University Safe Spaces: Brick Walls or Breakthroughs?
It began in October of 2015. Shortly before Halloween, the Intercultural Affairs
Committee at Yale University emailed a list of Halloween costumes deemed inappropriate—costumes that appropriated and caricatured cultures and religions. While the email was well-intentioned, it sparked a lengthy response from Erika Christakis—child development specialist, resident master, and student advisor—which later went viral:
“I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or
young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes,
offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a
certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly . . . they have become places
of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from
yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith . . . in your capacity
to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject
things that trouble you?” (Christakis)
Christakis questions the validity of institutionally-mandated “safe spaces”—where
students are protected from the offensive, upsetting, inappropriate, and hurtful. While institutions
need to protect their student body, what should this protection look like on a college campus, and
how can “safe spaces” coexist with intelligent discussion, expressive autonomy, and open
People have a right to express their ideals, their identities, their cultures, but often the
safe spaces on campuses are causing students to turn around and shut out others who wish to
express their ideals, their identities, their cultures. Safe spaces are valid to a point. Safe spaces
are inclusive to a point. Safe spaces are necessary to a point. Safe spaces are safe to a point.
Defining the Safe Space
But what exactly is a safe space? All controversy and debate aside, how do we even
define the concept? How did they come to be? Malcolm Harris and Emily Crockett give us the answers to these very questions. The first concepts of safe-spaces started popping up in the mid-60s during times when homosexual activity was still against the law. Bars—speakeasies—were held for gays and lesbians where they could be themselves without fear of judgment. The cops could very likely still show up, and the bar could very likely still be raided and attacked by hate groups. These people were not free from the law or free from persecution indefinitely, but in
their safe-space speakeasies they were able to feel free for a short time. Here, they “could find
practical resistance to political and social repression,” (Harris).
Soon, as feminism began to rise again in the 60s and 70s, women began to adopt safe
spaces. Instead of it solely being a place to avoid oppression, their safe spaces were also spaces
where they could openly discuss and debate how to make changes. Yes, they needed a place to
escape the oppression of the patriarchy, but they also found them as places of educating each
other on different experiences. The more they educated each other, the more they were able to
discuss informedly about how to make things better for themselves. “A safe space was not free of
internal disagreement, but it did mean a devotion to a common political project.” (Harris) They
didn’t always agree on the means, but those permitted in the safe spaces all had the same end
Safe spaces further developed into places of safe expression for liberal parties, for people
of color, for women, for LGBTQ+ individuals, and more. A safe space isn’t always a designated
room (although it can be). It is somewhere where you won’t have to define what Bantu knots are
(Women of Color space), or explain why your baby is having a hard time latching (breastfeeding
space), or think twice about whether you–as a man–can express affection to your boyfriend in that environment (LGBTQ+ space). Some safe spaces are officially sanctioned, like a Mommy-and-Me group or Alcoholics Anonymous. Others are completely exclusive and have prerequisites to attend, “just so that people in those groups can speak more freely about their
interests without worrying about whether others will understand what they mean.” (Crockett).
More so, some occur naturally, like black churches or salons.
Safe spaces aren’t always just about physical and mental safety. They can be places of
relaxation and comfort. When people are always on their toes, defining and clarifying and
defending, the stress hormone cortisol is constantly pumping through their body. At high levels,
it can be harmful, and the levels can be especially high “among groups of people who experience systemic discrimination like racism, which causes the fight-or-flight response to work in low-level, yet incessant, overdrive.” (Crockett) Sabrina Stevens, a black activist interviewed by Crockett, said “‘No one can live in a constant state of vigilance. Your body is not designed to do that. The need for safe spaces is the need to literally not have your adrenal system constantly firing at full tilt.'” (Crockett)
These spaces seem to have integrated themselves into our culture. From hair salons to
therapists’ offices, we can find safe spaces all over. So why is it such an issue to sanction such
spaces on college campuses, and where should the line be drawn?
Safe spaces are necessary places of comfort for victims to disorders, assault, illness, and
other challenges. This can be seen in Alcoholics Anonymous, cancer patient support groups,
meeting with a therapist or psychiatrist, etc. They are places of healing and recovery. Like any
physical trauma, psychological and emotional trauma heals and mends over a series of small
steps forward. Those steps cannot be taken at the pace of one just beginning to heal in an
unprotected environment. A physical therapy patient learning to walk again after surgery needs
the equipment and a therapist to help them make healthy progress and to know when to keep
pushing and when to rest.
