For a lot of people, loving Michigan is something intuitive, like loving Nutella crêpes. What could there possibly be to explain?
I do love Michigan, but it took me a long way to get here, and it’s been a thorny relationship. A part of me just wants to forget myself in chants amid a sea of maize and blue, or lie on the Diag forever and watch autumn transform our campus into a pretty postcard.
But the other part of me can’t fully indulge this relationship because of the many micro-aggressions on this campus that are too hard for me to ignore.
My memories of the past three years — as much as I’ve grown from them — include many painful realizations of how unfriendly this place can be. They include times when a hug was used to compensate for a racist comment at a meeting and I conceded because I was too tired of being the only one in the room to respond. They include times when seeing campus police made me feel less safe because of how condescendingly they behaved with me in the past. They include times when racially coded words were used by a professor I thought I could trust.
Of course, such micro-aggressions aren’t unique to our campus, and there are sunny moments and tough ones in any place. But I wouldn’t have been able to make it past all these tough moments at Michigan if it weren’t for the safe spaces I had to turn to — places where I was welcome and didn’t have to explain my being or make disclaimers, speak in a different tone or smile extra hard to ease someone else’s prejudice.
Places where I could be.
Safe spaces intentionally catered to students of color — whether provided by a student organization, an internal community forum or a University office — are crucial.
Unfortunately, those spaces are often unappreciated or viewed warily.
I experienced this sentiment as a group of friends and I talked about forming a women-of-color collective on campus. Our conversation was soon consumed with questions like: ‘What about white feminists who identify with our cause? How are we going to include them?’
Similarly, I experienced this sentiment as I brainstormed a campus-wide anti-racist campaign with some peers. ‘How will we get white students to care about diversity? Should we try to sell some point, like that they need to care because they may end up in a diverse workforce that requires them to know about race to be more competitive candidates?’
And, finally, I constantly observe this attitude by those who deem identity-specific groups obsolete — the “color-blind” advocates who think organizations or spaces dedicated specifically to marginalized identity groups are exclusionary or “missing the point” of diversity.
We ought to question two assumptions here. First, that white people should be part of safe spaces for people of color, and without them, these spaces are somehow lacking, and, second, that white people’s comfort and interest should be a prioritized focus of anti-racism/diversity work.
These messages presume that exclusive spaces for people of color are threatening in some way, or, at least, deficient.
They are not. Safe spaces for people of color are inherently valuable. They need not be dictated by or include white voices to be valid. Along the same lines, anti-racism and diversity work are inherently valuable and need not focus on white students to be successful. Those who take on this difficult work shouldn’t feel they have to go out of their way to “sell” it to people who don’t want their conscience bothered.
If knowing that your privilege and the institutions around you elevate you at the expense of holding back others isn’t “incentive” enough for you to give a damn, excuse me if I don’t feel like expending my time and energy convincing you to be a decent human being.
Safe spaces are not intended to be classrooms and should not be viewed as such — hence, they are not “missing the point” at all. There’s a time and place for white people to be enlightened, have their consciousness raised and discover their privilege — this space isn’t one of them. To be clear, these internal safe spaces do not rule out inter-community dialogues, but may actually serve as a starting point for just that.
We cannot constantly expect people of color to “educate” their white peers. Besides exhausting them, this burden reinforces a problematic power dynamic where students of color are expected to be at the service of their white counterparts.
Targeted individuals and communities cannot grow in spaces where they are on the defensive, where they’re compulsively and constantly checking what they say and how it will be received or (mis)construed because of their race, where they aren’t instead healing, dreaming and pushing forward.
Before rushing to say how offensive I sound or question how I would feel if a group of white students decided to form their own space, know that on a campus where whites make up 70 percent of the student population (higher than the national average of 63 percent), just about all corners of this campus are already spaces where they do not have to “manage” their race.
Zeinab Khalil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org