Defining “Safe Space”
For a period of time, these few sentences flooded my newsfeed on Facebook. I saw innumerable statutes from young, black student activists and our allies publicly claiming solidarity with the students at Mizzou, whose lives were literally being threatened by their fellow peers and, less conspicuously, by apathetic faculty members.
I remember, at the peak of the protest, heading to my African American studies class at Washington University in St. Louis, expecting it to just be another normal day of class. However, to my surprise, we didn’t discuss the readings at all. The only thing that the teacher believed was relevant at the time was discussing the events at Mizzou. Thus, I spent the entire class period listening to testimonies by upperclassmen who had experienced instances on WashU’s campus where they did not feel safe exclusively due to the color of their skin. I listened to one classmate talk about the time she was interrogated by campus police after calling them for help in the early hours of the morning when she realized she was locked out of her dorm. I was appalled by the testimony of another student who was verbally assaulted by a teacher after she argued that it was probably not the best idea to take a tour of inner city St. Louis just to “understand how poor people lived.” I was disgusted by a testimony from a male student who was asked to listen to a rap written by his non-black student peers that were riddled with the derogatory epithet, nigger. These testimonies (along with many others) brought tears to my eyes and the eyes of my fellow peers.
I left the class feeling as though it were my duty to advocate for legitimate safe spaces in the classroom (including my African American studies class) and across campus. However, the next class period it was back to business as usual. Despite a student protest, the administration at WashU, which is only a few hours from Mizzou, did not make a statement. The obligatory #concernedstudent statuses gradually disappeared and were rendered virtually obsolete after a few weeks. When the news stations stopped reporting on Mizzou, I knew the issue had become “old” news and would likely no longer be discussed; as predicted, America fell silent. I was horrified. The racial threats that black students bore at Mizzou were not isolated, but rather they are emblematic of the racial environment on most college campuses. The reality for most students of color is that the classroom serves as a site of violent exclusion. Our language, our history, and our voices are often either silenced or ostracized in academia. This constitutes a form of violence. In the words of Katherine Mckittrick, it is time to start asking ourselves, “who[m] does silence protect and who[m] does silence make safe and who[m] does silence erase?
If you do not know the answer to that question, then maybe this story will help you figure it out. About a month after the student protesters were silenced at Mizzou, I attended a floor meeting concerning diversity in my dorm. Most students complained or made jokes throughout the entire meeting, making me feel as though my experience as a black student did not matter. I, for the most part, was able to brush off the comments made by my peers, but I could not shake one particular comment. When the mediator for the discussion inquired if people had any particular thought on white privilege, a young, white male decided he wanted to make a comment. He essentially went on to say that he believes white privilege exists, but he also believes that victim privilege exists. I could not stop myself from rolling my eyes, but I managed to bite my tongue before I could shout, “Victim privilege is a fucking oxymoron!” Instead, I tried to raise my hand as calmly as possible. When the mediator called on me, I decided to direct my comment directly to the student who just spoke instead of the group. Because the group discussion was supposed to be a “safe” space, I knew I had to remain politically correct. I do not even remember what I said; I solely recall telling him that I respectfully disagree. Thereafter, the mediator made a short comment, and we moved on to the next topic of discussion. Sigh.
A few weeks later his comment was still on my mind, so I decided to pull him to the side. I was completely direct with him, as I essentially told him that I found his comment during the diversity meeting to be extremely offensive. He was taken aback of course, so I asked if he would explain what he meant before. He told me that he feels that minority students on college campuses, especially in social activists spaces, are always claiming the victim, and that constitutes victim privilege. I have never heard something so absurd in my entire life. Well, maybe I have. But the point is that he believed what he said was completely logical. Since I was outside the bounds of a “safe” space, I was finally able to say what I had to prevent myself from saying a few weeks before—“Victim privilege is not a thing. It’s a fucking oxymoron. Of course people ‘claim’ victim at college, because of it essentially the only space where our voices have a chance of legitimately being heard.” Or, so I thought. Nevertheless, I refused to be silenced. To my surprise, he actually seemed to understand me and even apologized. His response, despite my lack of “political correctness,” solidified something I had realized through the events and coverage of Mizzou. For most students, the classroom is not “safe.” Pretending that the classroom serves as a “safe” space is extremely destructive, as it prevents the opportunity for constructive dialogue. If we eradicate the notion of a safe space, students of color may actually begin to see it that way.