The “Safe Space”
I was one of the lucky ones.
It was one of my first weekends at Yale. A few of the sophomores invited me and a few of my freshman friends over to their suite before going out on campus for the night. We stepped in and immediately in the first bedroom, I saw a Confederate flag hanging above the fireplace. I stopped in my tracks. Please pardon my language, but my words were, “what the f***?” The room quickly burst into damage control, simply and logically explaining to me why the flag was there. “Oh, I promise you he’s not racist, he just really loves the South.” In an attempt to understand their clearly well thought out logic, I asked, “oh…yeah, well where is he from?” The response: “Massachusetts.”
I was one of the lucky ones because early in my tenure at Yale, I was able to witness that the prestigious university differed little from the “outside world” to which I had already grown accustomed. As pessimistic as it might sound (and I’m a fervent optimist), once I reached that conclusion, it became easier to slip back into the complacency and virtually muted acceptance that a “safe space” doesn’t exist. Not anywhere. Not ever.
Last month I wrote about the unfair, yet realistic world where pulling the race card and tone policing seem to be equivalent evils (see post below). You’re either deemed the “angry Black person” if you choose to speak up and take a stand when you feel wronged, or you’re a judgmental non-factor looking from the outside in, yet refusing to join the cause. I can see the same polar reactions in the current situation at Yale as well and it’s heartbreaking. I’m going to do my absolute best to exist in my own fabricated middle ground between the two. A world where I can honestly critique the actions of my own race, but also wholly support and agree with the cause for which they passionately fight. A world where I make myself susceptible to being known as the privileged both by Black people and White people. The “grey area” if you will.
First and foremost, I’m not sure that a “safe space” exists even amongst ourselves (ourselves meaning Black people). I say this with a pit in my stomach knowing that, in a way, making this particular point could make me a social pariah in my race, but I feel strongly that it needs to be said.
A few weeks ago, The Dean of Yale College, Jonathan Holloway, was approached by a sea of students who voiced their concerns about the racial climate on campus especially with regards to the “safe space” I mentioned earlier. I agree wholeheartedly with just about all of their concerns, and for good reason (see first week of college anecdote above). However, I often found myself at odds with the approach of some of the activists. One student in particular claimed that she was disappointed in Holloway as a Black administrator, and as a Black man. A few other students asserted that they felt as though Holloway had lost touch with the constant struggle that young Black people endure. That he somehow no longer understood their plight.
These toxic claims expose a deeper intraracial issue and inhibit our ability to present any sort of unified front in a war for racial equality. The way that I decipher the “lost touch” sentiment (and I’m well aware that many might see this as a gross oversimplification) is:
Why are you not as Black as me? or You should be as Black as me.
Are you someone that also hates being stereotyped by other people as having voted for Barack Obama simply because he is Black? We should have all voted for Herman Cain and should now all vote for Dr. Ben Carson in this coming election because they should understand the plight, right?
Let’s not forget that a minority student who attended the free speech conference was called a traitor and subjected to being spat on by protestors just like the other attendees. But yes, let’s all stand together in solidarity. We are better than that. We have to be better than that.
As I’m sure anyone who has read the title of this blog (or any of the past posts) knows by now, I feel like a majority of my young life has been spent trying to prove my worth to the race in which I was born. One of my main fears is feeling alienation or a lack of acceptance by my race. Given the current state of racial activism, what was usually a tussle over trivial aspects of life like music or ebonics has now become an issue about whether or not someone is “down for the cause”. At the risk of dealing in an absolute, I’ll take a page from Obi-Wan Kenobi’s book and say that “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” (Honestly that was just because I’m really excited for The Force Awakens)
This “either with me or against me” mentality only serves to polarize the race at a time when we should stand together. One has to question whether there would be as much of a questioning of how Holloway handled things if he weren’t Black. Not only that, but he is the first of his kind. By the logic in question, being disappointed in Holloway as a Black man must also equate to being disappointed in every Black student at the school who was able to rally for the cause and chose not to do so. I have Black friends who don’t like bringing race into issues at all because of how it will be perceived, and even at times because they don’t want to jump to conclusions. Should he or she not be considered “down with the cause” even if they agree with the cause on an ideological level? Should he or she also be labeled as traitorous? Either we admit to flawed logic, or we must admit that Holloway (and perhaps he is discovering this for himself) has been subjected to unwritten and unspoken rules and expectations that come along with being not only the Dean of Yale College, but a Black Dean of Yale College.
