Politics & Policy

Harvard Student’s Op-Ed: Our School’s ‘Safe Space’ Isn’t Safe Enough

Sorry, but a totally "safe space" is actually impossible.

A student at Harvard University published an op-ed on Wednesday complaining that her school’s “safe spaces” are just not safe enough.

According to Madison E. Johnson, her time spent in the “safe space” was really great at first — there were “massage circles,” “deep conversations,” and “times explicitly delineated for processing and journaling.”  But then it all changed.

First, one of her fellow safe-spacers asked her if she was “a full black” — and then a white poet got on stage and said “the n-word a few times.”


Johnson then went into an in-depth discussion of what a “safe space” is supposed to be like, explaining that some people would define it as somewhere they can be themselves without being judged, while others would say “all it takes is for everyone to try really hard not to say anything obviously prejudiced.”

“For me, a safe space is one in which I feel that I can express all aspects of my identity without feeling that any one of those aspects will get me (including, but not limited to) judged, fired, marginalized, attacked, or killed,” she wrote.

But here’s the thing. If you look at it that way, couldn’t that white student say that she wanted to come to a safe space to read her n-word poem without being “judged?”   

“I’m realizing ’safe space’ might mean different things for different people,” she wrote.

Yep. One student might consider a “safe space” one where she can use the n-word freely without fearing judgment, and another might consider it a place where she can be certain that she won’t have to hear it. Johnson’s own definition of a “safe space” actually sounds less “safe” than many places in the regular public sphere, where people generally ascribe to established social norms such as, you know, “don’t use racial slurs.”

#related#But what about that other interpretation of a “safe space,” one where people try as hard as they can not to say anything offensive? Well, even aside from the fact that this creates misconceptions about the real world and keeps students from developing the skills that they will need to live there, even this kind of “safe space” couldn’t really really work either. Sure, people could try to not say anything “obviously prejudiced,” but considering how many things people get offended by these days, I’d bet that plenty of people would still leave upset. After all, every day, more and more seemingly innocuous things are being declared “offensive:” Hoop skirts. Maracas. Friday the 13th. And the list goes on and on.

Johnson does acknowledge the problems with “safe spaces” throughout her piece, but ultimately concludes that we need to do something to solve them because “safe spaces are important.”

“I don’t know what we can do to change it, but openly acknowledging that some of the safe spaces at nice, progressive Harvard aren’t all that safe for some of us sounds like a good start,” she wrote.

I have a better idea. We need to realize that — aside from underneath a blanket in your bedroom with earplugs in — there’s no place where you can be sure no one will judge or offend you. That isn’t how the world works, and when we give students the illusion that it does, we run the risk of them becoming too wimpy to handle hanging out anywhere else.


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