“Safe spaces” on university campuses are meant to be places where students can show up as their authentic selves without fear of experiencing discrimination or harassment—but despite this idyllic definition, the term has been a source of bitter debate and thorny controversy. Some students (and some who are not students but still feel the need to comment on the issue) have argued that safe spaces are a byproduct of PC culture run amuck, and that they are in conflict with the goals and purposes of an educational institution. Proponents of the anti-safe space perspective tend to view these spaces as either utterly ridiculous or severely threatening. Either way, they have misunderstood the phrase’s true meaning.
When we talk about safe spaces on campus, we’re not talking about plush, insulated rooms that isolate students from the real world and function as echo chambers. We’re not talking about spaces where you have to check your identity at the door, abandon your freethinking mind, or lose yourself in a cultural amoeba. And we are not, under any circumstances, talking about places that are oppressive or detrimental to the academic rigor of the institution. No, we’re not talking about any of those things—we’re talking about empathy.
This moment of clarity struck me in full force on Monday, when we gathered in the Ethics Center conference room for our second Civic Dinner event of the year. Luchie, Taylor, Anand and I invited eight other undergraduate students to sit around a table and discuss our campus climate post flyer incident, as well as to practice pushing our comfort zones by jumping into tough conversations with strangers. After breaking the ice a bit by reminiscing on some of our awkward freshman-orientation stories, we dove into a conversation about the meaning of feeling welcome and the necessity of safety. More specifically, we asked participants about what it means to feel safe in your body, in your identity, and on our university’s campus.
The responses we heard were exceptionally thoughtful and full of passion. Participants spoke of feeling safe or unsafe in particular friend groups, classes, or social organizations. They shared stories about times they felt unwelcome or uncomfortable, as well as times when someone went out of their way to include them. They opened up about feeling rejected, overlooked, or disrespected, and offered insight into how these experiences shaped how they interacted with others. Despite the breadth and variety of personal experiences that came up at our table, two facts were abundantly clear: The first was that safety matters enormously for a student’s comfort and happiness, and the second was that safety is not just physical. In fact, our group spoke at great length about the power of language, and the ways in which words can function as tools for either violating or preserving another person’s sense of safety.
“It’s like if you show up at someone’s house, and they ask you to take your shoes off before coming in. You do it, out of respect for that person and their rules,” said one participant in response to a question about the importance of honoring safe spaces. “Yeah, like if a word means one thing to you and another thing to someone else, respect the way they’re hearing that word and try to understand what it means to them,” added another.
Although safe spaces have been criticized as being hypersensitive or overly restrictive, it was clear to me after hearing comments like these that the students at our table found real value in their existence, and that they considered the act of respecting safe spaces as a gesture of empathy. In response to the argument that students have a right to say whatever they want and that freedom of expression leads to intellectual engagement, participants insisted that racist, sexist, homophobic, and similarly intolerant language in no way functions as a legitimate means of furthering the sort of intentional, critical thinking that universities like Santa Clara pride themselves so highly on. The safe space, then, is as legitimate as it is necessary.