Where Do We Draw? Taking a Closer Look at the Idea of Safe Space on Campus

WORDS BY: EMILY AYERS
PHOTOS BY: EMILY AYERS & STEPHANIE PEREZ

Stepping onto campus the day after the election was eerily still. A day that is typically wrought with people shuffling to and from classes was almost empty. The campus was noiseless, and as I passed people, there was a silent recognition of the other person’s uneasiness.

One of the first people I encountered when I got to campus was a friend who is Muslim-American. Her face was distraught, and I could tell she had been crying. She choked back tears as she explained how she spent the night trying to convince her parents that it would be OK. Her mother was afraid for the lives of her daughters, and she wanted them to stop wearing the Hijab. Her mother thought it would provoke violence.

Sentiments like hers seemed to be echoed all over CSULB’s campus that day. Outside of the University Student Union (USU), a safe space had been set up so that students would have a place to process everything that had happened. There were three large paper-covered whiteboards set up asking, “How do you feel?” Student responses included fear, sadness and confusion.

Throughout the election last year, safe spaces, trigger warnings and the idea of “political correctness” were of constant discussion. Various groups like Mexican-Americans, women, and Muslim-Americans felt targeted during the election.

As a result there was an increase in the advocation for the creation of spaces where people could come together to discuss and communicate their feelings and experiences without fear of harassment, hate speech or violence.

“Safe spaces mean when you enter this space, you are extra conscious of not violating and devaluing the opinions, thoughts, feelings and experiences of the other people in that space,” said graduate student and ASI Secretary for Cultural Diversity Victoria Villa. “Safe spaces doesn’t mean that only people who think alike can come here.”

Villa believes that safe spaces are necessary and actually serve as places for debates and conversations to take place between different groups.

But there are also people who feel these spaces undermine their freedom of speech, and has caused them to have to censor themselves.

“There are pros and cons to being in an environment where professors honor the idea of safe spaces,” said senior anthropology major Paul Espinoza. “While I’d feel like I would be in a place where I would be respected, I would actually feel that I wouldn’t be able to be completely myself in terms of voicing my opinion without the possibility of offending another. It would make me wonder how much truth would be compromised for the sake of safety.”

Pointing out both sides of the discussion have been critical in trying to find balance, but friction has still been caused. Most often these safe spaces are utilized by groups who feel the most marginalized in America. The groups that experience daily acts of microaggressions.

For the groups who feel like their entire existence seems to always be in question, and are always on edge about what someone is going to say that might be overtly racist or sexist, it is only natural that them long for a place where they  don’t have to constantly prove their right to be in that space.

“More people are standing up when someone is actively oppressing someone else’s existence,” said Villa. “So, when you are arguing against me, and your argument is delegitimizing me as a human being, how am I supposed to keep a ‘cool head’ and navigate the situation without letting it hurt my feelings? You are basically telling me that I’m not worth the same amount as you are as a person.”

For many students at CSULB, that is the reason so many of them went up in arms after Donald Trump was elected president. It was more than an election — it was Americans standing up for speech and rhetoric that they felt undermined their existence.

So the question becomes where do we draw the line between free speech and hate speech? Between political rhetoric and incitement of violence? Why has hatred for groups and open racism become “acceptable”?      

People don’t want to have to “censor” themselves or worry about offending someone with what they are saying. It has been shown numerous times throughout this past year. At education institutions, the idea of sheltering students from potentially damaging ideas is seen as taking away from the purpose of being on a college campus — where students are expected to get exposed to a variety of ideas that they may or may not agree with.

“If someone says you’re being too sensitive, it’s not about that, it is really that you are saying something that is problematic, and I am calling you out on it,” said Jonathan Higgins, Ed.D from the Office of Multicultural Affairs at CSULB. “You have to actively challenge what freedom of speech is. If you are actively attacking someone because of an identity that they have, it is no longer free speech — it is you being racist or misogynistic.”

Professors have felt stunted when it comes to how to approach sensitive topics, and so have institutions such as the University of Chicago that opted to not utilize “safe spaces” on their campus. John Ellison the Dean of Students at the university wrote a letter to incoming freshmen stating that they would still honor the idea of mutual respect, but wouldn’t be shielding students from unpopular opinions and ideas.

Others have agreed with the University of Chicago’s choice and feel that safe spaces “coddles” students. Uncomfortable situations are part of the learning process at times, they say.  And those people shouldn’t have to censor themselves in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

Higgins explained that certain arguments are often another way to uphold white supremacy, racism and other forms of marginalization. He said that freedom of speech does mean that people can say what they want, but they also have to understand the consequences of that speech that may result in them being called out.

“If I check you for saying something that in my opinion is racist, I am not limiting your speech, I am calling you out because you are reinforcing some type of ‘ism,’ and it is my responsibility to stop that,” said Higgins.

It is important to understand how to approach future conversations on campus that will involve the experiences of people who are different.

Espinoza said that he wouldn’t look at the current problems facing campus as an attack on people’s safety, but rather a defense mechanism against ignorance and violent racism.

“I think that encouraging friendships that extend outside of the classroom setting inspires openness and cultural competency that sometimes can lack in organized groups,” said Espinoza. “A movement encouraging students to look at the people next to them and form ties would profoundly affect their sense of humanity and could offer them a support group outside of school.”

Everyone has lived through something that has created the lens through which they see life, and no one has the right to say that it is wrong.

As I stood there with my friend I thought about how different her world was from mine. She told me how she insisted to her mother that she would not remove the Hijab. She said it was her choice to wear it, and she wasn’t going to let fear force her to take it off. She continued to try to convince her parents that they were safe, and that America was accepting of all people.

Watching the interactions of people after the election I saw students stop to read the sentiments on the board as they went to class, or stop to hug one of the volunteers. It was then that I realized how vital these spaces were going to be as we move into this new year. In no other place or time was the utilization of a safe space more relevant for students than in that moment.