Who Really Uses Safe Spaces Anyway?
Safe spaces—locations where people feel safe from discrimination or other harms—have been criticized as wasting scarce resources, promoting segregation in universities and workplaces, and even threatening free speech. Accordingly, in 2016, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill to cut all funding for safe spaces at the University of Tennessee. Student newspapers at universities such as Stanford and Amherst have called for their removal as well. But what are safe spaces exactly, and who would lose out if they were removed?
Safe spaces can include a wide range of buildings or rooms dedicated to particular groups, such as cultural centers, ethnicity-themed dormitories, or LGBTQ+ and women’s spaces. They sometimes provide resources to groups that have been historically disadvantaged or underrepresented. Other times, they are simply spaces where members of those groups can go without fear of prejudice or emotional and physical harm.
In our research, we wanted to examine whether these spaces provide psychological benefits to underrepresented students of color at the University of Washington (UW). As in the case at many universities in the U. S., African American, Latinx, and Native American individuals are underrepresented at UW relative to the population of the United States. At the time the studies were conducted, African American, Latinx, and Native American individuals comprised 3.1%, 5.5%, and 1.3% of the UW student population, respectively, but 14%, 13%, and 1.7% of the overall U. S. population. As a result of underrepresentation and the prejudice they experience, underrepresented students of color face chronic concerns about belonging at colleges and universities, so interventions to help them feel welcome are crucial in these settings.
In looking at potential benefits of safe spaces, we weren’t interested in the direct benefits of building community and using the physical space. Instead, we were interested in studying whether the mere existence of safe spaces provides symbolic and psychological benefits even to students who don’t intend to use them.
We conducted four studies that capitalized on the construction of a new ethnic cultural center (http://depts.washington.edu/ecc/) and a new student union building on the University of Washington campus. We contacted underrepresented students of color and asked them to read a statement that announced the construction of either the ethnic cultural center or the student union building. In some studies, we also told participants that the building would not be completed until five years in the future (or six months in one study) so that they wouldn’t anticipate using the space themselves. In other studies, we asked the students whether they anticipated using the space to see whether the psychological benefits were restricted to those who planned to use it. We then asked participants questions about their sense of belonging on campus, their academic engagement, and how much the university valued people of color.
Across the studies, underrepresented students of color who read about the ethnic cultural center experienced a stronger sense of belonging, a greater perception that the university valued them, and stronger feelings of academic engagement than students who read about the general student union. And, importantly, these benefits occurred even among students who reported that they wouldn’t use the space themselves.
Although safe spaces may appear to benefit only a subset of underrepresented students who use them, they are an important signal of belonging and facilitate academic engagement for a broader range of students. Viewing them as mere gathering places overlooks their psychological value.
Safe spaces are common on U.S. campuses, but cutting funding for them could send a cue that underrepresented students aren’t valued. In other countries, where these spaces are less common, creating safe spaces on campuses may provide an important source of belonging to students who often feel left out.
For Further Reading
Kirby, T.A., Tabak, J.A., Ilac, M., & Cheryan, S. (2020). The symbolic value of ethnic spaces. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(7), 867-878.
Teri A. Kirby is a Senior Lecturer of Psychology at the University of Exeter in the UK. Her research focuses on diversity, identity, and inclusivity.