It’s back-to-school time. Students are returning to campus, and intellectual inquiry is ramping up once again. So let’s try a little thought experiment…
Let’s say I’m about to start my senior year at Average State University. I haven’t been what you’d call an academic standout, but I’ve applied myself increasingly over the past three years, built an honorable transcript, and my degree (now on the horizon) should justify the mountain of debt my parents and I have accumulated.
I came to good old ASU from an equally average high school where the majority of students shared my white middle-class roots. There was, however, a substantial minority presence, and so I was acquainted with many kids of other ethnic extractions. I played sports on teams that were racially mixed, participated in extra-curricular activities that included faces and names of wide cultural diversity.
But, during three years at ASU I’ve found myself confronted with the accusation that my white European background gives me certain privileges which black people and members of other minorities don’t enjoy. I found this a rather unsettling idea at first, and somewhat hard to accept. But the claim was presented with great earnestness — indeed, it was repeated throughout an astonishing range of lectures, readings and class discussions.
Eventually, I came to grasp the point its proponents were trying to make. For instance, I was aware of the so-called “driving-while-black” situation, which appears to be quite common. I realized that, being white, I was never stopped by policemen while driving through neighborhoods in which they assumed I didn’t belong. And I had to admit that, although I didn’t really feel privileged, I was free of certain societal burdens which others might have to bear.
Yet, I’ve endured so many negative remarks about my ethnicity that it’s all become rather depressing. And I wonder if there couldn’t be some place on campus where I might find respite from these unnerving attitudinal challenges.
I know about the Safe Spaces movement, which seeks to provide shelter from distressing thoughts and so-called microaggressions. Might there be such a space for me?
Colleges defend the practice of providing these soothing accommodations for their students. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, laid out the rationale for Safe Spaces as…
“places where students from marginalized groups can come together to feel comfortable discussing their experiences and just being themselves.”
To tell you the truth, I’m feeling a little marginalized after the verbal assaults of these last three years. I could stand to just be myself and discuss my experiences with someone sympathetic.
But then, maybe the occasional hour in a Safe Space isn’t really enough. Maybe there’s a more comprehensive arrangement that would suit me even better. Maybe what I need is a place to live away from all that academic universalism. My finances don’t permit an off-campus apartment, unfortunately. So maybe there ought to be a dormitory — or even just a floor in one of the residence halls — that’s set aside for students like me.
To be sure, I don’t want anything that smacks of Eurocentric superiority. I get that higher education is committed to cultural egalitarianism. And dealing with so many people from so many different backgrounds is one of the great things about going to a university.
Of course, a lot of schools do provide separate ethnic clubs and events. Some — such as Cal State, Berkeley, Connecticut and others — even provide exclusive housing for their African American students. If it makes those kids feel more comfortable and affirmed, freeing them from the tensions of a mixed campus, can’t I have some place to escape the resentments generated by this white privilege everybody tells me I’ve got?
Okay, that’s the hypothesis behind our little thought experiment. I believe I’ve made a pretty good theoretical case for why white students might want their own Safe Spaces or ethnically designated housing.
So how do you think the average Dean of Students would react to my request?
Naturally, that question is purely rhetorical. Because you know as well as I do that no college or university would tolerate an organization or facility reserved exclusively for whites. And the reason has to do as much with history as it does with ideology.
The explanation which would be offered (pretty much word-for-word) by any college official is…
White European culture has dominated America both economically and socially. It identifies what constitutes the mainstream and thus determines the path to acceptance and success. Therefore, creating an accommodation for whites that excludes people of different racial or cultural backgrounds is discrimination in its essence.
You may agree or disagree with this contention. Nevertheless, it is the premise on which our understanding of ethnic justice (not to mention the Civil Rights Movement) has been based for the better part of a century.
Implicit in it, however, is the assumption that people who aren’t of white European extraction want to be included — that they define acceptance and success in the same way, and wish to follow the same path.
I recall the late 1960s when ethnic pride was a rallying point. Black students may have marched around in their distinguishing afros and dashikis shouting, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” But separatism, as an ideal, was mostly the province of Black Muslims and a handful of radical fringe groups. The main thrust of campus activism then was knocking down barriers that kept minorities out of the mainstream.
What about now? Is that still true in the racially charged campus atmosphere of today?
There is nothing inherently wrong with people of like characteristics or like interests wishing to be together — and, consequently, setting themselves apart from those who are different. The Constitution guarantees the right of free association, and people tend to gravitate toward others whom they identify as similar to themselves.
Even on the most ideologically preoccupied campuses this sort of organic self-selection happens all the time. It’s in the nature of human beings, and it meets very elemental human needs.
But it only passes ethical muster when it’s private and voluntary. Colleges and universities create a moral contradiction when they act in their institutional capacity to fund or facilitate these segregated arrangements. They may eventually find they’ve created a legal one as well.
The Safe Spaces movement has drawn a good deal of mockery for what’s seen as insulating “fraidy-cat” young people from challenging ideas. Criticism of separate housing is mounting as well.
In California, where several schools in the State University system have set aside black dorms, disapproval is especially sharp. A question asked by Tim Donnelly, a former state assemblyman, is typical…
“What’s next?” Donnelly has been quoted as asking. “Are we gonna have Hispanic only, white only? Using tax payer dollars to segregate society, I think is probably offensive to everyone.”
The premise that serves as the basis of ethnic justice (as described above) has been supported by a broad popular consensus. Support isn’t always enthusiastic. Attempts to speed up social progress through practices like affirmative action put the consensus under strain from time to time. But overall, the public has given its assent, and so the premise has held.
However, consensus is seriously undermined by official sponsorship of minority exclusivism, when everybody knows that white exclusivism would never be tolerated. Such inconsistency creates the perception — and ultimately the reality — of injustice.
You can’t have it both ways.
You can’t insist that the white world must be open to everyone, while you place officially sanctioned fences around special minority preserves.
There is no Safe Space from fairness.
Here’s a link to Brown University President Christina Paxson’s rationale for Safe Spaces in the Washington Post…
And one to coverage of the controversy over ethnic-designated housing in the University of California system, by a local CBS-affiliated TV station…
According to The New York Times, objections to the Safe Spaces movement is beginning to cut noticeably into alumni giving…
The Times has also gotten onto some backlash building over diversity training at the University of Wisconsin. One state senator summed up the feeling quite succinctly…
“‘If only the taxpayers and tuition-paying families had a safe space that might protect them from wasteful UW System spending on political correctness,’ State Senator Stephen L. Nass, a Republican, said in a statement issued by his office, urging his fellow lawmakers to vote against [a proposed educational] appropriation.”…
As if poor Christina Paxson didn’t have her hands full trying to justify Safe Spaces, Campus Reform draws attention to the newest expression of gender sensitivity on the Brown University campus: tampons and sanitary pads in the men’s rooms…
“The initiative is intended to communicate the message that ‘pads and tampons are a necessity, not a luxury,’ and that not all people who menstruate are women.”