In today’s classrooms, most students have probably seen and are familiar with signs saying, “This is a safe space,” or hear a professor utter the same words as they read through the course syllabus. But what does this mean, exactly?
The Oxford Dictionary defines a safe space as “a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment or any other emotional or physical harm.”
Usually, this has the implication of especially trying to be for those with marginalized identities to ensure they feel welcomed. At the most idealized it’s an attempt to foster the concept of being kind, considerate and respectful of others, regardless of whether one can empathize with their background.
Creating the concept of a safe space is especially important in education, since the best learning happens when students are able to apply themselves fully, and are only able to do that when they can be completely open.
The sphere of education isn’t just limited to in-person classroom environments either. Considering most students’ lives are heavily based around school, it can apply to all spaces, such as clubs, online discussion areas and social media. In fact, learning about safe spaces can be beneficial to students — as they may be able to apply the core ideas and values to broader aspects of their life.
Need for safe spaces
More than one of every five students ages 12 to 18 report being bullied, according to a 2016 National Center for Educational Statistics report. Students reported most often physical appearance, race, gender, disability, religion and sexual orientation as reasons for being bullied.
In establishing a learning environment as a safe space, students may feel more comfortable and respected, and therefore more able to learn. Additionally, there’s an opportunity for students to learn the importance of being inclusive of all students’ identities and backgrounds.
Without a safe space, students — especially those with marginalized identities — can suffer. A Time article noted “a lack of safe spaces can also compound the mental toll of racism, even subtle racism,” and teachers may not recognize racial bullying because of how they perceive students’ interethnic relationships.
While there are teachers that do attempt to provide safe spaces for their students — as they should — this is complicated by where bullying actually takes place, and who students turn to for help.
For the 2014-’15 school year, 41 percent of students reported bullying took place in a hallway or stairwell, and 34 percent of students reported it took place in the classroom. And, a 2019 study also noted there’s been a steady increase in students experiencing cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime — from 18.8 percent in 2007 to 36.5 percent in 2019.
Less than half of bullied students report notifying an adult about the incident. Of teenagers who experienced cyberbullying, 59 percent thought parents did an excellent or good job in addressing online harassment, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study. However, 58 percent also thought teachers did an only fair or poor job in addressing online harassment, and 64 percent thought the same of bystanders.
Regardless of students’ perceptions, teachers and other adults in education should attempt to provide safe spaces for students — ultimately teaching students to be respectful and inclusive, whether it’s in a classroom or online.
Safe spaces in college
Similar to primary and secondary education, there is a need for safe spaces on college campuses. Yet, only 29 percent of U.S. college students want campuses to prevent certain speech that is offensive or biased to create “positive learning environments for all students,” according to a 2018 Gallup report.
It also stated one in four college students reported they felt uncomfortable on campus due to comments they heard about their race, ethnicity or religion.
At UW-Madison, one in 10 students reported there was at least one incident in which they were the target of hostile, harassing or intimidating behavior, according to a 2016 campus climate survey. Of those students, women, trans/non-binary, LGBTQIA+, students of color and students with a disability were more likely to have experienced at least one incident in which they were the target.
Additionally, trans/non-binary, LGBTQIA+, students of color and students with a disability reported feeling safe, welcome and respected less often — and they were more likely to report feeling excluded.
Hence, there is a need for safe spaces here at UW-Madison. While students — especially those of privilege — professors and other campus members should work collectively to create safe spaces, ultimately it’s up to the marginalized individuals to determine whether or not it’s safe for them.
Perhaps what’s most troubling is the fact the campus climate survey revealed there were students who believed we should remove safe spaces.
This belief is rooted in privilege and is completely ignorant of the experiences of marginalized students on campus. Safe spaces should continue to be encouraged, if not expanded, throughout UW-Madison — and in no way should be “removed.”
Safe spaces and privilege
The term “safe space” has been a hot topic in relation to college campuses especially. Most confusingly, it is often seen in opposition to the concept of free speech that is valued in academic environments.
In a famous example from 2016, the University of Chicago Dean of Students sent a letter to incoming first years stating they would have no “safe spaces” or trigger warnings in honor of their “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” The main issue with this argument is that it fails to take into account one of the biggest players in the presence of safe spaces: privilege.
This is heavily tied to who creates the denoted “safe spaces” in the first place. Automatically, most classroom environments are already safe for students with privilege — that is to say, students who are white, straight, cisgender, abled and/or with monetary means. They are viewed as the default student, so the experience is already catered to them. Consequently, the experiences of marginalized students are overlooked.
Making spaces safer for these students at a minimum requires others to acknowledge and confront their proximity to privileges and consider larger aspects of oppression at play. As a result, making spaces safer for marginalized students is perceived as somehow making spaces then unsafe for those with privilege, or limiting their free speech, by way of making them engage in difficult conversations. But arguing against “safe spaces” doesn’t get rid of them, it just keeps them safe for the people they were already safe for.
Without making spaces safer for marginalized students, their “free speech” will always be compromised. They are already accustomed to their viewpoints, experiences and identities being challenged in everyday life, even if the same cannot be said for more privileged students. A safe space can work to reduce this challenge, ensuring there is a place actively made for those with marginalized identities.
However, in claimed safe spaces created by professors and instructors — especially those who are white, straight, cisgender, etc. — there is still a tendency to act as though marginalized students aren’t in their classes.
This is related to the idea a Harvard Political Review article discusses with academic-specific safe spaces, where the priority is having everyone speak. “In this type of space, people are still made to feel uncomfortable, yet it’s ‘safe’ to take intellectual risks and explore any line of thought,” Katherine Ho writes.
But what if those lines of thought invalidate the humanity of other students? Many times, those students are already exposed to that, and having that viewpoint shared is not new or “challenging.” If the goal is for everyone to feel safe speaking, working collaboratively and just existing, measures need to be in place to ensure everyone also understands their words might directly affect someone. It also requires that the instructor be knowledgeable enough to step in and stand up for marginalized students who may not be comfortable speaking up.
Cultivating safe spaces allows marginalized students to bring all of themselves in pursuing an education. It allows them to worry less about their identities being disrespected, or them being the only ones advocating for themselves. They are able to feel supported in their lived experiences, however much or little they choose to share.
Overall, this can make their academic career more fulfilling. Safe spaces can also help facilitate difficult but important conversations in a way that’s both comfortable and educational for everyone, instead of limiting the identities and experiences of marginalized students. At the same time, these spaces do not aim to trivialize these students for their experiences.
In the end, claiming a space is “safe” only goes so far as the work that is put into it, and it is up to individuals on whether that space is truly safe for them — and not hold it against them if they change their mind.
In basic principle, calling for safe spaces isn’t asking to not engage in any difficult discussions whatsoever. It’s really just asking for more awareness of how privilege plays a role in academic settings, and for those with privilege to be conscious of how their actions and beliefs affect others.