Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Un-Safe Idea Behind Safe Spaces

An inclusive meeting quickly turned exclusive. The Ryersonian reported that on March 11, two white students were kicked out of a Racialized Students' Collective meeting because they were "not victims of racialization." The Racialized Students' Collective is part of the Ryerson Students' Union and is self described as opposed all "forms of racism and work towards community wellness for (Ryerson University) students,” along with the goals of “building an anti-racist network” and “fostering an anti-racist environment through campus-wide services, campaigns and events." Why would a group promoting racial tolerance enforce racial intolerance? It's because the meeting was a safe space, with the RSU coordinator stating, "We don’t want (racialized) students to feel intimidated, that they can’t speak their mind because they are afraid of being judged or something they say might be used against them."

It is behind this dramatic backdrop, that fourth year journalist Aeman Anasari decided to write her opinion piece, "Ethnic Minorities Deserve Safe Spaces Without White People." She outlines that there are two sides to the story but as we can read from the title her view is apparent, believing "marginalized groups have a right to claim spaces in the public realm where they can share stories about the discrimination they have faced without judgment and intrusion from anyone else." Like the Racialized Students' Collective, she shares the opinion that if you are of a certain race, ethnicity or gender you carry the burden of being marginalized. Who cares if you have to do a journalistic report on this Racialized Students' Collective meeting. Who cares if you are genuinely interested in hearing stories of those who feel they are being marginalized by society. If you're white you have no plight.

For Anasari the problem wasn't the exclusion of white students but that the meeting was not labeled a safe space, and if it was shooing the white students away would not be as controversial. In fact the embarrassment faced by the white students, in Anasari's words is "isn't as important as the other issues involved here." So what are these issues? (To my white readers I suggest you not read the rest of this post. Below is my safe space and they include ideas that are anything but safe.)

Safe spaces are where issues of oppression are discussed such as African nations and the modern prolonged effects of colonization. It's like history class only without any class. You would have to sit in a circle and have people like Anasari say, "the West has a history of oppressing people of colour: from Africans who were enslaved and brought to the New World, to native people whose land was stolen by Europeans." Due to this historical oppression, privileged people can't be there. Anasari explains that, "the presence of any kind of privilege puts unnecessary pressure on the people of colour to defend any anger or frustrations they have, to fear the outcome of sharing their stories." You're right Anasari, who wants to defend their story when they're too busy offending others.

Now I have three reasons why this is (to use a progressive intellectual term) problematic.
First, it is offensive to anyone who believes in actual racial equality, and due to the exclusion of white students it is reinforcing a racially segregated atmosphere. I am not saying that there is no such thing as racism. This is a good example of that. I am not saying that this group should not exist or should not have their meetings, but the idea of safe spaces is not a safe one.

More importantly, I previously mentioned the progressive stack and how using that framework of thinking college organizations are doing more harm than good. Colleges are institutions that are for the exchanging of ideas in a (more or less) public forum. If the Racialized Students' Collective used this public forum to discriminate then they're a mockery of the educational system that works diligently to ensure that every student is able to critically analyze themselves and the world around them, to realize their biases, and formulate an argument for their ideas that is strong and based upon evidence. Safe spaces are a diametrical opposite to institutions of higher learning. Notice that within the soft confines of the safe space you can't really question anything that anyone says because every experience is valid. Why no questions? As Anasari puts it, "the attendees are trying to move forward by supporting each other and they should not have to defend themselves, they should not fear the consequences of raising their voices." Does Anasari mean to tell me that if you are a strong, independent, proud, non-white college student and you decide to share your own personal experience of turmoil and oppression, you can't answer a question about it? On that note, is this even legal?


My third reason is merely my lingering suspicion in the illegality of this exclusion. If you want a safe space that is private, where you can exclude anyone you want for whatever reason, then it has to be private. If you use any state or federally funded public or college venue for your safe space meeting then it becomes an issue, especially if you are excluding people on the basis of race. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1955) did away with "separate but equal" doctrine and stated, "radical discrimination in public education is unconstitutional," and if you're wondering there is no asterisk saying that this does not apply if within safe spaces. Anasari has a different view, "We understood the people there had a right to privacy. They had a right to collectively work through the challenges society had imposed on them. They had a right to claim parts of the campus, parts of the world, for a few hours in hopes of creating broader social change." I'm fine with this group having a public space to share their ideas, experiences, and feelings, however to say you're an inclusive, anti-racist group then shun those who you feel are more privileged because of race is nothing short of racism.

It is becoming incredibly apparent that when faced with critical questions about how oppression is defined, what does social change mean, or why are safe spaces essential to the college experience, those well-intentioned progressives get defensive and angry. This is because they have never been asked to explain themselves and their ideology in college, public, or private. Students should make social change by asking questions, no matter the consequences or setting. Broader social change starts with rigorous academic inquiry into why society is the way it is using scientific and statistical means. Without this, change is nothing but a progressive buzz-word used to shun those who you deem unworthy. Doesn't that sound like privilege?