Having safe spaces around the university allow marginalized students to feel less alienated

Graphic by Esra Rakab

cw: mentions of racism, hateful political rhetoric, child sexual abuse

If you’re on any part of political YouTube where the titles appear to be “Feminists REKT!!! Compilation”, or “Man Speaks FACTS, DESTROYS Emotional Liberal,” then you have likely heard of how safe spaces, also known as closed spaces, are for “snowflakes.” Moreover, closed spaces are framed as being a “new type of segregation” enforced by the radical left” on campuses.

The main contesters against these spaces appear to be predominantly white professors at post-secondary institutions and (mainly white) right-wing pundits who frame the concept of having spaces closed to only certain marginalized groups to be a step backwards. In turn, they argue that there would be outrage should the tables be turned and there were spaces closed to white people.

Well. Despite all the controversy surrounding the newly emerging safe spaces on campuses across North America, I honestly feel that the main motivations for why safe spaces were proposed as a solution in the first place go largely ignored.

Even in a university as accepting and as open to improving its measures towards inclusivity as McMaster University, there have been countless instances in my primarily white program where I’ve felt degraded and humiliated as a visible woman of colour.

Even in a university as accepting and as open to improving its measures towards inclusivity as McMaster University, there have been countless instances in my primarily white program where I’ve felt degraded and humiliated as a visible woman of colour. 

This has mainly been in the form of tone policing, where if I express myself with the exact same emotion or words as another white classmate, I have constantly been told that I’m “too aggressive” and that I need to “calm down” by numerous students.

There have been instances where when I shared my status as a child sexual abuse survivor in confidence to explain how it only strengthened my convictions in feminism and as a result, I was labelled as being “too much,” and was pushed into isolation from the get-go.

With all of the hashtags, the “BLMs” and the “support small businesses” stickers plastered across the social media of the students who unknowingly engage in deeply damaging behaviour, I cannot help but lament with disappointment.

So many seemingly “non-discriminatory” people appear to be very disconnected when it comes to actually engage in the small actions within their day-to-day life that make 2SLGBTQIA+ students and Black, Indigenous and students of colour feel safe.

I was formally introduced to closed spaces at Mac while volunteering with the Women and Gender Equity Network, a survivor-centric organization dedicated towards empowering those experiencing gender-based violence and educating Mac on such issues. While I was initially confused as to why many of WGEN’s events were closed to different groups, I soon understood why. 

Like myself, there are people out there who experience microaggressions and discrimination for an identity they cannot control. Just like me, they are emotionally exhausted at having to bite their tongues when a snarky comment is made about their existence in university, a historically white institution, or when they make white people around them uncomfortable when they don’t fit into a neat little box of how a model minority should act like.

Like myself, there are people out there who experience microaggressions and discrimination for an identity they cannot control.

Even if a remark here and there may not appear to be the end of the world, from my personal experience, these small, yet deeply painful moments build up until they’ve become a full-fledged trauma and they build up until you feel as though maybe you really don’t belong on a campus like Mac.

That is why we need closed spaces. Marginalized students who are at risk for identity-based discrimination need a space to simply talk about their experiences with other students who share these experiences. They need a space with other students who will understand each other without having to do a million, painstaking explanations to set the context.

Many universities are already notorious for not taking allegations of sexual assault, racism and any other forms of discrimination seriously. However, given that instances of discrimination frequently happen in a subtle, systemic form where the student has a lot at stake socially should they react at all, there is almost no way for students to deal with and talk about these very real issues.

Yes, the real world is not this nice, but offering safe spaces to students as a therapeutic tool to cope with these injustices is the least we deserve.

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