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A Gray Area: Students Conceptualize Safe Spaces

By Daiei Onoguchi, John Bense, Lily Coltoff, Maxwell Hawla, Nancy Chong and Steven Baboun | 12/21/16 7:56pm | Updated 12/21/16 7:56pm
Julienne DeVita / American Word Magazine

Introduction by Lily Coltoff

Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion around the idea of “safe spaces,” especially on college campuses. According to the Safe Space Network, a Tumblr blog for safe space education, a safe space is “a place where anyone can relax and fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe because of [any immutable feature].” While this definition may be accurate, it is not the only one.

The reality is much more multifaceted than that. Safe spaces are different for everyone; what makes a space safe for one person may make it unsafe for another person. There is no “one size fits all” model that caters to everyone. Safe spaces do not necessarily have to be physical spaces, either – they can be emotional, mental or social.

Here at AU, clubs and organizations can become “safe space certified” through a workshop offered by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. Although these workshops focus primarily on inclusivity for the LGBTQ+ population, it extends to cover the entire student body. But even across the campus, the idea of safe spaces is disputed. During a “town hall” that took place on campus in September, Professor Jamie Raskin from the Washington College of Law addressed the challenge of finding the balance between student comfort and free speech. In speaking, he said, “We all want maximum freedom of expression. On the other hand, we all want the maximum of personal respect.”

In the end, respect is what it is all about. We must respect the ideas of others, but also their experiences. Ultimately, to ensure the most fulfilling college experience for all, we must find a way to make the (responsible) risk-taking our students do both thought provoking and safe.

Maxwell Hawla

The most notable experience I’ve had with a safe space is my current participation in group counseling. My group includes students of varying ages and backgrounds. I have been through experiences they have not, and I haven’t gone through some of the hardships my group counterparts have had to endure. These differences necessitate an heir of security within the group setting. Not only have my group members built a natural trust amongst each other, but it is also a legally-constructed safe space: to sign up, I had to sign documents informing me of the penalties to violating the confidentiality of the group. So sometimes, when my close friends ask how a session went, I can only tell them things I said during the session or describe how I felt the session worked for me. Nothing else about no one else. Because of my experience with group counseling, it annoys me when people mock or dismiss the concept of safe spaces. A lot of the time people don’t even realize safe spaces exist all around them, and based on my experience, they have the ability to be massively beneficial.

John Bense

“Safe spaces” pull the wool over our eyes instead of letting us confront our problems or unease. People say they need safe spaces because they’re “oppressed” or “marginalized” and want a place to feel comfortable, but without cruelty, a safe space’s “comfort” means nothing.

Safe spaces also stifle freedom of thought. If a space is “safe,” what ideas or actions are “unsafe”? Who gets to decide? What happens if someone disagrees? By adhering to the rules of a safe space, you ultimately allow others to make those decisions for you, and I refuse to surrender my right to think for myself so others can feel “safe.”

Unfortunately, the “safe space” line of thinking is alarmingly prevalent at American. It seems to me that many students would rather censor what makes them uncomfortable than tolerate or confront it, and already in some of my classes, those who have differing opinions are beginning to fear speaking. It frightens me that the student body doesn’t see the problem with this.

Steven Baboun

I did my first Safe Space workshop the first semester of my freshman year. Because I was so young and new to the issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ community and identity, it was super informative and allowed me to dig deeper into understanding these issues. It gave me the tools to foster an accepting environment. I had a great experience with the workshop. It was both interactive, engaging and welcoming. I felt safe enough to ask "dumb questions,” voice my own experiences and discuss how I felt unsafe being a gay man on campus. Overall, the workshop really encourages us to listen, engage and welcome people who might be persecuted for their identity and sexuality.

Daiei Onoguchi

I'm from Japan, and personally speaking, gays are less accepted in Japan than in America. In Japan, telling someone "you're gay" is considered a joke (at least in my generation). They're also seen rather "disgusting" because many Japanese men value the traditional masculinity (again, maybe just in my generation). That was my norm. Therefore, I didn’t even start to think that other perspectives existed until 2005 when my family moved to America, and I started to experience cultural differences. By the summer of 2009, I had gone to American public school for four years and learned about the sensitivity regarding homosexuality. For instance, I remember many people in my middle school said it is insulting to say words like “gay” or “faggot,” that it was terribly wrong. So when I went back to Japan and heard my friends casually insulting each other by calling each other “gays” in front of teachers, I realized something: For the first time in my life, I learned that different social perspectives exist in different cultures. This may seem like a common sense, but I never seriously thought about sexuality until then, so this cultural comparison was quite an eye-opener for me. Safe space in my high school made me realize that I need to be careful with the words I say because I could offend someone without having any bad intentions.

Nancy Chong

Speak up.

I never thought those two words would be triggering. Those two words, which I heard too often in one of my SIS classes, kept bringing me back to a memory from my high school pre-calculus class. Back then, I was a shy, soft-spoken, 16-year-old, and one day, my teacher got frustrated with me when he couldn’t hear me say the answers for a problem set.

SPEAK UP. What are you, a ghost in a scary movie? With that long, straight, black hair of yours and soft-spoken voice, you’d be perfect for a role like that. 

Four years down the line, in office hours with a professor, I wouldn’t have imagined those two words to be triggering. Before going into his office, I realized he had a safe space certification sticker on his door. My professor asked me what bothered me in his class. When I told him that those two words he kept using in class were triggering and provoking feelings and memories I did not feel safe with, I broke down.

It was the first time I had told anyone that I felt unsafe by words. But in that moment of vulnerability and empathy being reciprocated back and forth between the two of us, I realized that safe spaces extend beyond physical settings. Whether it was talking to my professor or taking the time to surround myself in spaces that disconnected me from the feelings that those two words aroused, it felt good to know that I didn’t have to worry about how my story would be perceived by others. From people to places to objects, safety and trust is held by intricate means. The value in having safe spaces is to provide those who need a break from what invades our social media newsfeeds and newspaper headlines with a resting ground. “Trigger/content warnings” and “safe spaces” cannot simply be buzzwords that we use to address the safety of students at a distance.

These words hold power.