Safe Space versus Comfort Zone: Protecting Open Dialogue on Campus

This morning, I came upon a story that disturbed me and pushed me to reflect on the role of education in our current national climate. An Arizona lawmaker, Bob Thorpe, is attempting to make courses that educate students about white privilege and historical inequality ineligible for public funding, even punishing offending institutions with a ten percent overall cut in state funding.

The state already has a law that targets such classes, but Rep. Thorpe wants to broaden the scope and expand the law to include activities that might create resentment based on gender, religion, class, and political affiliation. The new provision would affect events on college campuses that increase awareness of inequality and discrimination. The Tucson.com article cites the “Privilege Walk,” held at the University of Arizona and a “Whiteness and Race Theory“ class at Arizona State University.

One night last spring, I gathered with a group of students and faculty in a small room on my campus to test an ally training program. We cautiously approached each other at a table with pizza and drinks while we waited to begin. We started with an exercise in which we stepped in and out of a circle if a stated privilege or disadvantage applied to us. Some stepped forward when asked if they had ever been discriminated against based on their sexual orientation, and I did when asked if we had ever been verbally harassed on campus. This activity is part of the Privilege Walk, and it revealed so much to about my peers and widened my understanding of other students’ experiences. It provided me and others with the opportunity to venture into discussion of discrimination and resulting trauma before entering a verbal exchange. It showed me that everyone was willing be honest, open, and vulnerable and revealed our personal challenges, as well as the things we had in common. Learning about each others’ realities has been crucial to me in forming new relationships and working toward social justice on my campus. My experience only goes to show that sharing with one another is absolutely necessary when creating cohesion in a campus community.

Classes that teach students about discrimination are also essential for students’ evolution into adults who are ready to enter the workforce and interact with others who do not share their formative experiences or privileges. A college class about privilege brings together all different types of student in a safe environment where they can openly discuss privilege and various forms of discrimination. This opportunity is so rare in education. There is almost never an opportunity for students to ask others about their experiences with inequality without forcing others feel like victims of tokenism. Students rarely consider their privilege, and those that are successful are likely to continue to do so after graduation, when social groups become ever more rarified.

I was reminded of an episode of NPR’s Code Switch podcast that aired on September 21st of last year. In “Warning! This Episode May Trigger Debate,” hosts Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji spoke with a panel of professors about trigger warnings and what happens when race comes up in a class discussion. In part of that discussion, one panelist remarked that in his experience, the right to a safe space is typically invoked by those with the most resources rather than vulnerable students. For example, in a class speaking about lynching, a white student is more likely to say they feel targeted and unsafe than a minority student or a victim of racially motivated violence. There is an important difference between being someone living with the effects of trauma and someone experiencing discomfort when faced with their privilege for the first time.

It is unacceptable to stop conversations simply because they force you to face unpleasant realities. Without moments of friction or encounters with a history of violence perpetrated by one’s ancestors, there can be no understanding. Every time I have seen open conversations among people from different racial, ideological, and religious backgrounds, all parties have left with at least some better grasp of the motivations behind others’ beliefs. Granted, these discussions do not necessarily end with a “kumbaya,” but even some hurt or sharing of uncomfortable truths is better than silence. We need to get used to sharing words with one another. Like learning a new language, communing with those who are different from us is more and more difficult as we cocoon ourselves with likeminded individuals, both geographically and virtually. Programs at college campuses are rare opportunities to air grievances, conduct productive dialogues, and introduce students to each other and to the systemic problems we face. We have a choice to bear these injustices quietly or face them loudly. Rep. Thorpe will institutionalize silence if we do not speak up. Support these programs in your schools, listen to others’ voices, and participate in dialogues when they are available to you.

Please check out the original article on Tucson.com and the Code Switch episode, linked here:

“Warning! This Episode May Trigger Debate”

“Lawmaker seeks to expand limits on ethnic-studies at Arizona schools”

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