Everyone inhabits a space. We do not live in a vacuum, devoid of context, history or community. The very fact that you are reading this implies that you are, to a certain extent, engaging in a public — “a space of discourse organized by discourse itself,” in Michael Warner’s words. We rarely “walk alone.”
Everyone at Yale has a space. Some of us haul tattered copies of the Nicomachean Ethics to our philosophy sections, while others of us feel more at home in the chemistry labs atop Science Hill. We make our homes here in New Haven, in the closeted cluster of buildings that enclose Old Campus, in one of the 12 — soon to be 14 — residential colleges, or off-campus walk-ups and houses. Sometimes we don our finest tailored suits or carefully hemmed dresses to toast to everything and everyone.
So, what happens when these spaces become toxic? Where do we go when the spaces disappear?
Last semester there were heated debates over whether or not Yale had the obligation to create safe spaces. According to Everyday Feminism’s article “6 Reasons Why We Need Safe Spaces,” a safe space is simply a place “where bigotry and oppressive views are not tolerated.” To me, it seems that everyone would agree to this pretty simple demand: People on campus should feel safe. Period. When a woman walks into a party on campus, she shouldn’t have to fear being assaulted. However, for some people, the demand for “safe spaces” seems far more unreasonable. For example, in Jonah Goldberg’s November article in the New Republic “Campus Commotions Show We’re Raising Fragile Kids,” he calls Yale students “delicate flowers” for demanding “safe spaces.”
When people such as Goldberg hastily dismiss the importance of “safe spaces” it can lead to negative consequences. A “safe space” is not a suggestion to sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya; rather, it is the right to inhabit a space without feeling threatened. Although we poke fun at these demands, it is evident that Yale still has trouble creating safe spaces. According to the AAU survey released in September, 16.1 percent of students experienced sexual assault in the last year, which is higher than the 11.7 percent average of the 27 other colleges included in the survey. Moreover, according to Tyler Kingkade in a Huffington Post article published earlier this week, “Students of Color Aren’t Getting the Mental Health Help they Need in College,” a “Harris Poll taken last year of 1,502 students ages 17 to 20, [showed] that black and Hispanic students were more likely to feel overwhelmed in college.” Additionally, “safe spaces” have often proven essential for marginalized groups. In his article “Publics and Counterpublics,” Michael Warner writes that, “counterpublic discourse is far more than the expression of subaltern culture … counterpublics incorporate the personal/impersonal address and expansive estrangement of public speech as the condition of their common world.” In other words, spaces for marginalized groups — such as women, disabled people, people of color, those in the LGBTQIA+ community, et cetera — are necessary because they allow us to express ourselves in ways that would usually be barred in mainstream public spaces: They are a survival tactic.
Moving forward this semester, we need to ask ourselves, on both a personal and institutional level, what sort of space we want Yale to be. Although the efforts of Next Yale and other activist groups have taken up the challenge of diversifying Yale and making it a more inclusive space, there is far more work to be done. One of the main ways in which we can build a more inclusive environment is via community organizing. Feminist groups and publications such as the Black Women’s Coalition and Broad Recognition are good places to start. However, creating such spaces cannot and should not be restricted to these groups; in class we can and should do things to ensure that members of marginalized groups are included in class discussions. Faculty should interrogate the angle from which a subject is taught. For example, when designing syllabi, they should ask themselves whether women and people of color are included in the curriculum. Additionally, creating these spaces at Yale is particularly important because of our position as such an elite and influential institution. bell hooks writes that by partaking in “insurgent intellectual work that speaks to a diverse audience, to masses of people with different class, race or educational backgrounds, we become part of communities of resistance.” By taking steps to make Yale more inclusive, we can find space to breathe.
Isis Davis-Marks is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .