Overcoming Racial Tension: Using Student Voices to Create Safe Spaces in the Classroom

Since the election of President Barack Obama, America has been pushing a false narrative of a post-racial society. The continued killings of black and brown youth and heightened racial tension on college campuses prove this narrative is a myth. Race still matters. An academic setting, such as a college classroom, should create opportunities for students to engage with these topics in productive ways. The first step in supporting a more inclusive teaching and learning environment is embracing uncomfortable conversations and challenging the status quo. I refer to this as stomping on eggshells rather than walking on eggshells. Walking on them fails to provide students with the necessary tools to confront controversial issues, whereas stomping on them will directly address the issues going on with and around our students and help them navigate successfully. Michelle Alexander (2015) speaks to this point when she writes, “Today [students] receive little meaningful education about race and its continuing role in our society. Too often students feel discouraged from discussing race in the classroom…If we are ever going to overcome racial inequality in the United States, we first have to be able to talk about it, describe it and know what it is.”

In order to have comfortable and productive conversations around race and racism, students must feel supported and safe. In my classroom, I do not assume I know what “safe” in an academic setting means for my students; therefore, I facilitate a process that allows my students to collectively define what a safe space is to them. This process is particularly important before topics and units that touch on race-related topics, like our social justice unit on police brutality. As an African-American female instructor who teaches to a predominantly white audience, I find that in order for the conversation to be both effective and impactful, it is important the environment is safe for my students and me. Discussing race-related topics is often uncomfortable for students, and doing so in the presence of a black person often increases that discomfort. My emphasis in creating safe spaces is not simply to make students feel comfortable but to create inclusiveness so that both the instructor and students of all ethnicities can offer thought-provoking commentary.

Using student voices

In order to create a safe space with my students, I typically proceed through the following steps. Students are provided the following directions to complete independently:
Define the word safe. In your own words, what does it mean to be safe?
Define the word space. What is it? What does it look like?

Next, I ask my students to engage with their peers to discuss and document their individual responses. I then prompt them to develop a collaborative definition for “safe space.” Below I have included the directions verbatim:
Have a conversation with your surrounding peers about your definitions (place on chart paper). After you have actively engaged in conversation, together, develop a definition for safe space. (What does a safe space look like? What does it feel like? What are the requirements for you to feel safe in a particular space? What are the rules in this space?)

I provide each group with chart paper, which they can then hang around the room. Using chart paper allows the students to display their answers on the board as well as visually identify any overlapping ideas/definitions. More importantly, thinking about the two terms separately emphasizes both the denotative meaning and the connotative power of each word. The following words or phrases often recur: reassured, comfortable, free from harm, physical or mental protection, and secure.

With my students’ group responses displayed on the board, I then facilitate an open discussion. The conversation is based directly on their responses. We unpack what it means to have mental protection in a classroom and explore various ways to feel secure. My primary intent is to encourage my students to think about the importance of being positioned in an environment where ideas can be exchanged and shared freely. Next, I pass out Post-it notes along with the following directions:
Identify when you have felt comfortable sharing your ideas and questions in a class. What happened in those moments to help you feel comfortable? (Facing History, 2015)
Identify when you have had ideas or questions but have not shared them. Why not? What was happening at those moments? (Facing History, 2015)

The questions above were adopted from Facing History and Ourselves (2015), a nonprofit organization that provides resources for educators worldwide to address controversial topics, specifically in history courses. I then divide the board into two categories—Safe and Not Safe. The students then place their Post-it note responses accordingly. They are instructed to omit their names from the Post-it. This permits anonymous sharing of ideas. I then proceed to read aloud various responses, and each response serves as the foundation for discussion. Ultimately, we are creating safe spaces through our exploration of defining what a safe space is.

Safe for students and instructors

The “Creating a Safe Space” activity cultivates a climate where all opinions are respected and students can demonstrate the ability not only to think critically, but also to connect the content discussed to a broader context. More importantly, the sense of community in the classroom is strengthened through the process. My commitment to creating safe spaces has decreased tension in my classrooms, improving discussions and making the overall learning experience more enjoyable—even if my students don’t always agree with each other. Creating safe spaces directly supports and engages various pedagogies. For me specifically this includes social justice pedagogy, hip-hop pedagogy, and popular culture pedagogy. When entering an academic setting, the identities and experiences brought by students and instructor alike should not be ignored. Embracing such differences and seeking to learn from the uniqueness we offer enhances the learning experience for everyone (instructor included) and allows progressive, respectful dialogue to occur.

Kyesha Jennings is an English and literature instructor at Danville Community College.


Alexander, M. (2015) Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from http://www.tolerance.org/supplement/introductionteacher-s-guide

Facing History and Ourselves (2015). Teaching Strategies: Contracting. Retrieved from https://www.facinghistory.org/for-educators/educator-resources/teaching-strategy/contracting