Building Safer Spaces
Warning: This article contains mentions of microaggressions and fictional scenarios involving identity denial, sexual assault, and marginalization.
Safe spaces have been under attack recently in both the political and academic arenas (read what Brittney Cooper says about the student protests at Yale, Mizzou, and Georgetown on Salon.com). There is a lot of misinformation surrounding what safe spaces are, and what purpose they serve. Many spaces that are meant to be “safe” end up being threatened or infiltrated by unsafe people, forcing marginalized folks to withdraw and stay silent. So what can we do to protect safe spaces and to make more spaces safer? In this article, we’ll talk about what safe spaces are, why they are important, and what we can do to protect them.
What are safe spaces?
Let’s start by defining what “safe spaces” are exactly. Merriam-Webster defines a safe space as “a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.”
According to the Safe Space Network, a safe space is:
“a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.”
What are safe spaces not?
Safe spaces are NOT places where “anything goes,” or where oppressive or bigoted behavior or opinions are protected in the name of “free speech.” Often members of dominant groups mistakenly perceive their exclusion from these spaces as oppression, rather than what they really are—protection and empowerment for marginalized groups.
What happens in safe spaces?
Not all safe spaces operate in the same way. Some are intended more as meeting places, with specific goals and defined events, while others are intended more as sanctuaries, where folks can just hang out and be themselves, with lots of variation in between.
Many people search for safe spaces when they feel marginalized and unsafe expressing themselves in more public settings. Safe spaces can provide a retreat, a sanctuary, a place where marginalized folks can spend time with others who share similar experiences and be free from microaggressions.
Safe spaces can also provide a place to organize events, rallies, and protests. They can provide a place to engage with complex and difficult topics without fear of deliberate triggering or persecution, and for those who feel marginalized to build confidence in leading and/or participating in more public discussions. They can also provide a forum for safely discussing difficult topics that are often avoided in more public arenas, such as misogyny, transmisogyny, gender fluidity, sexuality, white supremacy, rape culture, intersectionality, violence against people of color, racial profiling, etc.
Why do people seek out safe spaces?
Adrian is a pansexual, nonbinary student who is taking a class that involves a lot of group discussion. Adrian’s classmates openly mock Adrian’s identity and use it as grounds to dismiss Adrian’s opinions. Adrian feels not only that they have to hide their identity to be taken seriously, but also no longer feels comfortable speaking in class.
Kim is a survivor of assault dealing with PTSD who is taking a class where trigger warnings are not used, and at a school where the administration has been openly contemptuous about using them. Kim does not feel safe in class and feels that the school administration will not be supportive of any request for trigger warnings.
Aaila is a Muslim woman who feels empowered in her hijab but is marginalized on campus by classmates who make assumptions about her choice to wear it. Aaila feels excluded from any broader discussions on campus about hijab bans and feels less and less safe on campus.
Adrian, Kim, and Aaila are all experiencing marginalization, feel unsafe on campus, and are being excluded from participating fully in their classes. They all regularly experience microaggressions, which can be irritating, threatening, and traumatizing. A safe space would provide these students with a place to connect with others who share similar experiences, organize events and campaigns, access resources, retreat from unsafe environments, and have discussions, without feeling threatened because of their identity. Access to a space like this can mean the difference between a student completing or dropping out of their program.
What is threatening safe spaces?
The biggest threat facing safe spaces is misinformation. Safe spaces have been getting a lot of negative press lately, mostly being accused of stifling free speech, coddling “oversensitive millennials,” and fostering intolerance. Nothing could be further from the truth. Safe spaces are threatened by people who do not understand their purpose, who feel that their privilege is threatened by the empowerment of marginalized groups, who do not recognize that something is an issue if it does not directly impact them, and who are implicated in issues of oppression and marginalization.
Essentially, safe spaces are threatened by people who believe that they have something to lose from empowering marginalized groups.
Why are safe spaces important?
