What role should safe spaces play on campus?

By TIANCHENG LYU | November 30, 2017

In recent years, the concept of “safe spaces” has become an integral part of conversations on college campuses across the U.S. Originally coined to help educational institutions resist forms of harassment and hate speech against the LGBTQ community, the term has taken on much broader connotations. Now a “safe space” generally refers to a place or a forum where marginalized individuals gather to share their experiences without having to feel uncomfortable or discriminated against.

The controversy surrounding “safe spaces” further escalated when, last fall, the University of Chicago welcomed its incoming freshman class with a message declaring that “[the University does] not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

As an international student from China, I attended a boarding school in Massachusetts before coming to Hopkins. During the past four years, I’ve been exposed to a wide spectrum of ideas like intersectional feminism, micro-aggression and safe spaces.

Upon my arrival in the U.S., I genuinely enjoyed learning more about these “progressive” concepts. I also tried to become well-versed in terminologies such as “marginalization,” “trigger warning” and “privilege.” When I used these words in conversations, people sometimes snapped their fingers and even nodded their heads in acknowledgement. In those moments, I felt progressive. Even more, I felt American.

Nevertheless, in the past few years, I began to question the extent to which conversations about “safe spaces” are really making me progress as an individual, in addition to us as a community.

Recently, when I’ve wanted to make a comment or pose a question in the FFC or in the classroom, I’ve found myself held back by a solemn voice in my head: Am I unintentionally making this into a “brave space”? As opposed to “safe space,” “brave space” is a place where some might have to step out of their comfort zones and be “brave” in order to voice their opinions regarding their marginalized identities.

Should I bring up the conflict between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” when there are people of African-American descent present? As a straight person, am I too internally biased to comment on issues related to queer people?

How can I talk about feminism as a man without causing any micro-aggression? And am I, someone from another country, eligible to judge U.S. issues, with the country’s long, distinct history of civil struggles for equality?

We need to talk about this. For me, Hopkins is progressive not only because it challenges its students to think outside of box academically but also because it engages people with different, and sometimes opposite, opinions in constructive conversations with each other. I believe that we are all minorities in one way or another. And I definitely agree that the University needs to provide physical and emotional “safe spaces” for those in need. Nevertheless, at times I do feel obliged to silence my own voice in order to provide an intellectual and seemingly “safe space” for others.

I also admit that there exist many radical, derogatory speeches we should look out for. However, we need to draw a line between offensive commentary and unintentional mistakes made by someone less informed on the issue. “Safe space” isn’t a shelter for people with unusual thoughts or a shield for those unwilling to listen to opinions different from their own.

In fact, a good argument has to be disagreeable in nature. If I am wrong, correct me. That’s how we move along. Progress is made by creative destruction. We destroy outdated beliefs in favor of new, better ones. It’s especially crucial for an international student like me to learn more about this country and its culture by discussing topics that might seem “uncomfortable.”

Ironically, below the tranquil surface of the “safe space” we’re floating upon in daily conversations at the University, there seem to be undercurrents of messages boarding on the edge of being really offensive that manifest themselves in forms of jokes between friends as well as memes on various social media platforms.

And I myself am no exception to these types of bad humor. I’ve laughed at many inappropriate memes. Therefore, it’s even more important for us to find another outlet for this frustration, shared by many, for the so-called “political correctness.” And we do so by talking. Don’t shut off the start of a meaningful conversation by using the words “safe space.”

After all, “safe space” doesn’t equal comfort zone. While feeling emotionally safe, we all need to discuss important issues out of our comfort zone. And we just need two things to accomplish this: a person to start the conversation and two or more attentive ears.

Tiancheng Lyu is a freshman who plans to major in Writing Seminars. He is from Hangzhou, China.

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