There’s no such thing as a safe space for everyone
As our country is constantly faced with major cultural shifts — such as the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, the incessant attacks on systems of education and a plethora of other controversial topics that bubble at every conversation’s surface — almost every public institution has made some claim of commitment to being a “safe space” for all who enter it. However, in order to successfully craft legitimately safe spaces, it’s important for both members and facilitators to be in agreement on what “safety” means.
For instance, asserting that a space is safe or that it is one in which members can “feel confident” that they won’t experience exposure to any emotional or physical harm is an inherently exclusive statement — or at least, it should be. One cannot claim to support and welcome the presence and/or perspectives of both an oppressed group and its oppressor. In his 2020 book “Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto,” Kevin Gannon explains why, “Neutrality is a luxury of the comfortable,” and that in these “uncomfortable times,” danger arises when educational spaces attempt to be void of political affiliation.
At every turn, WashU claims to create safe spaces — from administrative emails to orientation group exercises and RA floor meetings — yet rarely do we discuss what rhetoric cannot be allowed in a space that is truly safe. By allowing an intolerant person to feel safe spewing their intolerance, and passing it off as a subjective opinion, you also, by default, choose to make said space unsafe for every group they are attacking. For an environment to be a truly safe space in which no harm is brought to either side, that environment must not entertain “debates” regarding one party’s right to exist. So long as marginalized identities remain politicized, spaces that seek to make them feel safe can never be politically neutral.
The partisan nature of education is far from a recent development. Conservative activism in Texas dating back to the ‘60s calling for more “patriotic” social studies textbooks has led to a still-skewed presentation of history, as the largest national textbook manufacturers modeled their material after these demands. The same version of these textbooks were distributed across the country, spreading a “right-wing, colorblind, heteronormative, nationalist retelling of the American story.” This is still the version of history presented to almost every child in America, including those in more liberal-identifying states.
This has undoubtedly carried over into recent action being taken to mandate “outing” LGBTQ+ students to their families in some Florida school districts following the passing of “Don’t Say Gay” and the excessive banning of texts featuring marginalized groups, making it as clear as ever that politics cannot be separated from education. Likewise, as both exemplified in these recent measures and explored in Gannon’s book, the mere establishment of curricula is a political act, an “assertion of power on behalf of a specific program of knowledge.” Failure to acknowledge this does not mean it does not exist, but borders on conceding to the daunting and intentionally oppressive status quo.
Given the politicization of the personal, we cannot make significant progress toward social equity so long as we agree to compromise or “see both sides” on issues of human rights. Claiming that all perspectives are welcome and valid during first-year orientations and first-week floor meetings is not conducive to creating a safe space. Similarly, administrative emails that seek to remain neutral on the issue of abortion and bodily autonomy while claiming to foster a supportive community are necessarily contradictory. We cannot both uplift marginalized identities and tolerate intolerance. What’s more, those who are willing to make significant partisan changes are causing enormous harm in our silence. When we lack a common consensus of basic morality, the facade of political neutrality (especially in educational spaces) can only do harm. At WashU and beyond, crafting safe spaces must mean being vehemently against their opposition.