Safe spaces are not playschools for the oversensitive. Nor are they intended to be exclusion zones or anti-free speech zones. Quite the opposite: Safe spaces foster freedom of speech and freedom of expression for those who are not free to express themselves in more public arenas. They are environments where marginalized groups are safe to fully express themselves.
The purpose of safe spaces is not to stifle discussion or to avoid difficult topics, but to create an environment where marginalized folks are safe to participate without fear of persecution, ostracization, and threats of physical harm or retraumatization. Defending safe spaces and working towards making all spaces safer does not mean silencing privileged voices, but rather granting the same privilege to voices that are typically drowned out. So before you decry safe spaces as censoring free speech, consider: whose speech are you defending, and whose are you marginalizing? (Read what RaeAnn Pickett says about safe spaces, trigger warnings, and free speech at Time.com)
What can we do to protect safe spaces?
Protecting safe spaces is one way that we can work to be better allies to marginalized friends and colleagues. It is up to all of us to support each other, and this includes thinking critically about how our behavior impacts others’ safety. There are a number of behaviors that the Safe Space Network does not tolerate on their blog, which serves as good ground rules for any safe space, physical or online. These include:
- Cultural appropriation;
- Sexism, misogyny, and transmisogyny;
- Cissexism, cissupremecy, and heterosexism;
- Ace erasure, bi erasure, and monosexism;
- Dyadism and binarism;
- Multiplicity and otherkin hate; and
- Mental illness-shaming.
These ground rules should serve as the foundation for fostering safety in any space. Additionally, below are a few guidelines* for participating in designated safe spaces. These guidelines can also serve as a starting point for allies to work alongside marginalized folks towards making all spaces safer. Consider applying these guidelines to your behavior in class discussions, social events, and activities, and the way you behave in the world in general.
- Request and respect consent at all times, in all contexts;
- Respect boundaries;
- Respect confidentiality;
- Respect requests for trigger warnings and learn how to use them (read about how and why Professor Kate Manne uses them, in the New York Times);
- Check your privilege;
- Modify your own behavior when others call you out;
- Decentre your feelings, don’t get defensive;
- Listen, apologize, educate yourself;
- Call out or call in marginalizing behavior in fellow allies, in a way that seeks to be constructive (see Sian Ferguson’s handy guide to Calling In, at Everyday Feminism);
- Recognize when and why your presence may make others feel unsafe, and do something about it—this may include removing yourself from the discussion or space;
- When someone tells you that you are silencing them or making them feel unsafe, believe them;
- Center and augment marginalized voices, but do not speak for someone unless they ask you to do so.
How can I find a safe space on campus?
Safe spaces on college campuses can go by many names. They aren’t necessarily called “The Safe Space,” and they often exist as gathering places for specific groups, such as Pride Collectives, Black Student Alliances, Centres for Women and Trans People, Public Interest Groups, Social Justice Groups, etc.
See if you can find a list of campus organizations, and take a look at the club mandates (usually posted online), to help you decide if their goals match what you are looking for. Many colleges and universities across the United States and Canada, like Northwestern University, Brown University, Carleton University, and the University of Toronto, openly support and actively promote safe spaces. If you’re not sure where to look, your student union representative, campus ombudsperson, human rights office, or mental health/counseling services should be able to direct you.
How can all spaces be made safer?
Protecting and supporting safe spaces on campus makes a huge difference in empowering marginalized students. But we can do more. Each of the guidelines listed above can (and should) also be applied in class discussions and everyday situations, outside of designated safe spaces. Not only are they solid guidelines to follow in general (think the Golden Rule), but they can encourage marginalized folks to speak up when they normally wouldn’t, which, in fact, fosters free speech and encourages open discussion.
When students feel safe, empowered, respected, and heard, they are more likely to participate in discussions. It starts with each one of us, reflecting on our own experiences of privilege, confronting our participation in systems of oppression, and trying to do better.
*These guidelines are shared from the author’s perspective as an ally and a white cis-gendered demi/pansexual woman and are by no means exhaustive.