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In defense of safe spaces

On March 21, 2015, Judith Shulevitz published an op-ed in The New York Times titled “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas.” In this now widely-shared article, Shulevitz details a number of instances in colleges across the country where “safe spaces” were created for immature students who were scared of “discomfiting or distressing viewpoints” and describes how these safe spaces ultimately hurt college students and environments. Scare quotes abound every time Shulevitz mentions trigger warnings and safe spaces, and her disdain for the entire idea of a safe space permeates the piece. Safe spaces, she says, are only “good to the hypersensitive” and students who use these spaces will “never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.” Shulevitz dryly remarks that undergraduates these days are “puerile” and “resort to the … terminology of trauma [to] force administrators to respond.”

To begin with, I am astounded by the number of students I have seen share a petition asking for more funding for CAPS — Stanford’s Counseling and Psychological Services — who have also shared this op-ed. It seems fundamentally contradictory to support better mental health on this campus while demeaning safe spaces, spaces that are often made explicitly to serve the mental health needs of students. Shulevitz’s opinion, that safe spaces are childish and that those who use them are scared of new ideas, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of safe spaces and students who use them. I see in the support for Shulevitz’s article much of that same misunderstanding.

So let’s take this article to task.

Shulevitz quite observantly notes that “once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe.” She makes this sentence scathingly, but the irony is that she could not be more right. Practically every class I have taken at Stanford has failed to acknowledge the existence of transgender or nonbinary people. Slurs demeaning women are thrown around in broad daylight, in frat houses and heard in passing walking through White Plaza. I have seen people of color called “monkeys” on Yik Yak. “Deal with it,” Shulevitz and her supporters would say. “It’s just a different opinion.”

But when I go home for spring break, I see the same rhetoric. I see people dying. I see people disenfranchised by the very system that is supposed to support them. When I turn on the TV or go online, I see the same slurs, the same erasure, the same misogyny and racism as I do on city streets and on campus.

And Shulevitz writes that safe spaces “shield [college students] from unfamiliar ideas.”

What we need to realize is that other people are not all like us. What we need to realize is that shying away from confronting new ideas is not at all similar to seeking a respite from a lifetime of rhetoric that tells us that we do not deserve to exist. “I can deal with things that make me uncomfortable, and therefore so should you!” people say. But try telling someone in a wheelchair that they are scared of new experiences because they won’t walk up the stairs.

Shulevitz also argues that a “safe space mentality” is permeating too many spaces and stifling learning in a college environment. I find this claim to be in many ways inaccurate. I see classrooms and lecture halls as places where students from marginalized communities sit and smile patiently as their peers bluntly ask why they can’t use the n-word or call someone a “tra*ny,” day after day. I see some minority students forced to teach their peers about classism, racism, transmisogyny, ableism, imperialism and colonialism while simultaneously trying their best to learn the course material, perform well on a varsity team or get their research done. Many students just shake their head and try to ignore just how unsafe these spaces already are. We pick our battles.

This is not to say that marginalized students are infinitely victimized, or that we get free passes in thinking critically about pertinent issues. There are almost always critical spaces that push students from any and all communities to continue questioning and dealing with hard concepts, intersectionality and conflicting worldviews. Most of these spaces are inherently unsafe in that some discussed ideas may be triggering or upsetting. I am not arguing that we should get rid of those spaces — the idea, however, that the presence of safe spaces detracts from the value of critical spaces is ridiculous.

Shulevitz’s article reveals many of the ways in which she and other privileged people view their lives and the lives of other people. I am sure that it is easy to see safe spaces as infantile if we refuse to acknowledge the invisible burdens that some people carry more than others and the different needs that they might have. These differences do not make us inferior. These differences do not make us immature, or childlike, or intellectually repressed. Our lives are marathons of survival as we learn to live in a world that does not value us. Do not judge our existence if you only notice when we take breaks.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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