You wouldn’t understand because you’re not Black = You wouldn’t understand because you’re not [as] Black [as me].
I can sit here and tell you about how in high school there were basketball games in which I knew I would foul out based on the school we played. Or an umpire telling me that my brother had to throw the ball right down the middle for him to call it a strike. Or about how my dad couldn’t coach my baseball team without other dads undermining his advice to their sons from the bleachers. How about the whispers of affirmative action after I got into Yale? My brother getting called “boy” on the mound by fans, opposing team, and umpire during a game? Or even teammates that have told me point blank that Black women aren’t attractive (and even the ones who disagree with this claim could never take one home to their parents).
Is this what we want from Holloway? A list of all of the trials he’s been through so that it can be determined he understands “the struggle”. When did the prerequisite for Black support and activism become a dick measuring contest of racial atrocities? Is there any other race that does this to each other? I find myself unsure of the answer. One of the main cases against the activists has been that they are privileged and coddled children unable to cope with the hardships of the “real world”. Part of this comes from the Ivy League legacy and often opulent backgrounds of the students, but the other part comes from a willingness to avoid and even condemn opposing ideas without even confronting them. Let it be known that I do not agree with the coddled argument at all, however, it unveils an important point. How are we, within the race, any different from the conservative onlooker who claims we are privileged? We have made the same discriminatory assertions that cause our own pain, to the people we want to join us in solidarity. Maybe, just maybe, it takes someone relating to your hardship on a human level, rather than an assumed racial one to both rally and strengthen support.
Don’t worry, I promise I’m staying in my middle ground.
The lack of a true”safe space” is obviously not only a by-product of intraracial dissent, but also a by-product of interracial ignorance. In this particular case, I don’t necessarily mean ignorance in a classic sense, although I will get into that as well. I mean interracial ignorance in a highly potent and detrimental sense — in terms of to whom it applies.
I was sent the below article from a friend and it is perhaps the closest I’ve come to finding something that circumscribes my life sentiments regarding race.
John Metta wrote the piece and he covers quite a bit, but I will focus on a few essential points. I recommend reading the entire article, but I’m about as biased as they come in this case (and I will quote the article heavily).
“The only difference between people in The North and people in The South is that down here, at least people are honest about being racist.”
The older I’ve gotten, the more this statement (made by Metta’s sister to his aunt) seems to hold true, especially in terms of ignorance. Many of us, of all colors, have run into the blatant, no remorse racist whose actions we simply attribute to pure ignorance. If we’re going based on the above claim, this racist individual is honest in that he or she doesn’t know any better. The alternative here, to me, is the reason that many of our efforts to create any semblance of a true egalitarian society always seem to fall short: the ignorant educated. Metta calls the individual (in this case his aunt) “a northerner, a liberal, a good person who has Black family members.” This person is unaware of their own inherent racism and yet will debate you ad nauseam about how you, as a black person, should feel. Let me elaborate.
“To understand, you have to know that Black people think in terms of Black people. We don’t see a shooting of an innocent Black child in another state as something separate from us because we know viscerally that it could be our child, our parent, or us, that is shot…Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people.”
“White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals…They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it. What they are affected by are attacks on their own character. To my aunt, the suggestion that “people in The North are racist” is an attack on her as a racist. She is is unable to differentiate her participation within a racist system (upwardly mobile, not racially profiled, able to move to White suburbs, etc.) from an accusation that she, individually, is a racist. Without being able to make that differentiation, White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it…Black children grow up early to life in The Matrix. We’re not given a choice of the red or blue pill. Most white people, like my aunt, never have to choose. The system was made for White people, so White people don’t have to think about living in it.”
