“We just really want this to be a safe space.” I often find myself listening to a skinny, white musician or writer start off an event with those words. Ironically, the majority of the students in the audience or on the dance floor are usually straight, white males.
These pseudo-safe spaces extend far beyond my own university, and are particularly common at liberal arts colleges. From my friends at Bard who can wear dirty clothes without fear of being arrested, to my friends at Kenyon who think it’s trendy to be a farmer. It’s clear that some students at colleges are trying painfully hard to be inclusive, without realizing their initiatives completely ignore people of color.
Many white students I’ve talked to from USC, UC Berkeley, Kenyon College and other prestigious universities do not realize why media has taken the time to make fun of the phrase “safe spaces.” Forget the ridiculous claims that we are coddled. A lot of people are making fun of “safe spaces” because they aren’t actually safe.
“Safe space” has essentially become a synonym for “a place for confused white kids to talk and sing about their feelings.” However, when a black or brown person – especially a woman – talks or sings about her feelings in a non-stereotypical manner (i.e. outside of spoken word), the crowd gets tense or uncomfortable, and the scene is no longer a safe space for the majority. It’s almost more offensive to be told that these alternative music events, literary collectives and pseudo-alternative sororities (co-ops) are safe spaces, because it gives people of color like myself a false inkling of hope that maybe, just maybe, we will really be accepted around the white kids.
The worst offenders are the pseudo-alternative fraternities and sororities, also known as co-ops. Visit that famous co-op at Berkeley or that not so famous co-op at USC, and you’ll get free wine and mediocre pot brownies, and even a dance to one of your favorite middle school jams. The people will smile at you and remember you apart from other (artsy) brown or black people. But the desperation in the sea of white look-a-likes sporting jean on jean and openly talking about their queerness reminds you of the white carbon copies who live just a few blocks away on fraternity row.
So, the white musicians and poets and dancers might have found their safe spaces. But if students want to see further development of collegiate artistic and political communities, then they must learn to look outside the white gaze. Like any movement, the fight for counter-culture spaces will not be successful unless it is intersectional. Until then, students should not refer to predominately white: events, literary collectives and alternative housing, as “safe spaces for everyone.”