Much has been made of the “safe space” signs put up by University of Missouri students camping out and protesting the administration’s failure to adequately address racial tensions on campus. Critics argue that the very notion of safe space suppresses intellectual debate, the cornerstone of university life; over the past year, there has been a steady chorus of voices critiquing new trends in student activism. These types of complaints came together recently in an Atlantic cover story, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” in which authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued that students need to be brought face to face with conflict in order to prepare them for life after graduation. “Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter, colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control,” they wrote.
However, most minorities (including students) will tell you that encounters with racism, sexism, classicism, homophobia, transphobia and ablism make up the fabric of our daily lives. We know better than anyone that there are no truly safe spaces or even literal sanctuaries where we can avoid affronts against our humanity. Just ask the congregation at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Dylann Roof is accused of going on a shooting spree in June, killing nine people.
Critics of safe space politics point to the use of trigger warnings — alerts for academic material that some may find offensive or disturbing — as part of what they see as a trend to suppress debate on college campuses. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Judith Shulevitz called safe spaces “live action versions of trigger warnings” where students can avoid “discomforting or distressing viewpoints.” The student protesters at the University of Missouri and at Yale, where racial tensions were inflamed by an insensitive email from an administrator regarding Halloween costumes and a by fraternity party to which reportedly only white women were admitted as guests, have, on their part, been accused by various large media outlets of erecting safe spaces in an effort to run away from intellectual debate over racial issues. (Never mind that the protesters called for a diversity requirement in their curriculum, a class that would make debating such issues mandatory.) But what all these critiques get wrong is that they assume “safe” means homogeneous in thought. The reality is that these safe spaces are actually brimming with debate; for many minority students, they are the first place where anyone has ever let them speak about their experiences.
As a student activist in college, I participated in conversations that took place in safe spaces. As a member of SHOCC (Stop Hate on Columbia’s Campus), other concerned students and I met in the Intercultural Resource Center, a meeting place we designated a safe space, to discuss how to put pressure on the administration to respond better to racial incidents on campus. We defined “safe space” as a place “that embraces individual difference, sustains inclusion and cultivates a campus that is free from bias.”
Our conversations were full of dissenting opinions and intense argumentation on how best to address the needs of students of color on campus. What made those spaces safe was not a lack of intellectual debate but a richness of it. In unsafe spaces, which were too often our lecture halls, seminar rooms and dormitory hallways, our points of view as people of color were often shut down immediately, labeled overly sensitive or too angry.
I now teach and work at the University of Pennsylvania, and I recently attended a teaching seminar at its Center for Teaching and Learning. The seminar was titled “Identities in the Classroom: Yours and Your Students,” and we were given test cases and asked how we, as teachers, would respond in various scenarios. One of the test cases concerned a student in a music class who refused to sing a song set to words by poet Walt Whitman; the student pointed to Whitman’s racism (he referred to freed slaves as “baboons”) and categorically stated that he would not sing the song under any circumstances.
My suggestion was to use the student’s objection as a teachable moment to discuss Whitman’s racism and the contradictions of U.S. democracy. I didn’t think the student was actually refusing to sing; rather, he seemed to be asking for his pain to be acknowledged. Later I learned that the exercise was based on what happened to an African-American student at Northwestern University, Timothy McNair, in 2013.
To hear the Shulevitzes of the world tell it, you’d think that the student’s objections would be immediately accommodated and he would then be shown to a safe space where he could eat cookies and blow bubbles. That was not the case: McNair was told by his professor that he could either sing the song or stop showing up to class and take an F, which he ended up having to do. There was no dialogue; there was no effort to discuss the issue with McNair. He showed up to class the next day but was immediately pulled out for a meeting with the dean.
McNair is currently finishing his master’s degree in music; he later said to The Chicago Reader he would be “OK with performing [the Whitman song] if we have an honest discussion about the relevance. But [without that], I’m not going to sing these songs about America, knowing that his idea of a democracy did not include people like me.” Schulevitz’s remark — “shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it” — thus more aptly describes what happened when the students in McNair’s class were shielded from the truth about Whitman than what happened to the student.
Safe spaces are not for the faint of heart. They are places where you will be asked to give your opinion on topics extremely difficult to talk about. They are places where you will be forced to acknowledge your privilege and asked to do something about it. If anyone wants to be coddled, safe spaces are not for them, and it’s unfair and inaccurate to claim otherwise.