What College Safe Spaces Should Be

Giving adult students what they deserve.

We, the students of color of this university, demand that professors stop wearing white socks!  As white is the color of institutional racism, teaching while wearing white socks reminds students from traditionally marginalized communities of the white boot of oppression that constantly tries to flatten us. This college will never be a safe space for minorities until our teachers stop wearing white socks.  

I would love to see the results of an experiment where black students make a deliberately preposterous demand of their college to test how their school’s white liberal administrators react.  Hopefully, the administrators would either get the joke, or tell the students to grow up.  But I fear that at least some administrators have so low an opinion of their minority students that they would treat the demand with outward respect.

If I say something absurd, how should you respond? If you have a poor opinion of my intelligence and think that this kind of statement is the best I can do, you might patronizingly praise me.  If you think me dangerous and intolerant of criticism you might prudently pretend to agree with my absurdity. And If you dislike me and want to corrupt my thinking process, you should most definitely give me false positive feedback.  But what should you do if you seek to create a safe space around me?

A safe space for intelligent adults should be one where people readily point out all of their errors of perception so they don’t accidentally hurt themselves.  If I run at a wall while insisting that the entire concept of a wall is just a social construct then in a safe space you should loudly and quickly point out my mistake without worrying if your tone is disrespectful.  Indeed, it would be hard for you to correct me without being disrespectful because we humans tend to interpret almost any disagreement as a disrespectful status hit.

Some Amherst College students posted a list of demands that, while not as absurd as calling for the abolition of white socks, still initially caused me to think they were created by a right-wing troll trying to make the Amherst progressive community look foolish, but apparently these demands are heartfelt.  They include an insistence that Amherst’s president apologize to “alumni and former students, faculty, administration and staff who have been victims of several injustices including but not limited to our institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/ indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism.”  More troubling, the students want the school’s honor code to reflect a “zero-tolerance policy for racial insensitivity and hate speech.”  As these students surely know, “racial insensitivity” covers lots of ground, and zero-tolerance for it would effectively mean expelling any white student or professor who ever disagrees with a black student. Even if the black student being disagreed with didn’t object, an on looking white knight might take the disagreement as a sign of racial insensitivity that creates a general unsafe atmosphere at Amherst.  The effect of such zero-tolerance for racial insensitivity would likely be white students avoiding saying anything of substance to black students, and white professors being terrified of having a black student in their class.

I teach at a college near Amherst, and have had several Amherst students in my class.  They are extremely smart.  I’m almost certain that many Amherst students think the list of demands is dangerous and/or silly.  The only way that Amherst can be made a safe space is if the school creates an environment where the students who wrote the demands can get honest feedback on what their classmates think of them.