The Fine Line Between Safe Space and Segregation, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Emily DeRuy examines the growing culture of “safe space” environments on campus and how some colleges are even trying ways to institutionalize them, such as the University of Connecticut’s plan this year for a living community specifically for black men. Here’s Emily:

[H]aving a safe space on campus to come together with people from similar backgrounds who may have experienced similar racism or microaggressions could provide the type of supportive environment these students need to graduate, particularly if they feel silenced or not validated elsewhere on campus. “It is not unrealistic, not alarmist” to suggest that some students are afraid of traditional college dorm living, and feeling physically and emotionally safe is an important part of academic success, McMillan Cottom said. A black student isn’t going to be able to focus on calculus if he thinks his roommate is a racist. A gay student isn’t going to feel safe if she thinks her roommate is a bigot.

Many readers are digging deep into this discussion. This one thinks that such social segregation, especially by an institution, isn’t wise:

College isn’t just about digesting coursework. Key to the experience is the constant contact with people of different views and backgrounds. Interacting with people and building working relationships with people who are different then ourselves is vital to success in a job environment, where mobility and flexibility are required attributes.

If your roommate is racist, request a transfer, or do what every college student does: find some people you’d like to live with and share a local apartment.

What about a safe space for Muslims so they don’t have to live with a non-religious person like myself? Spanish speakers? People with a disability? People who like mathematics? Where does this slippery slope end?

College is supposed to ensure students are physically safe, not shield them from the experiences life offers. To do so is a disservice to students.

Another reader is on the same page:

The only way to actually beat racism (or significantly reduce it) is the long, grueling process of living with, working with, and interacting with white people. It is the slow, agonizing process of individual black families and people acquiring wealth and station in the face of discrimination and the shackles of poverty. This will take generations, and it was always known it would take generations. It sucks. It isn’t fair. But there are no short cuts.

If the outside environment is so hostile that black students feel they need to self-segregate for their own safety and well-being, it follows that many will elect to leave the hostile environment for the safe one. If the outside environment really is that hostile, and black people have now conveniently self-sorted themselves into one dorm or one student center or one academic department or whatever, isn’t this just a target for the external racists to defund? Then in 20 or 30 years, we will start hearing stories about how the all-black dorm has substandard plumbing or the all-black library’s books are not up to date, etc. etc.

This reader, Mia, experienced something similar:

My freshman year of college (in 1992), I ended up living in the “black” dorm. It wasn’t officially the black dorm, of course, but it was the only one without air conditioning and therefore a lot cheaper.

It’s possible that a lot of the minority students who were from poorer backgrounds chose that dorm as their first selection, while most students who could afford the air-conditioned dorms avoided it like the plague (we were in Florida). It’s also possible at least some chose to “self-segregate.” Whatever the reasons, I’d estimate the ratio of black to white students for that dorm was somewhere close to 50/50, while overall enrollment stats showed 65% white, 35% minorities, with 9-10% being black.

I ended up there because I was late enrolling and it was the only dorm available. My roommate, who was also white, chose it because of cost. Once I moved in, I discovered how odd it was that I had been matched with another white girl. Almost everyone I met who lived in our dorm and who hadn’t pre-arranged to room with a friend was matched with a roommate of a different race. It seemed to be an unwritten forced integration policy that the administration was pushing, because the odds of it happening to that extent randomly were astronomical.

I had gone to a pretty expensive private high school where the black kids were preppier than I was. (One wore sweater vests all the time.) A lot of the black students in my dorm were definitely different than that. It was a bit of a culture shock. I’ll never forget getting off the campus bus at our dorm stop and this one black guy yelling, “All out for the Ghetto!” It was very funny … and fitting.

There were pretty big cultural differences between a lot of the black and white kids who lived there, and I don’t think I knew of one interracial roommate set that didn’t want to kill each other by the middle of the year. Roommate and dorm transfers far more common in our dorm than others, and a number of people just moved out of the dorm system all together and into off campus apartments.

I wrote this long story to show why even though I’m not a fan of the PC world at all, I can understand people wanting a “safe space” where they live. College is a hard enough adjustment without fighting racial battles in the room where you sleep, and in my opinion, it creates far more division and racial tension than it solves. If a black person, or a white person, or an Asian person, etc etc prefers to have a roommate of the same race because odds are they’ll have more in common with that person, let them! It’s not the Army. It’s college.

That said, entire racially segregated dorms is going WAY too far. I met and had great conversations with some wonderful black students around my dorm: on my floor, in the laundry room while waiting for our clothes to dry, hanging out in the TV room cheering on our football team that were playing an away game, etc. All of that enriched my life and helped to create some of those “bridges” all the feel-good PC people love to talk about. You’re in a relaxed, casual setting—not a politically charged debate arena that can be so many classroom environments, and you have the ability to interact with people who may be different from you in many ways but that you still have things in common with (e.g. cheering for the same team, complaining about how the washing and vending machines are broken, etc).

And as any honest person will tell you, communication is important for working out conflict, but it’s what you have in common with one another that brings people together and builds friendships and good will. The dorm common areas are a natural non-stressful place to have these random, unforced interactions, especially if you know that you can always retreat to your own room if you ever feel too uncomfortable. And you’re far more likely to interact on a one-on-one basis while doing your laundry in the basement of your dorm than when you’re at a sporting event with 10 of your other friends who look and act just like you.

So to create single-race dorms deprives students of this valuable opportunity. It’s so typical of university administrators to come up with an either/or policy choice like this where both options suck, and fail to address the real issue, all because they’re completely blind to how the world really works.

This next reader looks at how things have changed on campus and the country as a whole since the early ‘90s:

This stuff seems hopeless to me. No racial group is homogeneous. I went to a very white college, and among that population there were very obvious divisions between those who came from wealthy and poor families, those whose families had multi-generational experiences of going to college and those who didn't, those who had to work while going to school and those who didn’t, those who came from certain regions, rural/urban, religions, etc. etc.

Nowadays there are other disparities too, which aren’t directly mentioned in the article. For example, there are more women than men in higher ed, and more women than men are getting degrees.

My point is that the old black-white narrative of racial divide just doesn’t apply anymore, or that it’s not nearly as important as it used to be. Among all different racial groups, there are new disparities, such as Asians being over-represented in higher ed and public university systems where whites are actually under-represented (e.g. the UC system in CA). There are also increasingly more white kids who are coming from primary and secondary schools where they too have experiences of being a minority. At this very moment, today’s cohort of white elementary school kids are just one minority group among the rest.

I get that we want black kids to succeed, but heavy-handed residential segregation schemes just seem like a way to delay the inevitable which is that as an increasingly diverse country we’re going to have to figure out how to live together. This burden might seem like it’s being unfairly borne by black kids, but the truth is that everyone is dealing with these issues—even white kids.

Disagree? Do you support the need for formalized safe spaces on campus? Have a personal experience to share? Send us a note and we’ll post: