A Question of the Merits of the “Safe Space”

By Katherine Robinson ’23

It is no secret that the marginalized groups within our society need their own spaces. They need places where they can assemble and be free of widespread stereotypes and societal judgement. In these affinity groups, people can find comfort and acceptance as they learn more about themselves and their respective communities. Now, more than ever, safe spaces for individuals from underrepresented communities are being created and supported. At face value, this reality could be seen as an incredible way to solve issues of isolation, underrepresentation, and underappreciation. However, a problem arises when these people leave their safe spaces and go out into the world where their blanket of security is lifted and they are back to square one. “They are marginalized from other community events and programming. Community leaders find reasons to question the legitimacy of POC groups and may interrogate organizers about what exactly we’re doing when we get together” (Blackwell 2018). This begs the question of whether or not these safe spaces can ever truly fulfill their intended purpose or if they end up leading marginalized folks to dead ends. We need to consider whether we should view the act forming or joining a POC group as an end in itself or whether we should instead embrace the notion that through POC group participation we can achieve even more noble ends of building confidence, identifying synergies, and raising awareness. In this way, we can then emerge from these groups better equipped to confidently contribute to the greater society.

Here at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, underrepresented people are offered a variety of culturally-specific safe spaces. The Smith Undergraduate Student Association houses a plethora of groups for women and people of color. Members can attend group sessions and events with the hope of finding a safe space to grow and develop as business professionals. For some students, this layout is effective. “When you are in these groups, you are more likely to have similar values as group members. I believe this can help strengthen the group itself, as well as using those values to combat injustice and discrimination,” says freshman Anar Shah. On the other hand, this method leaves a bit to be desired. “The intention is good, but sometimes the exclusivity is kind of overwhelming. I can see some students feel a little out of place in them,” says freshman Nicole Chen. In dissecting both students’ arguments, it is clear to see that the goodwill and merit of these groups is apparent, but what could be done to combat the risks of over-exclusivity and the continuity of the mistreatment and underrepresentation of marginalized peoples?

As the purpose of these affinity groups is to both offer comfort to marginalized people and to educate the dominant society on their importance, perhaps more could be done to take the inclusive mindsets fostered within these groups and project them out into the dominant society. Karina Polanco, a writer for the Columbia Spectator writes, “It is natural and necessary to have people that we can relate to, but it’s also important to find a balance between that and stepping out of our comfort zone.” These organizations cannot educate those who do not identify with any sort of marginalization or other affinity groups by keeping to themselves. Rather, they might be better served to turn outwards and recruit the help of other organizations and non-marginalized individuals. When asked about the possible effect of the uniting of affinity groups Nicole Chen said, “I think there should be a balance of both. Solely doing one doesn’t get really far. There will be a time where the message doesn’t get through as well.” On that note, though it is important that people stay true to their respective identities, continuing to operate in these exclusive spaces alone does not result in a change of their overall place in society. The synergistic sum of their collective efforts far outweighs what they can do alone.

Works Cited

Blackwell, Kelsey. “Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People.” The Arrow, 16 Aug. 2019, arrow-journal.org/why-people-of-color-need-spaces-without-white-people/

Polanco, Karina. “The Limits of Racial Affinity Groups.” Columbia Daily Spectator, 28 Jan. 2016, www.columbiaspectator.com/opinion/2016/01/28/limits-racial-affinity-groups/

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