Safe Space or Brave Space?

Why Safe Space?

I’ve been doing diversity education for over twenty years and recently I – and many others – have noticed a disturbing trend for participants to complain that the discussion we’re having or the activity we’re doing doesn’t feel “safe.” Safety has become the new trump card and someone claiming they don’t feel safe often shuts down all conversation. Don’t get me wrong, safety is a real thing, but it is important to differentiate between physical or psychological safety and cognitive dissonance.

I work on large university campus and have spent practically all of my career working in student affairs. To keep things simple, let’s just say that a student’s life in college basically exists in two arenas: inside the classroom and outside the classroom. Academic affairs obviously focuses on the student’s experience inside the classroom. That basically leaves everything outside the classroom to student affairs. If you are a student of color on a large predominantly white campus, it is not unusual to go entire days without seeing another student of color. This sense of isolation often leads students of color to seek out spaces and places on campus where they can connect with other students of color. Places where they can relax and spend time with people who understand what it’s like to be the “only one.” These places on college campuses, be they student organizations, living learning communities in residence halls or support services offices, become ‘safe spaces’ for these under-represented students and often are a lifeline to help marginalized students persist and graduate. Safe spaces aren’t only necessary for students of color. Most college campuses have spaces that serve women, queer students, veterans, students with disabilities – basically any student population that finds themselves under-represented on campus and therefore sometimes feel isolated. For these students, feeling safe on campus is a real issue.

For anyone who has never felt this kind of isolation, it is often very difficult to understand. “What do you mean you don’t feel safe on campus? I feel plenty safe, why wouldn’t you?”

Have you ever traveled abroad and experienced “culture shock?” The name is a misnomer because when I hear the term culture shock I imagine a bolt of lightning crashing down from the sky. In all my personal experiences traveling abroad, I cannot recall experiencing anything quite so dramatic as a bolt of lightning; however, I have experienced culture shock. 

It usually hits after I’ve been somewhere just long enough for the wonder of it all to wear off. I recently traveled to China for the first time and was thrilled to experience local cuisine and culture. But after the fourth or fifth meal consisting of Chinese food, I started wondering when I’d experience a little variety. I guess in China, Chinese food is just… well, food. Seeing street signs written in elegant script went from being novel to frustrating. Even the local Walmart wasn’t anything like the store we see in the United States. None of these experiences were ‘shocking.’ Of course the food consisted of noodle and rice. I just wasn’t expected every meal to be the same. Rather than a bolt of lightning, my culture shock consisted of small electrical discharges, like the static charge you might get walking across the carpet in your wool socks and touching something metal. One zap is no big deal, but the cumulative effect of zap after zap after zap… that’s culture shock.

When you’re the “only one” on campus, your experience might be like culture shock. The first time someone asks where you’re from it seems normal. We’re all new to campus, right? But when you say you’re an in-state student and they ask, “No, where are you originally from?” You might feel a little zap. Then when you’re in class discussing something and a classmate or the professor turns to you and asks, “What do your people think about the issue?” Zap. You’re eating in the dining hall and your friends ask you for a restaurant recommendation because, “You must know where to get real, authentic food…” zap. Alone, none of these experiences may be that big a deal, but how often do you have to get zapped by static discharge before you get cautious when approaching metal door knobs and start to assume you’re going to get shocked? After a while, you might go looking for a place without metal door knobs or plush carpeting so you can let your guard down and relax, knowing here is a place you probably won’t get shocked. It’s safe.

So, if the need to feel safe is sometimes a real thing, when do we need to challenge ourselves to be brave?

Here’s where safe spaces are different brave spaces. Brave spaces are spaces where we hope to learn something new. Places like in the classroom or in a workshop or even when we choose to engage in meaningful dialogue with our friends. In these kinds of environments, claiming your safety is at risk whenever you hear something you don’t like makes it difficult, if not impossible, to continue the conversation.

How do we “stay at the table?” We hold space for each other…