“I’m Northwestern’s president. Here’s why safe spaces for students are important.”

“A recent white graduate agreed. She argued that everyone needed a safe space and that for her, as a Jew, it had been the Hillel house. She knew that when she was there, she could relax and not worry about being interrogated by non-Jews about Israeli politics or other concerns. So why is the Black House an issue in the eyes of some alumni who write saying that we should integrate all of our students into a single community rather than isolate them into groups? I have never gotten a single note questioning the presence of Hillel, of our Catholic Center or any of the other safe spaces on campus.”

I think we really need to focus on how we are defining safe spaces. Hillel houses are a perfect example of what I think of as a safe space: A place where you can go and feel free to express the whole of a stygmatized identity without negative reactions from the people around you. I have been having a really long, very productive conversation about safe spaces and free speech with a friend, and we’ve realized that we have different definitions of safe space, free speech, and offensive speech (at least).

On the morning after George Zimmerman was declared non-guilty (BTW, realized that I had forgotten his first name until just now and that makes me happy), I had to go to my very white workplace and sit in my very visible desk space and interact with a lot of people who maybe knew about it but definitely were not going to talk about it with me and where we had a culture of constant cheerful, apolitical friendliness (where apolitical included jokes about how non-black people would not be welcome on a basketball court in a mostly-black neighborhood, or jokes about how whiny feminists are). What I wanted was to spend the day with other black people who knew what that felt like, who had read the news while making dinner and then spent the evening unexpectedly going through all the stages of grief and not even knowing really what they were grieving, people who woke up feeling empty and drained and in this sort of physical state of always being about to cry. At the very least, I wanted to be with people who wouldn’t recoil if I was having an emotion and would get me some tea and sit with me even if they didn’t know what to say. Instead, I went to work and I could tell who knew by seeing who was smiling a little too much at me, and I felt myself being pushed into an even further disconnect from American society.

So, safe spaces. They mean so much for people who need them.

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