Columbia has been quite focused lately on discussing the value of safe spaces. The subject is close to Everyone Allied Against Homophobia’s collective heart: we run the pink fliering campaign every October and we’re avowed supporters of expanding safe spaces on campus. We’ve just expanded our campaign to businesses in Morningside Heights with our Safe Morningside campaign—look out for the pink sticker at any of the nearly forty businesses in the neighborhood that have signed on. But we also understand that the idea of a safe space is hardly intuitive, and it can be scarcely clearer why they’re necessary.
What is a safe space? Let’s put it like this. Being part of a community—sharing a space with others and maintaining relationships with them—entails taking on certain commitments. The commitments of being a Columbia student are only slightly more exacting than the commitments of being a denizen of New York: They basically boil down to giving each other a certain basic regard as fellow persons. What makes a safe space safe, then, is how entering it entails taking on a more exacting list of commitments: respect, assumption of good will, confidentiality, trust, emotional and psychological support, and freedom from microaggressions, (unintentionally degrading speech or action) as well as macroaggressions threatening physical safety and emotional well-being.
How does this list of commitments compare to that of spaces that aren’t dedicated as safe? Being outside a safe space brings the commitment that we view each other as rational—i.e., simply capable of reasoning well about how to lead our lives. Being inside a safe space, on the other hand, brings the commitment that we view each other as reasonable—as actually going through that reasonable deliberation about our lives. Being outside means I ought not to get in your way as you embark on a project; being inside means I have to make the extra effort to see why something I find foreign, strange, or even threatening matters so much to you. Inside, I can’t write your projects off as silly, immoral, or gross. I commit myself to supporting you all the way—even if you make choices I wouldn’t make.
All this shows that we use a very expansive definition of what it means to be safe. As we’ve often found ourselves explaining to business owners over the past few months, physical safety is safety very narrowly construed, and it’s closely related to the mistake of assuming that the only harm anyone can suffer is physical harm. Using derogatory or pejorative terms, making snide remarks, or making certain assumptions about others all violate safety in one way or another: They make the object of the sneer or the slight feel unwelcome and degraded. So when we say “safe,” it’s shorthand for “safe to be me, and to avow myself for what I am.”
Don’t kid yourself—sneers, slights, and threats all happen here, too. Some professor in a language class corrects a student’s grammar on an assignment, assuming the student couldn’t have possibly wanted to talk about his boyfriend, someone calls another student a dyke as she crosses Broadway heading to class, yet another finds himself glanced at or even questioned when he uses the sex-segregated bathroom that fits the gender by which he identifies. You might not see them, but for many of us they’re commonplace—and to deny that they exist is just to make invisible the invidious treatment that so often surrounds us. And sometimes these very acts stand between us and a rich and fulfilled life—a life wherein we have support, friends, and community, and wherein our identities are wellsprings of pride, not sources of shame.
Safe spaces—the Stephen Donaldson Lounge, the Intercultural Resource Center, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the special interest community Q House, and every dorm room and window on this campus that sports a pink flier—offer just that opportunity. If that’s something that anyone would hope to deny another student—a student who may have been bullied back home or even experienced discrimination here—he ought to think a whole lot more about what it means truly to feel safe.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in classics and philosophy. He is the treasurer of Everyone Allied Against Homophobia.