Similarly, a victim of PTSD, sexual assault, bullying, abuse, mental illness, and so on
needs sufficient time and environments to take those baby steps in the healing process. In that
sufficient time and environment, they can know when to keep pushing and when to rest because
they are surrounded by those with similar struggles and issues. Most who ask for safe spaces on
college campuses are simply asking for assurance that they will feel secure on campus—that they
don’t need to worry about criticisms, mocking, prejudice, and so on.
Recently I attended my Psychological Science class. The lecture that day was about
psychological disorders under the umbrella of anxiety and depression. We came to a point in the
lecture where we were about to discuss suicide: statistics, causes, motivations, and prevention.
Before the discussion, the PowerPoint slide read in big red letters: “TRIGGER WARNING:
SUICIDE”. My professor very strongly believes in her students feeling not necessarily
comfortable (as some topics aren’t always peachy), but safe in class. Her class—though not
directly dubbed as such—is a safe space. Standing beside the projection on the board, she kindly
permitted anyone distressed by a discussion on suicide to leave the room if needed. She knew
there may be students who had personal experiences with this issue and wanted them to feel
recognized and safe.
Another example of effective use of safe spaces is Colorado Mesa University. This university has a Safe Space program, which “emphasizes the importance of creating a non-judgmental and non-biased space for students to have an open platform about any prejudicial concerns they may be experiencing.” (Kratsas) They also have a Green Zone policy, which
educates students and faculty on the difficulties and challenges faced by students who used to be
in the military, and how to accommodate and help those students’ struggles.
These safe spaces are created purely for the productive well-being of those involved: the
true purpose and original virtue of safe spaces. RaeAnn Pickett with TIME defends and defines
safe spaces on college campuses, saying “A critical phase of healing involves reclaiming power
and control in positive ways. Our universities should be at the vanguard of modeling the way
forward—not backward.” (Pickett)
Furthermore, Northwestern University’s president, Morton Schapiro, issued a statement
in support of safe spaces to The Washington Post in 2016. Among the commentary on safe
spaces, there is the argument that uncomfortable learning is not harmful to the students: it is
essential. Schapiro addresses this argument by saying, “students don’t fully embrace
uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that
In other words, it’s like a pyramid. In order to progress up the pyramid of higher learning,
the members of academia must first establish a basic understanding of comfort. Of security. A
firm foundation. They must grow roots into the ground before bombarded by the winds of touchy
subjects and difficult concepts. The bottom line? Safety is the precursor to healthy discomfort.
Remember Erika Christakis? After sending her email, she and her husband Nicholas
received a lot of negative feedback from their residents. HuffPost Live conducted an interview
with resident Derwin Aikens—one of the disagreeing students. His argument was that as
masters, the Christakis’s jobs are to create a space on campus of healthy debate that takes in two
sides of an argument equally. He said, “‘The fact that her email was sent out under the
assumption that students hadn’t been speaking out all along was disrespectful.’” (Gebreyes) He
and a large population of fellow students had been speaking out about this issue for quite some
time. They felt the masters were not fulfilling their jobs because the students saw the email as an
expression of ignorance toward the cries for help they’d been voicing for quite some time. Team
safe space and anti-cultural appropriation felt heavily ignored by the referees, who seemed to be favoring team “work-it-out-yourself”. How could the masters say they were fulfilling their responsibility to provide an equal playing field when they weren’t even paying attention to both
While safe spaces are healthy and necessary in some cases, in other cases they can
become problematic and misleading. When they are not explained or understood correctly, they
can project the illusion that it’s okay to use derogatory and offensive language and action outside
of designated safe-spaces. In other words, if ignorant people see they absolutely cannot use those
words and actions in a designated space, they may assume that it is otherwise okay to use them
outside of that space.
They can also make those members of safe spaces—and I give this as an extreme for
simplicity—feel entitled to silencing the opposing opinion. For example, many college students
are more liberal these days, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, these safe spaces can
sometimes cause them to belittle the ideas of the minority of conservative students on campus.
Of white students on campus. Of male students on campus. Of “privileged” students on campus.
It causes them to feel entitled to kick out speakers whose ideals don’t agree with theirs.
I watch a show called Grown-Ish. It’s a spin-off of the series Black-Ish, which is a
comedy about an affluent black family. It deals with social issues in a lighthearted way without
making light of serious situations. Grown-Ish is about the family’s oldest daughter, Zoey, as she
embarks on her journey as a college freshman at a California university. Like Black-Ish the show
handles touchy issues. It focuses more on those faced by college students, including political and
social activism. Episode 11 of season 1, “Safe and Sound”, handles the debate of safe spaces.
