Probably the most corrosive thing about Safe Space ideology is that it encourages the segregation and racialisation of campus life. I witnessed this firsthand during a recent visit to an American campus, where I was greeted by the sight of students racially and ethnically segregated from one another while they were eating lunch. When I pointed out that the practice of segregated cafeteria tables violated the spirit of the academy, my host told me, ‘it’s their choice to find their own space’.
Unfortunately, university authorities tend to condone this kind of voluntary segregation. For example, Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University, has said that it is understandable that black students eating in a cafeteria would not want white undergraduates to join them. ‘We all deserve Safe Spaces’, he wrote, and ‘black students had every right to enjoy their lunches in peace’. Schapiro’s apology for Safe Space segregation is based on the proposition that everyone should be able to go somewhere where they will be protected from being made uncomfortable by other kinds of people. In others words, the advocacy of Safe Spaces has meshed with the idea that those from minority cultures need to be able to cultivate their identities free from the presence of people who are not like them.
The divisive potential of Safe Spaces was exposed towards the end of last year, when African-American university students on several US campuses demanded segregated Safe Spaces. Here, Safe Spaces acquired an explicitly racialised dimension. For example, at Oberlin College, students demanded that ‘spaces throughout the Oberlin College campus be designated as a Safe Space for Africana-identifying students’.
In recent months, many American universities have acquiesced to a form of self-segregation, and have provided racially segregated housing for their black students. Not that they put it in those terms. California State University in Los Angeles, for instance, takes exception to the claim made by critics that it offers racially segregated housing. Instead, it describes its new scheme as a ‘new black living-learning community’. On its housing-services page, CalState says that it is an initiative designed to ‘enhance the residential experience for students who are part of, or interested in, issues of concern to the black community living on campus, by offering the opportunity to connect with faculty and peers’. Whatever euphemisms CalState chooses to describe its ‘new black living-learning community’, it is clear that its aim is not to enhance a common campus experience and culture.
It is now far from unusual for universities to organise white-only, black-only or Latino-only retreats and away days. For example, the University of Vermont provides a Safe Space for white students to explore their ‘white privilege’. Columbia University offers a ‘students-of-colour leadership retreat’ for those who self-identify as ‘African/African-American/Black, Latino/Hispanic, Asian/Asian-American, Pacific Islander, Arab and Middle-Eastern, Native and Indigenous, and Multiethnic/Multiracial’.