Much has been said about college campuses and the notion of safe spaces. But, much of what has been said is tangential to the actual issues being raised by students who want colleges to be safe spaces, and consists of straw man and red herring arguments. These are just distraction tactics, meant to move the discussion away from meaningful dialogue, so as to maintain the status quo. To understand why this is happening, some of the misinformation must first be brushed aside, and the history behind the unsafeness of college must be exposed.
What is a safe space? When students say they want their college campus to be a safe space, what are they even saying? The predominate counterargument, used by both progressive and conservative media outlets to decry safe spaces, is that students are demanding the right to never be offended or have their ideas challenged. These pundits and commentators reframe the legitimate preferences of the students into a generalized attack on millennial sensitivities and entitlement. Never mind, of course, that many students aren’t even millennials, and that anti-millennialism just uses new language for the age-old practice of discrediting the youth as naive and unfit to make decisions for themselves.
But, is that what a safe space is? If you listen to the students who are asking for their campuses to be safe spaces, then you cannot conclude they are demanding the right to never be offended or have their ideas challenged. They are demanding to not be traumatized or harrassed. They are demanding that systems of oppression broadly present in society be eliminated on college campuses. Why? Because these practices deter from their ability to learn, and learning is the whole reason they are spending some of their most productive years, early in the primes of their intellectual and physical capabilities, learning from experts and teachers from previous generations.
Let’s talk for a minute about where offense ends and where harassment begins. If you are a sensible person, then you would agree that a college campus should not be a place where racial slurs are used casually by students and staff to demean racial minorities. You would agree that it is not tolerable for a group of white people to assemble in front of the classroom buildings and hurl racial epithets at every passing person of color. You would agree, too, that it would be inappropriate for a group of men to assemble and collectively harass every passing woman with lewd comments.
These may seem like extreme examples, but it is important to remember that it was not always the case that people of color and women could even attend the same colleges as white men, and it was not always the case that, even when they were allowed, that they would be made welcome by inclusive campus policies. The first college to accept both women and African Americans was Oberlin, in 1833. The first Ivy League institution to admit women was Cornell, in 1872. The second was Yale, in 1969, nearly a century later. The U.S. service academies, funded by United States taxpayers, did not admit women until 1976. Since the founding of the University of North Carolina in 1789 as the first public university in the United States, it and hundreds of other public universities, also funded by public money, went decades without admitting women and, in some cases, well over a century before admitting African Americans. It was not until 1972 that Title IX reform was enacted and, while you would no longer expect to see a rally espousing racial violence against minorities or women tolerated on a college campus, you can be sure that someone was harassed today and someone will be harassed tomorrow on a college campus in America.
What is the point of this diversion down memory lane? It is to make the point that students today reflect a diversity unlike that of previous generations. For decades — centuries, even — higher education in the United States has serviced primarily white men. Furthermore, the structure of higher education has been created through a legacy of white male supremacy. Practically every rule and regulation in place on campuses today has its origins in white male privilege. What is considered appropriate behavior or an appropriate topic of discussion has been decided by committees of white men, steeped in a tradition of white maleness. The very structure of higher education, from which degrees are awarded, and how, what class schedules look like, the food that gets served in the cafeteria, the nature of the physical plant, the specifics of the ceremonies, how grades are determined and assigned, and everything else is a reflection of the status and centrality of white men.
If a diverse student body rails against the rules and regulations for proper conduct in class and on campus that were derived in the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries by white men, who is right and who is wrong? The white men and myriad people they pay say they are right, and media around the country, also headed by these same white men and their paid cohorts who were, themselves, a product of this white man’s educational system think these new students are being too sensitive or are too entitled because they’ve grown up with iPhones, participation trophies, and Dora the Explorer.
But who is really the entitled party here? Is it the kids from diverse backgrounds, from places far and wide, who have come to the vaunted institutions of higher education to get the same accreditation and access to resources that white men have had for centuries, or is it the white men who have held all the power, called all the shots, and defined the parameters of higher learning for those same centuries? Who is the party acting out, trying to enforce its way on everyone? Who are the people really making irrational demands to not have their sensibilities offended and not have their ideas challenged?
I think we know the answer. If we lived in a perfectly non-racist, non-sexist, non-classist world, it would hardly matter who makes the decisions, but we do not live in that world. We live in a world where intersectional studies are all too relevant, where Black Lives Matter rallies are all too necessary, and where women are still raped on campuses and are subsequently belittled when they ask that campuses be safe spaces. Instead of insulting and casting judgment down upon students who are speaking with open hearts about their experiences of injustice and harassment, college administrators and faculty should turn to empathy to do their jobs and find ways to empower students to learn. Instead of categorically rejecting millennials as a generation of entitled fools, the media should, instead, listen to what they are actually saying instead of projecting ideas onto them. Instead of digging in against having their ideas about how higher education should be — how it has always been under the watchful eye of white supremacy — challenged, they should open themselves up to dialogue with the students who have offered them the opportunity to be on the right side of history.
Nobody is asking to never be offended. Nobody is asking to never have their ideas challenged. All rational human beings, even these so-called entitled millennials, are well-aware they will be offended and that they are sometimes wrong. Nobody has any expectation otherwise, and nobody is arguing otherwise. It’s just that, when someone uses offensive tactics to harass and disempower someone else, or when someone uses unscientific ideas derived from a position of white male privilege to justify personal attacks against another, they’re not just being offensive; they are participating in and adding to a legacy of oppression and injustice. The only question we need to ask, then, is whether we want our colleges and universities to be a safe space for people to learn or a safe space for people to foment oppression and injustice. It’s one or the other.