As what some societal observers call a “new civil rights movement” begins, U.S. colleges and universities are faced with reconciling differences of opinion on a broadening set of issues: racial equality, sexual assault, Middle East policy, LGBT advocacy, mental health awareness and more. At the same time, they must reconcile increasing differences in background and culture as schools become ever more diverse.
Amid the volatile protests and debates on campuses this year, students at Princeton University called for rechristening Wilson College, named after the president who supported racial segregation. Students at Yale University forced the resignation of a professor who objected to strict limits on Halloween costumes. And at the University of Missouri, what started as a protest over racism expanded into a controversy about press freedom.
Just as the social turmoil of the 1960s generated new vocabulary — turn-on, sit-in, sexism — this latest wave of activism and upheaval is adding to our lexicon, with terms such as safe space, trigger warning, microaggression and cultural appropriation, which we explore here. We asked student leaders and activists from local universities to define these terms for us and to elaborate based on their own thoughts and experiences.
Many students believe these concepts foster inclusion, increase sensitivity and set up parameters in which difficult conversations can occur and marginalized voices can be heard. But critics, both on campus and off, call the concepts limiting, unrealistic, even un-American. They argue that creating safe spaces and using trigger warnings, for example, serve only to stifle free speech, coddle students and ignore both history and the reality found off campus.
The student leaders and activists we talked to have a ready answer to that last point. “I don’t think it’s outrageous for me to want my campus to be better than the world around it,” says Sasha Gilthorpe, outgoing student government president at American University. “I don’t think that makes me a stupid, naive child. I think that makes me a good person.”
Faduma Osman, George Mason University, Class of 2018. Major: Global and community health
“When I wear my traditional clothing I’m a foreigner and I’m criminalized for it, but when you wear it you make money off of it, and it’s cute.”
Naomi Zeigler: I see cultural appropriation as kind of taking different aspects of certain people’s culture without proper respect
Fadumo Osman: When I wear my traditional clothing I’m a foreigner and I’m criminalized for it, but when you wear it you make money off of it, and it’s cute.
Roquel Crutcher: Recently, braids are a thing, and that to me is cultural appropriation because I spent my entire life wanting to look like a white person, basically, and then the one moment where I do decide that I actually like the way that I look, it was kind of taken away from me. It’s just kind of hurtful, because the reason we wear braids is completely different from the reason white women wear braids, and it just takes away from the culture and from the fact that sometimes cultures don’t have a choice.
Meri Salem: These people have historically been marginalized and have been shamed for what they’re wearing or what they’re doing with their hair, etc., and now companies are profiting from it. But that profit isn’t changing the situation of the people who are still marginalized.
Roquel Crutcher, American University, Class of 2016. Major: Interdisciplinary studies in communications, law, economics and government
“People ask me to touch my hair. The idea that my hair is something that is different and it doesn’t make much sense to you … is kind of degrading.”
Zeigler: Microaggressions are words or actions that people say kind of without thinking of them that end up being offensive to certain communities. … A lot of times people will say, “Oh, you’re so busy and you’re so high-achieving because you’re Asian,” and that’s not really any of the reason. … And an interesting facet of it, too, is I’m adopted and my family — apart from my younger sister, who’s also adopted — is white. So there’s nothing there if we want to say it’s a cultural thing that’s really making me a quote-unquote better Asian.
Crutcher: People ask me to touch my hair. That’s a microaggression. The idea that my hair is something that is different and it doesn’t make much sense to you, so I have to, like, give you my head for you to experiment with is kind of degrading.
Liam Baronofsky: One microaggression is like one paper cut, so it’s something small but it hurts the person at the core of their identity level. But it happens so often, you come home every day with like 15 paper cuts … and it really hurts.
Zanib Cheema: Sometimes they’ll just stick my face on something… They were doing a university life presentation… and they had one slide and the title was “diversity,” and the face was me. That’s it … I’m not the only person, you know, it’s not just about me. There are so many minority groups; you can’t just put one title to it.
Nick Webb, George Mason University, Class of 2019. Major: Global affairs
“Sometimes I feel the white population can be left out of these conversations. … You can’t build and create equality without having everyone involved in the conversation.”