At their university, Hawkins Hall is designated for the black student minority. The walls
are decorated with icons of black culture and history. Black students go there to study, have
parties, watch movies, and so on. They go there to feel recognized and comfortable. There is
word of Hawkins Hall being shut down, so Zoey helps her highly-activist friend Aaron organize
a protest. There is a scene in which Zoey, Aaron, their black twin friends Jazz and Sky, their
Jewish bisexual friend Nomi, and their Latina friend Ana are all helping make signs in Hawkins
Hall. Aaron is talking about the importance of the Hall to him and his fellow black students—
how it makes them as a minority feel safe, connected, and understood on campus. Nomi suggests she start a safe space for Jews, but Aaron and the twins shut that down, claiming that slavery was more oppressive than the Holocaust. Ana suggests she start a safe space for “people like her,”
and Aaron and the twins agree, assuming she means Latina women. However, when she explains
she means conservative women, Aaron claims “her people” don’t deserve a safe space because
conservatives are wrong.
These two attitudes—the attitude against Nomi and the attitude against Ana—are
examples of where things go bad in safe spaces. Aaron claims that safe spaces are for the
oppressed, but the moment other spaces are suggested, they are either disregarded on the grounds
that “those people aren’t as oppressed as mine are” or “those people are wrong.”
Let’s revisit the story of the Christakises. In the months after the email, the couple faced
criticisms from students who screamed profanities and call them disgusting. They responded
with nothing but respect, that they understood the distress from the students, but could not censor
the voices of those they didn’t agree with. The critics and stress of it all became too much. They
resigned from their roles as resident masters, and Erika resigned from her professional role at the
Ivy League as well. Nicholas remained in his teaching position. To those students at Yale, as
discussed earlier, the couple were seen as people who would not listen to them. And perhaps
there was some truth to that. Perhaps the students were speaking out and the couple were doing
nothing. However, as the couple did their best to accommodate the growth and support of all
students, the students shut them down and forced them out of their positions.
These are examples of the intolerance being accumulated in the expansion of the concept
of safe spaces.
The University of Chicago was once considered a place where faculty supported the safe
space/trigger warning ideal. However, in August of 2016, the dean of students, John Ellison,
issued a letter to the incoming freshmen. The letter states that the university never has officially
given support to these concepts. “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not
support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might
prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where
individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” (Vivanco and
Ellison feared intolerance in the students at his university. He feared if they were able to
hide from opposing ideals, they would never be exposed to them, and thus would become sheltered, and the extreme viewers of their ideals, which can be dangerous. He supported their developing of their own ideals but did not support their ignorance toward other ideals simply
because they believed their way was the only right way.
Van Jones, a political and civil rights activist came to the university to speak on this very
issue. He premises his statement by establishing two concepts of the safe space—the first of
which he agrees with and the second he does not. The first is “‘being physically safe on campus,
not being subjected to sexual harassment and physical abuse.’” (Rose) The second concept is “‘a
horrible view, which is that “I need to be safe ideologically . . . emotionally, I just need to feel
good all the time.’” (Rose)
Jones continues with the powerful statement, “‘I don’t want you to be safe ideologically.
I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going
the pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not
going to take the weights out of the gym. That’s the whole point of the gym.’” (Jones)
Jones sees a safe space to be dangerous to a growing ideology because there is no
hardship or discomfort that will encourage strong growth in that ideology. He wants students to
understand that the discomfort they feel is what will teach them to then stand up and speak back
against things they see as wrong. He wants students to see all ideologies so that they can decide
which they will take, and then use that broadened knowledge to defend their own beliefs.
Essentially, an informed, non-sheltered student is a safe student.
Those who are against safe spaces are not against safety. They are against students hiding
out from ideals. Many, like Dean Ellison, are against this because the moment they hide out is
the moment they become unprepared to deal with discomfort and opposition in the world. Jones
wants students to feel uncomfortable so that they can learn to fix it themselves, rather than be
defended and protected by faculty.
Verdict and Conclusion
There is a disconnect. As we explore the two sides of the debate, the disconnect seems to
be in what we see as a safe space. Safe space advocates support safety of the abused, the
victimized, and the struggling—those who need spaces for healing so that they may progress.
