Leaders of student groups such as Columbia Queer Alliance, Muslim Student Association, and GendeRevolution are seeking to construct safe spaces on this campus that hold challenging discussions and lift the limits on expression facing marginalized communities.
Recently, this topic has been approached from two primary camps—one that believes safe spaces lead to coddled college students unprepared to take on the challenges of the real world, and another that believes safe spaces are a means of facilitating conversations that are devalued in order to empower marginalized communities.
At Columbia, a large part of the discussion of safe spaces revolves around the ability to have dissent and intellectual debates that students come to the University to pursue. But students interviewed by Spectator who work to facilitate these spaces on campus said that the opportunity to have rigorous debate is an integral feature of safe spaces.
Concerns that safe spaces coddle and censor
Much of the rhetoric about safe spaces on college campuses expresses concerns that they coddle students, limit freedom of expression, and inhibit intellectual discussions.
Toni Airaksinen, BC '18, said that safe spaces expect an unreasonable amount of forethought about all the possible ways your words could offend.
"Thinking that the world owes you a trigger warning or a safe space and that you should be able to demand other people's compliance with that—you can't do that," Airaksinen said.
She said that although students should continue the fight to reduce prejudice on campus and in the wider world, "safe spaces don't exist—they are a cultural creation."
"There are certain spaces on the far left where I have to watch what I say constantly," she said. "Safe spaces, because they are a culturally bound thing for a certain demographic of people, it makes the space unsafe for you if you don't understand that or subscribe to that, because you'll be seen as an outsider."
Constructing a safe space
This, however, is a faulty characterization of safe spaces, according to leaders of various safe spaces on campus.
In order to avoid misunderstandings about the intention of safe spaces that dissuade newcomers from joining, Asian American Alliance Political Chair Katie Lam, BC '18, said that providing clear guidelines and goals is crucial.
"By managing expectations, you can make it very clear what is likely to come out of the conversation and what is likely to not," Lam said. "And that forces people to narrow their focus to what they want from the conversation."
But proponents of safe spaces also acknowledged their limitations.
"There really isn't anything as a safe space because, inherently, people are problematic," GendeRevolution Treasurer Rowan Hepps Keeney, BC '18, said. "No one has had every experience. People make generalizations, people might say things that are microaggressions. But what makes things a safer space for me is if we're able to talk about things like that and name it.
Graphic by Jessie Liu
Concerns about censorship
While group leaders who work to make safe spaces accepted these limitations, the fear that fostering more safe spaces will lead to an expectation that people excessively police their own words is less reasonable.
But according to Muslim Students Association President Fatima Koli, BC '17, that type of fear is the norm for people in marginalized communities.
Outside safe spaces, "you're always worrying about the ways your words could be appropriated or taken to fit some kind of narrative or some kind of discourse," Koli said.
Or, she said, "We don't talk about [racism] because we're tired of talking about it, and we'll be seen as the angry person of color making everything about race," she said. "So we limit what we say."
"[Inside safe spaces], you're able to just say what you have to say without worrying about how your words will be taken," she said.
In non-safe spaces, on the other hand, marginalized people find themselves limited. Hepps Keeney said that the concern that having more safe spaces will shift this limitation onto the majority is misguided.
"Being politically correct is not about censoring, it's about being conscious of other people," they said. "We should all always be as conscious as we can possibly be to not hurt other people I don't think that's stopping people from delving into issues."
Dissent and rigorous debate in safe spaces
By acknowledging and naming different viewpoints and experiences, students like Koli said that safe spaces become an arena in which to have conversations about uncomfortable or problematic societal trends, including sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, and transphobia.
Koli provided an example of a difficult discussion resting on dissent that occurred in a safe space at an MSA meeting earlier this year over the depiction of Muslims in a BuzzFeed video. Some members approved of the video, while others objected.
She said that people on both sides of the discussion were able to simultaneously affirm the experience and identity of others in the room while getting to the heart of problems with the video's depiction.
"People said respectfully, 'I respect what you have to say, and I understand that, but I think this kind of video does more harm than good,'" Koli said. "And then people started talking about what kind of harm it does, where there's problems."
Validating experiences alongside ideas
In this sense, safe spaces diverge from other arenas for debate—participants are expected to take extra precaution to distinguish between a critique of a person's ideas and their own personal experiences.
Students interviewed said that even within intellectual debates, there must be a recognition of the individual, and often identity-based experience are an inherent part of the conversation.
In non-safe spaces, a common problem with disagreements is that what might appear to be purely idea-based discussion to one side is deeply personal to the other, CQA President Miles Hilton, CC '17, said, citing V-Day's production of "The Vagina Monologues" three years ago with an all self-identified women of color cast and crew as an example.
"The backlash [to the show] was that it was discriminatory against people who weren't women of color," Hilton said.
For non-women of color, the grievance brought forth was "'I've always loved V-day, what do you mean I can't perform?'" Hilton said.
But to those involved in a show that was an intentional carving out of space for women of color, that kind of argument contributes to the devaluing of the needs of women of color.
"To one of the directors who had to listen to this, what that could mean to them is that we don't think that you should have celebrations of yourselves and only yourselves. We don't think you deserve to have celebrations of your own life and sexuality. That is a very personal attack."
A similar problem was addressed last year when Columbia Musical Theatre Society put on a production that featured yellowface. Lam, along with members of Asian Political Collective, had a talkback with the show's creative team to come to an understanding about how it was personally painful.
"It was a very challenging conversation," Lam said. "There were aspects of our experience as Asian Americans that they couldn't deny, but they were struggling with their desire to prioritize the artistic needs over the destructive nature their art has over my experience as a person."
Still, it was a safe space, Lam said, because people were able to express pain that the show caused Asian Americans.
According to Hepps Keeney, an inextricable component of safe spaces is trigger warnings, which can be another instance in which spaces are made safer by taking into consideration the often-overlooked needs of a marginalized group in order to bring these voices into discussions, when used properly.
Hepps Keeney said that asking for trigger warnings is not asking to get out of doing work, nor is it asking not to be confronted with the problems in the real world. Rather, it is a chance to be prepared to have a discussion that might be made difficult because of unique personal experiences.
"I'm in a class called Narrating Rape, which, inherently, everyone in this class knows what they're getting into, so we don't need to trigger-warn sexual assault every time," Hepps Keeney said.
For Hepps Keeney, the class serves as a model for what safe spaces should be—places to have rigorous and respectful conversations on important issues.
"That's a good example of a safe space for me that could very easily be a non-safe space," Hepps Keeney continued. "We're all very conscious of one another and being as respectful as we can possibly be, but also having very deep intellectual conversations about really hard issues and how they affect society."