Spaces Without Us: On Safe Spaces In Higher Learning

As a young hijabi, mix-raced Muslim, I entered college looking for myself: in peers, in course syllabi, in offices, everywhere. I needed a space to fit in. I needed to be seen and to be heard. I spent most of my adolescence ensuring I was against type - not meek and quiet and submissive. I had things to say, and they were going to be spoken loudly and boldly and sometimes obnoxiously.

Thankfully, college life introduced me to vocabulary for other identities I had hidden away inside of myself. Sexuality had long been taught through home, religion, school and popular culture as singularly heterosexual with the end result of breeding. I knew, deep down inside, that was not me.

It took three years of making queer friends--and some serious self-discovery--to admit to myself that I identified as queer. All the while, I was participating in diversity trainings with other students as well as faculty and staff. Much of my trainings were focused on my racial, cultural, and religious identities. But as I came more into my own and became involved in the queer community on campus, I noticed so many offices, faculty, and staff sporting a Safe Zone badge, whether an actual sticker on their door or a signature on their email. The badge was awarded to folks who completed training on how to be an effective ally to the LGBTQ community.

It never really sat right with me. So many people with that badge were not allies to me. They were the embodiment of “here’s a sticker for participating”. It felt performative, some kind of obligatory virtue-signaling. But they weren’t taking any sort of action. And forget about intersectionality. I was reminded of liberal do-gooder white people: “Here’s my badge to show you how great I am! Oh, you’re bringing in multiple identities to complicate this…no thanks!”

I was often invited to do Safe Zone training. I resisted. Now I am at my third university, as an employee and student, and in front me again are Safe Zone stickers. Bright and big at the bottom of emails, ornamenting doors. But how does that sticker truly help? It’s meant to be a symbol of a safe space - that this person is someone to go to in time of need. But so many of the people who have these stickers are not genuinely committed to the community, at least not any of us who aren’t white cis and willing to uphold the patriarchy; the gaytriarchy, if you will.

Last summer a Muslim identified man entered Pulse nightclub in Florida, and shot and killed patrons dancing in a Latin themed party. Immediately, speculation arose around terrorist activities (because in the eyes of media and problematic narratives, Dylan Roof murdering Black church goers is just a white boy who lost it and was corrupted, but a brown Muslim man is always a terrorist). The intersections of hurt in this one horrific act were exponential. I was terrified to read anything about Muslims and sexuality. I was disgusted knowing that the Latinx and Muslim communities would be used by cynical demagogues seeking praise and popularity. Presidential candidates, including those who actively work to squelch the communities affected, stood to gain from the deaths of queer brown folks - we learn at these moments, in the deaths of Black and brown people, that we are disposable as bodies.

At the time, I met with other queer folks on campus. We wanted to bring together folks affected - Muslim, Latinx, and all queer folks. We wanted to emote and share our feelings as members of marginalized communities. And the university remained silent. The administration and all those people with their fucking Safe Zone stickers said nothing.

We needed support, comfort, space. We needed to be angry and sad and all the things that a Safe Zone promises, and it did not deliver. At the height of uncertainty and precisely the moment when they could have been a comfort and source of community and the beginnings of a brighter day, the Safe Zone felt like yet another empty nod to diversity in the world of academia.

Unfortunately, so many of the people who go through the process of engaging in and maintaining these “safe spaces” are there because they have to be, or because it’s one more way to make the university look good. When universities applaud themselves for having a diverse student body, but do nothing to show genuine support to those students, not to mention completely ignoring the need for support among the faculty and staff, their promises of cultural competency are empty. The academy itself is largely void of a space for those of us who bring those diverse numbers. And too often we feel treated just like those stickers, signs, and posters that call us to safe spaces: mere window dressing.

 

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