Safe space opponents fear the intellectual safe space, which coddles the student and shields them
from adversity; the adversity needed to grow strong roots and a sturdy foundation.
But perhaps there is a middle ground. Perhaps there is a compromise. Ashutosh Bhagwat and
John Inazu from Inside Higher Ed say, “the notion of a safe space builds on the idea that people
develop intellectually and relationally not only from exposure to conflicting ideas, but also from
the protection of intimate and private settings.” (Bhagwat and Inazu)
So, I’d like to ask all of you to contribute to spreading the word: connecting the
disconnect. Safe spaces are safe to a point. Safe spaces should be created to provide protection
and enable the discussion of special interests and cultures. Those who have healed from past
wounds have proven that safe spaces were essential in their mending, their recovery. I say we
define a safe space—a justifiable, official safe space—as an infirmary of sorts. A place like a
mental illness support group, a trigger warning to discuss sexual abuse, a designated area of
comfort and healing. They are good for a supportive space for the oppressed and the hurt. They
are a place that people can grow those first roots that will soon be strengthened by adversity as
they heal over time.
We need these spaces on college campuses to ensure a foundation of basic security in an
institution to enable the benefits of uncomfortable learning, but we must also monitor their
effectiveness—their influence. We must learn, teach, and be aware of what it is that can corrupt a
safe space. Spread awareness of the signs of a corrupted safe space. The safe spaces that should
not be officiated on campuses are those that protect the beliefs of group A from the beliefs of
group B if B isn’t causing any harm besides discomfort to group A. While those minorities seek
out their safe spaces—and rightfully do so—we must dispel the growing idea that one group is
more important than the other: that gays are more important than cissexuals, women are more
important than men, people of color are more important than white people, transgenders are more
important than cisgenders, and so on. When there is discrimination, there is justification for a
safe space. But when there is simply discomfort, there is simply an opportunity for growth—for
strengthening those roots.
It’s time we try not to censor the language and actions of others because they are deemed
wrong and fundamentally immoral and instead get to the root of the problem: teach our students
and our society about why such things are unacceptable, and then leave it up to them to decide
whether or not to continue in offensive behavior. Teach them about cultural importance and
various religious beliefs, about the lives of those different from theirs. Expand their horizons.
Then, leave it to the students to learn what is right, what is wrong, and to call each other out. Let them be their own enforcers. After all, it is their right given by the First Amendment to express and to say what they want, and it is the right of others to use that same amendment to speak out
against them. We can’t control people’s words and actions, but we can try to guide them in the
direction of public awareness.
Safe spaces are growing too far from their main purpose: recovery. And we know this.
We know when they have gone too far. As exemplified by that episode of Grown-Ish, they have
gone too far when oppressed groups searching for empowerment act to disregard the
empowerment of other oppressed groups or oppress the empowered groups. Once we can end
that, we can end the disconnect, and perhaps reconnect.
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Higher Ed, 21 Mar. 2017, www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/03/21/easily-caricatured-
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College (Yale) Students on Halloween Costumes.” Fire, Fire, 9 Nov. 2015,
Crockett, Emily. “Safe Spaces, Explained.” Vox, Vox, 5 July 2016, www.vox.com/2016/7/5/111
Gebreyes, Rahel. “Yale Student Weighs In On Controversy Over Halloween Costumes.” The
Huffington Post, The Huffington Post, 12 Nov. 2015,
Harris, Malcolm. “What’s a ‘Safe Space’? A Look at the Phrase’s 50-Year History.” Splinter,
Splinter News, 11 Nov. 2015, splinternews.com/what-s-a-safe-space-a-look-at-the
Kratsas, Gabrielle. “20 Great Value Colleges with Safe Spaces.” Great Value Colleges, Feb.
Krieger, Helen, and Emily Miller. “Safe and Sound.” Grown-Ish, season 1, episode 11,
Freeform, 7 Mar. 2018.
Pickett, RaeAnn. “Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces Are Necessary.” Time, Time, 31 Aug.
Rose, Flemming. “Safe Spaces on College Campuses Are Creating Intolerant Students.” The
Huffington Post, The Huffington Post, 12 June 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/
Schapiro, Morton. “I’m Northwestern’s President. Here’s Why Safe Spaces for Students Are
Important.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 15 Jan. 2016,
Vivanco, Leonor, and Dawn Rhodes. “U. of C. Tells Incoming Freshmen it Does Not Support
‘Trigger Warnings’ or ‘Safe Spaces’.” Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune, 26 Aug. 2016,