Protect Our Safe Spaces: A Response to “A Call for Elimination”

Protect Our Safe Spaces: A Response to “A Call for Elimination”

Safe spaces exist at UVa, although initially few and far between, as a refuge for students who otherwise feel unsafe in their environment. As members of the UVa community, it is our social responsibility to uphold and continuously improve these spaces in order to provide much-needed support and improve well-being for peers and colleagues who depend on them. While some of my peers at UVa may call for the “elimination” of safe spaces, it seems now more than ever we need to do the opposite (Ferguson 2017).  

Safe spaces (and ‘trigger warnings’ that are often mentioned in tandem) are “places or communities, either online or off, where bigotry and oppressive views are not tolerated. Usually safe spaces will focus on specific issues like sexism, racism or transatogonism” (Ferguson 2014). It makes sense, therefore, that safe spaces exist at UVa – community still recovering from the nationalist presence felt earlier this year. Students at UVa who may use safe spaces include those feel discriminated against because of their race, sexual orientation, native language, learning challenges, or appearance. More and more, safe spaces allow a focus on “marginalized groups of people” with “oppressed voices” (Ferguson 2014 ). The terms of discrimination have broadened in recent years, perhaps because some feel they need more protection.

The implementation of safe spaces was a breakthrough in our social realm, as recent as 2013. This was my first year on Grounds, and I remember receiving a ‘safe space’ laptop sticker in my welcome pack when I moved into my dorm. There were not many of these stickers around Grounds such that the one I sported on my laptop cover often stood out alone in Clarke or Aldy café. In contrast, when I handed in my thesis before walking the lawn in 2017, I was glad to see the rainbow symbols on office doors in Bryan and around the Scholars Lab in Alderman. The social progress our university community made in just four years was encouraging – a feather in our cap similarly boasting our ‘Take Back the Night’ initiatives.

Sarah Berman, writer for the Vice online magazine, quotes a conversation with activist Ryan Avola on the topic of “do men really need a safe space” (Avola and Berman 2017). Therein, Avola notes that there is a difference when marginalized individuals interact in safe spaces versus public spaces: “…a man might speak in a group of friends or around new people – performing a more confident maybe even slightly misogynistic role – compared to when we’re one-on-one” (Avola and Berman 2017). To this end, we see that creating safe spaces within university settings is simply bolstering existing spaces outside the academy. If anything, students interacting in such spaces during university can fast-track comfort with new ideas to decrease the steep learning curve when students graduate to the ‘real world.’ Safe spaces are consistently utilized outside university settings.

It is not only in an effort to appear objective and inclusive that our UVa community should guard safe spaces. The ability to feel ‘safe’ in your learning environment impacts your mental and psychological health, hot topics in the bioethics realm. In a blog about diversity and awareness, activist Kai Lutterodt writes:  “Just think about some of your best relationships and how the space you bond in leaves a positive impact on your relationship – and mental health. A space you don’t feel threatened, intimidated or uncomfortable. A space which allows your to freely express yourself – to even feel empowered! The same should go for spaces which allow marginalised/liberation groups to gather, build relations/networks/make friends and express themselves without being shut-down by a non-identifying person” (2016). These sentiments agree with articles written by TIME and the National Immigration Law Center. The latter reminds us that “the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects everyone in the country against unreasonable searches and seizures” and “patients have protections under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA)” (Huerta 2017). Both these policies culminate in safe spaces for patients in healthcare facilities: “Health centers are on the front lines of ensuring that immigrant patients and their families feel safe and secure enough to obtain health care services when they need them. In order to do that they must arm themselves and their staff with the knowledge they need to protect their patients’ rights and create a safe and welcoming space for immigrants” (Huerta 2017). Protection afforded to individual is particularly applicable today, at UVa, as we consider racial tensions and (sometimes hidden) inequities.

In a TIME article, RaeAnn Pickett writes about the University of Chicago’s decision to end trigger warnings and safe spaces. The institution argued in favour of a “commitment to academic freedom” – much like Ferguson argues at UVa (Pickett 2016). But what does such a decision do in reality? Pickett maintains that it “puts many students in the uncomfortable position of entering spaces that may or may not be safe for them to learn, interact and share in – and puts the onus on them to leave or to endure the situation.”

Despite the benefits of safe spaces, some may argue that safe spaces lead to the “deterioration of discourse at colleges and universities” - or provide a “disservice to students by encouraging them to retreat from confrontation instead of embracing it” (see Ferguson 2017 published in the “Cavalier Daily” for more information). Instead of debunking safe spaces, this op-ed served to highlight their merit.

The idea that marginalized students shy away from difficult conversations is somewhat unfair. Everyday marginalized students step into a world that is so far outside their comfort zones. I do not believe marginalized students seek applause or recognition for this. It is our social (perhaps even moral) responsibility, however, to ensure that all students to have a safe space in their communities. If marginalized students cannot find such safety in their clubs, societies, classrooms or dorms, then we have to rectify this. Thus, the creation of safe spaces in our institutions.

