by Sam Sachs
The designation of areas of a campus as “safe spaces” for the marginalized and disenfranchised should be a cause of celebration for students. It should be a tool for promoting dialogue to discuss issues of race and discrimination amongst community members and be a place for open communication. Instead, the safe spaces are a sign of something darker, older, and blatantly discriminatory, despite the intention of such a space. By segregating students from each other based on race, the protesters have directly gone against the goals of the previous generation of activists, and by doing so lost some of their movement’s legitimacy.
Following the rash of protests in response to increasingly more frequent discriminatory acts by students and faculty, protesters at the University of Missouri, Yale University, Brandeis University, Amherst College, Dartmouth College, Smith College, and Claremont McKenna College have demanded their respective universities provide more inclusivity and diversity to all aspects of campus, such as hiring more minority faculty members, building a designated center for racial equality and diversity, and the ousting of administration and faculty members with records of dealing with racism ineffectively.
The University of Missouri’s efforts have succeeded in getting allegedly discriminatory administrators such as President Tim Wolfe to resign, while Yale University has initiated a five year diversification plan, involving hiring faculty of more diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, creating a new diversity and sensitivity campus seminar for incoming students, and providing centers of support and resources for students who feel targeted or that they have been targeted by racist actions of their fellow students or faculty.
That is what victory looks like as a result of protesting for rights, letting their voices be heard without screaming louder than the other voices. What isn’t a victory is the current state of Claremont McKenna College, where protesters have imposed safe spaces on their campus that have banned whites from entering the areas. Public areas on campus were closed off to white students for the express purpose of providing a safe place for minorities to gather.
The Claremont College Motley Coffee House posted “The Motley sitting room will be open tonight from 6-10 only for people of color and allies that they invite. Please feel free to come and use the space for whatever you need – decompress, discuss, grieve, plan, support each other, etc. In solidarity,” on their Facebook page Nov. 11.
Claremont’s Pomona College hosted an exclusive art show titled “HURTING AND HEALING: INDIVIDUALS AND COMMUNITIES, a *for POC, by POC* art show.” Clearly, this idea had its inspiration from the right place, safety and support, but it lost its ability to do this by excluding those who are not people of color from entering, or from being present even as supporters.
Segregation is defined as “the action or state of setting someone or something apart from other people or things” or “being set apart or the enforced separation of different racial groups in a country, community, or establishment.” The actions of Claremont College students and the faculty and staff that support them are a return to segregation, only a few decades after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s ended. The irony of this is that the students who have been discriminated against are now discriminating against those they deem at fault for their treatment, and undermines the efforts of the previous generations of activists.
If the situation were flipped and white students were preventing their black peers from entering spaces to ensure their safety from oppression, they’d be called racists and accused of overusing their supposed privilege as white members of society. By separating the students based on race, the ability to meet, discuss, and reconcile is lost. The goals of civil rights movements are to promote equality and understanding, and to move forward with an improved situation. By segregating instead of deliberating, understanding and equality are being driven away. By separating the students, equality is being revoked.
This form of intolerance isn’t exclusive to minority students. It is a sign of a larger problem. An intolerance of difference isn’t exclusive to the majority, it never has been. The separation of groups based on the color of their skin is segregation, regardless of who is separating whom.
Students in this generation seem to think that if something upsets them, it should be removed and not confronted. Colleges, of all places, should be bastions of debate and the mixing of ideas and beliefs. They should harbor discussion of an issue, not a screaming match that cries intolerance to the point of deafness. The current state of the protests going on across the nation’s universities should happen, when people are infringed upon, they deserve to speak out, but not at the cost of all of the other voices. Segregation has come back, not just between those of different skin colors, but of ideologies and beliefs. Students are so spoiled that if something offends them, it becomes oppression.
It is such a large problem nationally that even the President of the United States has spoken out against it. Obama gave a speech in September and another in November calling on students to be more open to others’ ideas and opinions, saying, “You don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue them. Beat them. Make the case as to why they’re wrong.” This point is something largely brushed aside by students from this generation. They seem to prefer to scream instead of speak.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is brought up a lot in relation to civil rights struggles, and his approach to the problems facing his generation of segregated Americans is cited as a prime example of successful protest. Dr. King’s protests didn’t involve exclusion or harassment. They used respect for their fellow men and women, and a desire to bring everyone to the same level through discussion. King said in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
The protests occurring in the United States now are skirting this goal in favor of radical, oppressive behavior. There’s a saying that goes something along the lines of “if you go too far left, you go to the right,” in terms of political leanings. By separating students through their protests, the student protesters are proving this adage. Equality cannot be achieved through exclusion, it has never worked, and it likely never will.