One of my professors said something to me that I hated when I first heard it. He said, “learning spaces cannot be safe spaces.”
I resisted that concept initially, because it seemed counterintuitive and unfair. I should always be able to ensure that my classroom, that the online groups where I moderate, that meetings with my clients, are safe spaces. What is a safe space except where you go to escape the pain and discrimination or pressures of a diverse world where your identity is marginalized or discriminated against? Why can’t I offer my students or clients or constituents a chance to be comfortable, even if only for an hour or two at a time, while we work on their problems or education? Of course I can be a teacher and someone who provides a safe space. That’s my job.
I have realized over the last few years working as an educator, blogger, behavioralist, community organizer, etc., that my professor was right. Learning and growth often requires discomfort, and by promising that you will provide your learners with a safe space, you’re either lying, or denying them the chance to learn.
A safe space is a valuable thing. A safe space is a place – online, or in person – where you know that you will feel comfortable and heard. Where the people around you have had similar experiences to you, or who will validate the pain and frustration that you feel in other places. It’s not a place to argue or question. It’s not a place to say “sure, that’s how you feel, but have you considered why the person you interacted with made those choices that hurt you?” or “what is your responsibility to do differently?” A safe space is a place where you finally get to relax, be understood, not have to explain yourself.
A place of learning isn’t that. In a place of learning, you often have to explain yourself during discussions. You need to provide your point of view, and back it up. You need to be critical of yourself, and not academically lazy. If you screw up in a place of learning, your educator and co-learners should call you in, and provide the space to change. Being corrected is painful. It’s uncomfortable. It often requires you to change your worldview, even if that worldview is just “someone who would never hurt someone else.”
When you promise your learners/constituents/clients a “safe space,” what you’re saying is that you won’t require them to go through the discomfort of changing.
Now, I’m not saying that places of learning should be a toxic free-for-all. You can and *should* say that your place of learning will be free from harassment and discrimination. That learners will be believed and that their feelings will be validated. That they won’t be belittled or attacked. You absolutely have a responsibility as an educator, moderator, community organizer, clinician, etc. to make sure that everyone is behaving is responsible and respectful ways towards their fellow learners. But promising a safe space for *all* students would mean, say, telling a Black woman that she can’t call out a White man for his microagressions and internalized racism, because that would violate your classroom as a safe space for him.
We know from studying intersectional feminism that various marginalized identities interact with each other, and create difficulties in our society for anyone who isn’t White, cis gender, straight, allosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, Christian, financially stable, etc. Any place of education is going to have people who are not from exactly one set of marginalized identities, in precisely the same way. So it’s somewhere between possible and likely that in the course of education, someone with privilege in some area is going to hurt or harm someone without it in that area. As the leader of that place, it’s your responsibility to both show support for the harmed person *as well as* give the person who harmed them a chance to learn from that experience. It’s a tough act to juggle. It can make marginalized learners feel like your classroom isn’t safe for them. It sucks, and it’s a problem, but it’s true. Your classroom isn’t a safe space, and you have a responsibility for all of your learners, even those that screw up or act incorrectly.
Everyone should have access to a safe space that is tailored for their identity. I sometimes need the chance to just be with queer people. To not have my queer perspective questioned, or to hear “I just can’t identify with you – can you find another example that resonates with me?” I sometimes need to be around only Jewish people (especially around Christmas), so I can rage and cry and feel yucky without worrying about hurting the feelings of someone who really values Christmas. Sometimes, I need to be around only White people, so I can express confusion or ask for help confronting my own racism without making it the problem of a person of color, or exhausting them with my need for education. I support, build, and encourage safe spaces. But what I can’t do is promise that places of learning are safe spaces. I won’t lie, and I won’t deny anyone the right to learn.
I recognize this as controversial, and I want to remind you that I think places of learning should be free from harassment, discrimination, bigotry, attack, etc. But I can’t call my classroom a “safe space”. It would be a disservice.