Safe spaces are particularly important when we consider minority and marginalized students. While it pains me to admit it, we must acknowledge that we are not living in a post-racial society. In fact, racial discrimination is becoming increasingly more real each day in Trump’s America. Marginalized students, defined as students who feel discriminated against because of their race, sexual orientation, gender orientation or appearance, face more adversity each and every day. How can we expect marginalized students to excel in unfamiliar, majority-run environments without support? This is not extra support; instead this is support matching what peers in the majority passively receive (and perhaps take for granted).

So much of education is not about what happens inside the classroom, but what happens outside the classroom. A student may not perform optimally when taking a test because they already feel the teacher is against them. A student may be discouraged from sharing their true opinion in a club/society because they know it does not align with the majority’s thinking. A student may not speak out against assault or discrimination because they do not want to be labeled in the classroom or targeted on the playground. These students ‘endure’ the discomfort to keep the peace. Is this fair? It does not help that the culture of in most marginalized households seems to be one of respect and deference, which is perpetuated in the academy when there is no space for marginalized students to share their voices.

Benefits of safe spaces are not limited to students identifying as part of a racial minority.

In UVa classrooms and common areas sporting the rainbow symbol, there are discussions occurring about discrimination or injustice where there was previously only silence. More and more teachers and students are identifying as allies, empathizing the lived experiences of those who are discriminated against on a daily basis. Empathy born from understanding likely would not have occurred without commonplace discussions about safe spaces. Safe spaces encourage discussion in a way that does not compromise freedom or credibility. This is increasingly important in focused study environments that UVa boasts.  

Pickett notes that “safe spaces and trigger warnings can help support victims of assault, PTSD and violence.” In a society teeming with social media bombarding, it is argued that there is no space for refuge. This makes ‘safe spaces’ increasingly pertinent. How wonderful to have physical spaces facilitating face-to-face dialogue combatting 24/7 harassment from Facebook, Snapchat or Trump’s Twitter feed. By far one of the most important things that safe spaces achieve is knowledge sharing. Having a space to share personal narratives and argue constructively about discrimination, marginalized students provide each other with new information. Often, sharing knowledge and experiences also leads to healing as marginalized students realize “they are human and worthy of respect” (Ferguson 2014). As a result, students are more comfortable in their UVa environment knowing there are peers who think like them. Students are therefore better equipped to handle situations of adversity – whether they consciously or unknowingly walked into such situations.

So what is a safe space, really? It is a place where people feel safe – plain and simple. Would it not be wonderful if every space was a safe space. What would UVa look like if every classroom, every Newcomb table, every AFC change room, and every acapella party was a safe space? What I mean is: if each of us lived with empathetic purpose, acknowledging how our actions and thoughts (and written words in the case of Ferguson) affect the people around us, then we would be continuously living in a safe space. If this were the case, then there would be no need for sanctioned offices or buildings as ‘safe spaces.’

There is much work still to be done, despite some discouraging sentiments from those in our community. UVa, and its leadership, has put in place many resources offering student support. Student innovation must continue to drive constant evaluation of these resource so the university can do more for all students - those identifying as part of a minority race or class, as survivors, as marginalized individuals, and as individuals striving to beat mental health challenges every day. As a society, we have an ethical and moral responsibility to ensure all individuals are protected against injustice. Such responsibility is something we share as informed citizens, and one could argue that the more we know about INjustice, the more responsibility we assume to ensure justice. Guarding our responsibility as civic-minded citizens can ensure that we protect those seemingly weaker than ourselves - those members of our society identifying with mental health or minority challenges as they live targeted by mores.

With this in mind I call on you all. Let our voices continue increasing awareness around discrimination and bigotry. Let us encourage awareness. We cannot blame our peers for what they do not know, even if their ignorance may affect the academy’s protecting safe spaces. Instead, I believe we should help our peers. Unfortunately, my friends, the onus falls on us (as students who feel marginalized, challenged and oppressed) to continue educating those who live unaware of the rocky roads some of us walk. We cannot give in. We certainly cannot, and should not, concede our safe spaces – for as long as there are individuals among us who need them. When all of us who have felt discriminated against come together, in action and deed, we can transform marginalized groups into the majority - with consciousness and determination to protect our ‘safe spaces’ and our peers who depend on them.

Bibliography

  1. Avola, Ryan, and Sarah Berman. "Here’s Why we Need Safe Spaces for Men: As a Coach on Healthy Masculinity, I’ve seen it Effectively Challenge Patriarchy." 14 Sep, [cited 2017]. Available from https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/8x897k/heres-why-we-need-safe-spaces-for-men.
  2. Ferguson, Sian. 6 Reasons Why we Need Safe Spaces. Everyday Feminism Magazine,
  3. Ferguson, Thomas. FERGUSON: Eliminate Safe Spaces at U.Va. Virginia, USA:2017
  4. Huerta, Alvaro M. Health Care Centers Can Become Safe Spaces for Immigrant Patients. National Immigration Law Center. 25 May, 2017. Available from https://www.nilc.org/news/the-torch/5-25-17/
  5. Lutterodt, Kai. Mental Health Awareness Week: Why Safe Spaces Are Important for Women of Colour. 19 May, 2016. Available from https://diversity-matters.org.uk/2016/05/19/mental-health-awareness-week-why-safe-spaces-are-important-for-women-of-colour/
  6. Pickett, RaeAnn. Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces are Necessary. TIME magazine, 2016.
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