultaneously providing resources so they can process the impact of their actions and become more informed, more thoughtful, more kind. The school remains a space of learning rather than policing, but with the caveat that the dignity of all its members is upheld, both individually and systemically. Grace and justice are elevated in equal measure, enabled by the belief that God created us to be reconciled to one another. If our neighbor is unsafe and we are estranged from understanding why, something foundational must change.

All too often, preference is given to the white strain of intellectualism and rationality that asserts itself as the basis for educational institutions. This preference is not seen as white–it is invisible but treated as the norm. The emotionally-charged, pain-charged stories from the marginalized members of a school community are not approached with the same deference. A black student is not trusted when she shares about a microaggression in class; instead, she is asked to give proof and offer herself up to be cross-examined. She is approached with the assumption of being in the wrong. This is a microcosm for what happens in the university at large.

Students are protesting the injustices they experience and observe within their school environment and are asking the administration for a response. As a mentor of mine pointed out, “The opposite of invisibility is not visibility, but freedom.” Students are not asking for further constraints upon the exchange of ideas within the university; they want the freedom to inhabit the university space as an equal, no matter what the world outside it relegates them to. They want the freedom to craft a world better than the one they were steeped in, space by space.

The dialogue on safe spaces continues, and it provides no easy answers, only an invitation into a realm of complexity and humility. My hope is that our primary concern is for the marginalized peoples that safe spaces, accountable spaces protect, rather than the enshrined value of intellectual freedom. They have more at stake in this conversation. As we strive for accountability to them as we collaborate in learning, discourse that builds up people and innovation that heals communities will blossom.

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