I apologize for the lengthy quote, but not only does this outlook espouse my personal feelings, it is also essential in understanding the innate flaw in the argument for free speech. In theory, yes, free speech should be upheld and treated as one of our sacred rights. But, I argue that we should also understand that there are social norms and moral obligations that come along with that free speech. Former governor of Vermont Howard Dean took this approach when commenting on the situation at Yale (http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2015/11/09/dean-with-rights-go-obligations/).
We can’t ignore the fact that society, over time, determines what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable. And as society becomes increasingly secular, morals are based either on an individual’s own perception of good, bad, right, and wrong, or their religious beliefs. Free speech isn’t some black-and-white entity (no pun intended) that either works one way or the other (remember the Sith?). Somehow over the years, the argument for free speech has gone the way of the equally deplorable “slippery slope” argument. “If we allow one thing, we have to allow all things.” I’ve accepted the fact that if someone is truly racist and wants to call me the n-word, I can’t stop that. But, I also understand that within a particular context, the n-word has been deemed offensive by modern society. In short, just because this person can say the n-word, doesn’t mean I can go around and use racial slurs to everyone else. I have both a moral obligation to those around me based on my upbringing, as well as a moral obligation to the norm created by society. It’s important to understand that regardless of whether or not a true “safe space” is achievable.
However, perhaps the most terrifying notion that Metta touches on is that the society of which I speak, operates with White people as the norm. While all of the “angry Black people” are being coddled and attempting to take away everyone’s free speech with whom they disagree, Metta highlights the irony. He posits that “no calmly debating White people want to admit: The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.” Essentially, the argument for free speech, unbeknownst to those who fervently defend it, is actually an attempt to coddle those same people. It’s an attempt to make White people feel more safe in a world that already exists to keep them safe, and has kept them safe for years. Who’s really being coddled here according to their argument?
If the situation does still seem like the complaints of privileged Ivy League kids, I leave you with a quote from one of my best friends from college, unearthing the dilemma of these so-called “privileged”. He claims that “if you’re at Yale, you can always say, ‘hey, I’m not going to let this bother me, I’ll be fine,’ but at the same time, you’re like ‘this is Yale, these people are going to be powerful, influential people all over the world and a ton of them are ignorant as f***. I need to say something.'”
In order for any real change to happen, the ignorant have to become cognizant of their ignorance. Let me clarify, using one last quote from Metta. It’s not so much that White people are ignorant of the fact that they are inherently seen as “normal”, but rather, according to Metta, they “are complicit in this racism because [they] benefit directly from it.” It seems as though Black people are a continuous synecdoche, grouped together as one for the crimes of particular individuals; whereas, for White people, that individual was simply a bad egg that didn’t represent the rest of the whole. Even outside of crime, all of those Black people who blindly voted for Barack represent all of the Black people who voted, right?
Change will come on a case by case basis and will surface from those willing to see that they benefit from a system constructed for them. Speaking out against that system will be the task at hand, and some will obviously want to remain ignorant. After all, how many times have we thought to ourselves, “well that doesn’t really affect me?”
And you know what? I could be completely wrong. Yale came out with a detailed plan on how they are going to change the culture at the school (https://messages.yale.edu/messages/University/univmsgs/detail/129760). It can easily and correctly be argued that the multitude of planned changes are a direct result of the student activists, which I’m fine with. Only time will tell whether the new diversity program will lead a few of the previously ignorant to participate. It’s tough to describe how I feel hopeful and skeptical at the same time. However, a step in the right direction is better than nothing.
As long as intraracial dissent and interracial ignorance (specifically amongst the educated) continue, the “safe space” that people so long for will never come to fruition. The two will continue to inhibit it’s creation so that it only exists in theory as the end goal. The “safe space” will be akin to the desire for general world peace. One can always work towards it but he or she will never really get there as long as human nature remains consistent.