Is ‘safe space’ concept being abused on campus?

by | Aug 25, 2016 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 2 comments

It’s that time of year when parents take their kids off to college. And when they say good-bye, many will add, “Be safe.” But “safe” has a whole new meaning on campuses today, far beyond staying out late or drinking too much. “Safe” — and “safe spaces” — now means a protected bubble with no nasty comments, no judgment or criticism, nothing that might make anyone feel uncomfortable.

Which can make people feel uncomfortable.

A few weeks ago, a junior at the well-regarded Claremont Colleges in California posted on Facebook that she and her friends were looking for a fourth roommate.

“POC only,” she wrote, meaning “people of color only.” She added, “I don’t want to live with any white folks.”

One might put that in the “making people uncomfortable” pile. Instead the post went viral, and the student, Kare Urena, who identifies as Afro-Caribbean, defended it vigilantly. In a statement to the Washington Post she said “beliefs and statements” of white students can unknowingly inflict “harm” on students of color. She criticized her college president (who dared to say her comments did not reflect the school’s values) for failing to provide “safe spaces.”

She was supported online by a number of peers.

“White people always mad when they don’t feel included but at the end of the day y’all are damaging asf (as f—)” wrote a woman named Terriyonna Smith.

“White people have cause(d) so much mf trauma on these campuses … why in the world would I want to live with that?” added a woman named Jessica Saint-Fleur.

Both women were identified as resident assistants at the college. This means, according to the job description, they serve as “counselors” to younger students in the dorms.

Counselors? Making those statements?

Added Saint-Fleur, “Bring that (white people trauma) into my home? A place that is supposed to be safe for me?”

There’s that word again. Safe.

Where to draw the line

Now, it’s enough that “safe spaces” have become such a mainstay concept that Brown University last year offered a room with cookies, coloring books and calm music for students upset by a debate — a debate — being held on campus over sexual assaults.

It’s enough that Hampshire College, a few years ago, canceled a concert by an Afrobeat band because its members were deemed too white for that music, and the controversy made some students feel unsafe.

Or that Princeton wants to stop using the word “man” in the name of diversity sensitivity and some of its students want to cut ties with President Woodrow Wilson. Or that a Yale University lecturer resigned last year after suggesting Halloween costumes shouldn’t be viewed as overly offensive.

Her husband, a Yale professor until he resigned in May, dared to agree with her and was surrounded by an angry group of students, including a young woman screaming at him “Why the (expletive) did you take the position?” and “You are disgusting!” all the while yelling that she — she — didn’t feel safe thanks to his comments.

It’s enough that “safe” has led to censored texts, censored speakers, censored hand gestures, protests of comments made, protests of comments not made, and “trigger warnings,” which are cautions now on assigned readings that something inside might offend you.

But when “safe” is used to justify telling one group they’re not welcome because of the color of their skin — “I don’t want to live with any white folks” — by groups that have felt unwelcome because of the color of their skin, aren’t we flirting with the absurd?

Learning life lessons

Now, it’s true, college can be challenging, and students of color or atypical backgrounds can face hurdles that others do not. Schools should do whatever is possible to ensure all students feel supported.

But unless you plan to live on your parents’ couch forever, the idea of spaces so “safe” you hear nothing you don’t like will quickly disappear with the cap and gown. So how does this prepare students for the real world?

You could argue that college should be the opposite, a place where new and uncomfortable ideas — even criticism — help shape your own viewpoint, develop your thinking, prepare you for choices you’ll have to make after graduation.

Judith Shapiro, a former president of Barnard College, wrote an essay critical of safe spaces based on identities or activities, as they suggest the rest of the campus is “unsafe”: “This magnifies the sense of personal danger out of all proportion and interferes with students’ appreciation of what it means to be in real peril.”

Yes. And demanding such coddling after college will only get you criticized, laughed at or fired.

Of course, much of this entitlement comes — as all things with children do — from the parents. So when you drop your kids at the dorms, perhaps remind them that being “safe” doesn’t mean hear nothing upsetting, see nothing upsetting, say anything you want — and expect to be protected because those are your feelings.

There’s a phrase for this as well.

It’s called growing up.

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  1. mercedes3

    It is very clear to me that based on this report, and incidents in the past months, our country appears to be moving backward. Institutions are almost ridiculous in their quest to be politically correct and stirring up more confusion about who is who, who is what, and what is going on? Welcome weekend at CMU was not a proud moment for those involved in the partying. Starting players on college football teams are making news, but not about their sportsmanship. Your column is great. Too bad it had to be written, and sad that it had to be read.

  2. Mitch Albom

    It just seems to take away from the real and original purpose of safe spaces, where people come together to wrestle with the questions of how to change themselves and the world, not to cut themselves off from opposing points of view.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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