Osman: A place where usually people who are marginalized to some degree can come together and communicate and dialogue and unpack their experiences.
Nick Webb: Sometimes I feel the white population can be left out of these conversations. … You can’t build and create equality without having everyone involved in the conversation.
Crutcher: When I wake up, I think about the fact that I’m black, I have to think about my hair, I have to think about my edges, I have to think about how I look … whether or not I look too this or too that, and that’s something that I get tired of doing sometimes. And so it makes me feel good to know if I can go somewhere and just be me without having to worry about changing who I am — that’s a safe space.
Cheema: You’re trying to create an environment which promotes people to feel comfortable enough to talk about things that typically won’t be spoken about … where people can speak up, where they feel like nothing that’s going to be said is going to be taken out and used against them.
Sasha Gilthorpe, American University, Class of 2017. Major: Political science and communications
“You have to do something to be make sure that everybody can be educated; they can’t do the work … if you don’t create the conditions where everybody can participate.”
Zeigler: It’s not a form of censorship, it’s just kind of a heads-up, like, “This is coming and we want you to be engaged, so we want to tell you this is here.” I welcome free speech, and I welcome speech that I don’t agree with, stuff that can be controversial. But at the same time I’m a real fan of empathy, and I think that’s what trigger warnings teach us.
Sasha Gilthorpe: A trigger is a psychological thing. Our generation hasn’t invented triggers, we are working to address the fact that there are people whose experiences exclude them from parts of our conversation. … You have to do something to be make sure that everybody can be educated; they can’t do the work and they can’t participate if you don’t create the conditions where everybody can participate.
Cheema: We have something called Take Back the Night. It’s basically like a protest rally that takes place on campus. We give a trigger warning before that because we have survivors who come up to the stand, and they talk about their specific experience in which they were sexually harassed and they go into a lot of detail. So it’s very vivid, it’s very real. … So we give a trigger warning then.
Salem: You don’t have to be tied to any one political identity to believe that people who have gone through post-traumatic stress deserve the right to acknowledge whether they want to participate.
Responding to the charge that they are coddled
Liam Baronofsky, University of Maryland at College Park, Class of 2016. Major: Psychology
“I don’t live in a bubble. I don’t just go to class and have never been in the real world at all.”
Gilthorpe: So you’re really cool with the fact that one in five students are sexually assaulted, one in three people who have faced sexual assault have PTSD, students all over the country are saying their campuses are racist. Is that cool? That makes me coddled, for thinking that’s a problem?
Osman: I don’t think that respecting people’s existence is coddling, to be very frank.
Baronofsky: I don’t live in a bubble. I don’t just go to class and have never been in the real world at all.
Allison Peters: I think that somebody who says that has had very little experience in not being in a safe space.
Starting the conversation
Naomi Zeigler, American University, Class of 2017. Major: Literature
“I like to think that people are good — we’ve just been socialized to do bad things, to have a mind-set that’s discriminatory, that’s problematic.”
Crutcher: Another thing that bothers me as a black woman is the idea that it’s my responsibility to educate people about these things. … You’ve been completely ignorant to my identity, and I’ve been forced my entire life to learn about yours. So I feel like it’s not too much for me to ask for you to learn that on your own. … Or for the administration, who is having all these kids come together who look differently, who act differently, to try to explain to them what those identities are and what they mean.
Osman: The questions get tiring, but they’re not malicious. There’s a difference between someone saying, “Hey, why do you wear that on your head?” as opposed to someone saying, “You’re a terrorist.” It’s tiring, but I think it’s needed.
Salem: If we’re in the classroom… I expect the professor to have some type of role in directing the conversation. We’re not seeing that in classrooms. Instead you’re trying to have people say their feelings but not necessarily have an academic perspective.
Zeigler: I like to think that people are good — we’ve just been socialized to do bad things, to have a mind-set that’s discriminatory, that’s problematic. But I like to think that most people want to be better.
Peters: Our society is changing. We’re broadening the scope of what it means to be a man, to be a woman, to be a person.