Safe Space as Resistance

Two weeks ago, a student at Duke University hung a noose outside of the student commons building. Earlier in the month, two-dozen students at the University of Oklahoma fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon were videotaped reciting a racist chant about lynching. On March 18, Martese Johnson, an honor committee student at UVA had his head bashed to the ground by an Alcohol and Beverage Control police officer. These events are not isolated incidents and they are not outliers. They are reflections of a larger, institutionalized culture of systematic persecution that extends beyond college campuses: last Saturday, April 4, Walter Scott was shot eight times, unarmed, by police officer Michael T. Slager. His death was one of 210+ shootings that police have carried out in South Carolina over the past five years that do not have any conviction of law breaking attached to them. The instances of on-campus racism, sexual assault, and homophobia that make the news are not isolated incidents. They are products of the society in which the campus is formed. And for many people, that society is not safe.

Judith Shulevitz’s “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas” fundamentally misses the point about the creation and formation of “safe spaces” on college campuses. The creation of these spaces is not meant to shield students from arguments and ideas that they have not heard and are not used to. Neither is it meant to “infantilize them,” a hugely controversial characterization that in and of itself is neither neutral nor objective. Instead, it is a form of resistance against a de facto culture and way of discourse that constantly bombards students with the ideas and “objective” perspectives that people like Shulevitz insist that they listen to.

This would not be such a bad thing if the students who have led the creation of safe spaces on campus had equal voices in everyday conversations in classrooms, campuses, and the “real world” — but they don’t. Instead, students and the communities and groups they come from already have unequal voice in these conversations, both inside and outside of campus. Beyond that, there is the constant reality of being told both implicitly and explicitly that their life and safety is not important, that they are not wanted, that they are a burden or a threat to the space they occupy. If you are a student for whom this is a reality, these messages can jeopardize your life and safety. And these messages can oftentimes be enough for the people on and around campus who are meant to protect you to give you ten stitches in the head. Other times, these messages allow your perpetrator and his friend to send you threatening and sexually explicit texts in an effort to deter you from reporting your sexual assault.

Most of the safe spaces historically and currently created on campuses are for marginalized groups: people of color, survivors of sexual assault, LGBTQ identifying students, and students with disabilities. There are many ways in which the voices, lives, and humanity of these communities are compromised today, both on and off campuses. The inequalities that these communities face in our society do not arise spontaneously. They are not one-time events. They are created by the current culture that all of us operate in: a culture in which extreme violence and denial of humanity towards these communities is enabled by a set of everyday cultural norms that are often presented as objective or innocuous. Rather, they serve to silence, dehumanize, and de-legitimize these voices. These ideas and norms are often presented as neutral, or objective. It is easy to believe that they are because these norms feel comfortable for the people who benefit from them.

But there is a larger reason why young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot than their white male counterparts. There is a larger reason why there were 2,016 reported instances of anti-LGBTQ violence in 16 states in 2012, 73.1 percent of whom were people of color and 53.8 percent of whom were transgender women. There is a reason why 1 in 5 women is the target of attempted or completed sexual assault as college students, and why less than 5 percent of rapes and attempted rapes of college students are reported to campus authorities or law enforcement.

The people and events that are extreme manifestations of these norms are painted to be the “odd ones out.” The apology statements issued by the national SAE fraternity and the University of Oklahoma put an emphasis on the individuality of the fraternity members, divorcing them from the norm. Expressing “disgust and shock,” and insisting that that behavior would not be tolerated, both organizations quickly refuted any potential implications they may have had in creating environments in which the members of SAE might have thought it permissible to chant that chant.

These are not isolated incidents. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity did not make up their racist chant. They learned it at a national leadership cruise sponsored by the fraternity four years ago. The investigation of Darren Wilson’s police department revealed a cultural norm of racist e-mails.

So the creation of “safe spaces” is not a means of hiding. It is a call to others to realize that the cultural norms most of society is comfortable with, which are often seen as “objective,” lend themselves to an apathy that allows widespread instances of sexual violence against women, institutionalized racism, lack of accommodation for and stigmatization against disabled people, and violence and prejudice against the LGBTQ community.

Interestingly, this call is often met with intense resistance. Many attempts by community members on campuses, in classrooms, and in society to call out and identify the effects of institutionalized racism are thwarted at every level.

Racism alone, as a continuing and present concept, is constantly rejected. This rejection of the suggestion of a mere discussion about ongoing racism is a form of hiding from a “scary” idea — the idea that racism might still be deeply ingrained in our society. It is so prevalent that Robin DiAngelo, a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University, has named it white fragilitya “state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”

This fragility extends to national debates over affirmative action and slavery reparations — the national and individual refusal to consider or even debate the fact that American capital wealth as we know it today has foundational roots in slave labor and continues to benefit from disadvantaging and oppressing people of color.

Debates over affirmative action also refuse to discuss the context in which affirmative action is needed. The fact that its absence as a policy in schools significantly lowers the enrollment of minority students is indicative of a larger system of education and economic empowerment that backs white people and subverts the success of minorities.

Discussions such as Shulevitz’s and those fostered by others that write off arguments behind the creation of safe spaces to be “hypersensitive” or overly politically correct not only fundamentally miss the point of these spaces, but also refuse to acknowledge them or seriously engage with them. They deem them less worthy by categorizing them as overly sensitive — a distinction that suggests that they are unworthy of intellectual engagement.

This categorization is a defense tactic that is often employed against arguments that radically challenge the status quo. It’s hiding from the scariest idea of all — the idea that the way in which we as members of society lead our everyday lives, and the passive continuation of the status quo, may in fact be malicious to many people in ways we do not realize or do not want to fully acknowledge.

This is also a discussion that ripples beyond campuses — it is not just academic fodder for hypersensitive feel-gooders. It’s a microcosmic way of challenging the current ways we discuss race, consent, sexuality, and gender in our everyday lives. While there are certainly times where “safe spaces” will be “compromised” in some way in the proceedings of everyday life, being able to create this resistance does not compromise one’s ability to interact with and operate in spaces that are not deemed “safe.” It’s done everyday. It’s nothing new. While those who create safe spaces might not always have the privilege of creating safe spaces of resistance in the future, doing so doesn’t mean that they are likely to come out of the experience unable to handle other situations. It just might mean that someone has finally shown society that much of what we thought to be objective is not only subjective; it’s also deeply harmful to many people.