Following a March 21 New York Times article that accused college students of “hiding from scary ideas,” there’s been a lot of criticism of the concept of safe spaces at Yale. The brunt of these critiques has been aimed at the tightly moderated, members-only Facebook group “Marginalized Groups’ Safe Space at Yale” (MGSS@Y) which often bans participants who post content that is deemed to be offensive.
Many conservatives argue that the existence of such spaces is antithetical to the free exchange of ideas and vigorous debate that define the college experience. They characterize liberals as irrational, cocooning themselves in echo chambers of others who agree with them, rather than convincing outsiders with the logic of their ideas. In my view, this opinion is deeply misguided.
Conservatives fail to recognize that, for marginalized people of all kinds, political conversations that deal with discrimination are not just abstract intellectual debates. They strike at the heart of their identities, often calling into question their humanity, intelligence and the legitimacy of their rights. In that sense, these conversations are deeply personal and provoke strong emotions. Therefore, there are two levels on which minorities must deal with these political conversations. Firstly, there is the intellectual level. Legislative change in any democracy requires consensus, meaning that we must convince the majority of Americans that the institutional discrimination minorities face is real, is deeply unjust and must be tackled. Therefore, many marginalized people choose to participate in what we might call unsafe spaces, in which any and all viewpoints are welcomed. Organizations such as the YPU provide active forums for minorities to try to persuade their peers.
But even those who do not want to participate in such spaces are forced to. Every lecture and seminar that we attend is, by definition, an unsafe space.
Safe spaces address a need that is particularly relevant in the collegiate stage of our lives. In these spaces, minorities can shape their identities alongside others who are struggling with similar restrictions. Many minorities want to engage with these spaces, not necessarily to turn their experiences into an intellectual debate, but to process and discuss them on an emotional level, with others who have similar experiences. Participating in this kind of space does not, and in fact could never, preclude minorities from participating in more traditional debate forums.
Additionally, MGSS@Y has a plethora of other benefits. It allows students to distinguish between the individual and the systematic. A poorly worded comment by a professor who is otherwise consistently fair and balanced cannot be treated in the same way as a discriminatory comment from a professor who has a long history of prejudiced behavior towards minority students at Yale. These spaces enable students to discuss these instances and advise one another on how to move forward after the event.
MGSS@Y also allows marginalized people to explore intersectionality. It is often taken for granted at Yale that identity is deeply complex. For example, I am discriminated against on the basis of two facets of my identity (my race and my gender), whereas I benefit from great privilege on two others (my socioeconomic status and my sexuality). Engaging in this safe space has allowed me to get an honest and unfiltered look at the experiences of students who face discrimination that I don’t.
Finally, it gives a voice to underprivileged people who are either never addressed in the media, such as Native Americans or the white working class, or are only discussed in the context of clunky and reductive stereotypes, such as the ‘model minority’ paradigm of Asian Americans.
If the entirety of marginalized groups at Yale were retreating into such spaces, I would be extremely critical, primarily because I want to see real actionable change much more than I want to vent. This is why I often think that jokes riffing on ‘straight white men’s tears’ in spaces such as Overheard at Yale are unhelpful. They distract us from the critical issues at hand, antagonize other members of our community and don’t advance equality in any meaningful way.
With all that considered, the desire to eliminate safe spaces is ill-advised. It relies on the premise that not only must minorities include everyone in every discussion of deeply personal experiences, but they must also always do so in the tone that the privileged majority deems appropriate. Critics would do well to question whether such a premise can really be defended.
Mez Belo-Osagie is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .