The first thing that may come to mind when one hears the word “safe space” is an enclosed area, one that is stereotypically free from any potential harm or anything threatening. Generally, after a little thought, a safe space is thought to be a place where ideas, attitudes, and behaviors can be expressed without any feeling of judgement or oppressiveness placed on the expresser. It is a space that can be safe both physically and emotionally, inwardly and outwardly. But is that the end? Does a safe space have to be limited in definition to a certain area, or can it be universal? Is the Northwestern campus a safe space for everyone?
Some may think the true definition of a safe space is confined to one area, or “space” for people to essentially escape to, but should instead be more of a mindset that people are aware of. For example, some may consider the Black House on campus to be a safe space from their day-to-day routine at Northwestern University, or NU. As Black students on campus, the Black House serves as a haven of like-mindedness, where we can find others who understand and share in our struggle, or maybe just relax after a long day. We just feel welcome there. But the question isn’t whether the Black House is an ideal safe space because people can escape to it.
The question is why NU can feel like an unsafe space at times.
Cheron Mims, a junior studying Anthropology in Weinberg, has been vocal in the past about racism on campus and comfortability at Northwestern, two issues that directly decide whether a space is “safe” or not.
“I think that a lot of times people say safe space and mean that you can say what you want and not get attacked, which is fine,” said Mims. “But at the same time a safe space is where you can say what you mean or express yourself without being condemned about your thoughts.”
Mims has experienced firsthand how it is to feel threatened in an unsafe space. One person claimed that she only attends Northwestern because of affirmative action and the other, an alumni, told her over the phone at Phonathon that he doesn’t give money to black people. A safe space was nonexistent at those moments.
“The question isn’t whether the Black House is an ideal safe space because people can escape to it. The question is why NU can feel like an unsafe space at times.”
A conventional safe space that reaches all audiences touches more people and connects more ideas than designated safe spaces. Change in the perspectives of people who don’t understand or don’t care about others who are disadvantaged or silenced comes from exposure and education. Creating an environment that makes it easier for people to learn and care about the expression of those who have something to say has a multiplier effect. The more people that encourage a friendly expressive environment leads to more expression, which is more exposure for more people.
An ideal safe space is one that isn’t necessarily limited in terms of location. Designated safe space can be valuable, and maybe even stress-relieving, but the issue of expressiveness outside that zone still exists. If a person doesn’t feel comfortable sharing their views, culture, or their identity because the environment poses consequences for such actions, that is a problem. If someone purposely enters an environment and causes it to be unsafe through abrasive comments, lack of tolerance for a difference of opinion, or oppressive behavior, that is a problem. Not everybody agrees on the same thing, however, it should be unanimous to believe that everyone deserves the ability to unashamedly present themselves in any space.
“A space where you feel validated, where you can feel loved and supported, yes that is important,” Mims said. “But I feel like it kind of compensates or validates unsafe spaces around it. I don’t want that to be a thing.”
No one on campus should be afraid to be who they are in front of everybody else. The diverse cultures that we have on campus are segregated and things must change if we are to celebrate each other for who we are. If we can create that safe space, or to be more clear, a safe environment, then we are that much closer to understanding and true free expression.