Patterson: The cost of diversity

Sky Patterson, Op-Ed Contributor

I remember the first time I saw the Black House on Sheridan Road when I visited Northwestern. I was pleasantly surprised that the space existed on campus, and when I found out NU also has a black student union, I felt ecstatic. My high school did not have a safe space for any marginalized groups, let alone a black student union. As a result, many other students and I often experienced the same anxiety in school that we experience in the larger social world.

In the Black House, I don’t have to worry about a non-black person using the “n-word.” No one inappropriately touches my hair while it’s natural, imposes a stereotype on me or expects me to speak for my entire race. The Black House is a space where I can grow socially, politically and culturally without the stress and marginalization imposed on me by the larger social world. I do not feel invisible, and my skin doesn’t feel like a burden. Although microaggressions and incidents of disrespect do occur in the real world, it does not necessarily follow that marginalized students should experience that kind of treatment constantly on campus. It is not healthy. In some cases, adversaries of safe spaces mask their desire to disrespect other identities without consequences as exercising their freedom of speech. There is a difference between acknowledging oppression and accepting it –– the argument that marginalized students should not be sheltered from their oppression so that they learn toughness is an excuse to dehumanize those people. We all deserve compassion. People do not need tough love all the time. Sometimes just plain love is required.

The false understanding of safe spaces can be just as devastating as that of trigger warnings. Dick Reif’s (Medill ‘64) recent Letter to the Editor absurdly compared safe spaces to Jim Crow era segregation, yet no serious social thinker would make that false equivalency. Segregation emerged from racist policies used to ensure racial minorities receive inferior schooling, limited housing and other economic and social disadvantages that relegated them to second class citizens. Safe spaces are simply areas on campus for different marginalized groups, but are not exclusionary to people outside of that group. If a space is exclusionary in any way to anyone, it is not considered a safe space. No formal or informal policy exists that bans certain identities from that space. Rather, they are places where people — especially those in marginalized groups — can study and socialize without having to explain themselves, code switch or self-consciously monitor their behavior. Marginalized students can breathe a little easier in safe spaces, as there exists an expected level of respect for all identities.

Since we do not leave our sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia or xenophobia in our dorms before we head to campus, safe spaces are necessary and healthy for marginalized students. By mentioning the phenomena of disinviting speakers on college campuses, Reif overlooks the fact that neither safe spaces nor trigger warnings involve cancelling events. The protest of individual speakers is not fundamental to the concept of safe spaces. Someone can express an opposing view in a respectful manner that upholds the values of safe spaces. They are about respect and decency — not exclusion and certainly not Jim Crow segregation as Reif suggests.

Much of this conversation on our campus emerged from the University of Chicago’s recent letter. In his so-called welcome letter to the University of Chicago’s incoming freshmen, dean of students John Ellison condemned safe spaces and trigger warnings as threats to academic freedom. One must wonder who exactly the university aims to welcome with that letter; certainly, they are not welcoming marginalized students. Since no actual policy change occurred, the letter appeared like a PR strategy to appease conservative donors and privileged prospective students. The letter also provided misleading information on the purposes of safe spaces and trigger warnings and did not help foster an inclusive environment on campus. As with these two examples and many others, condemnations of both safe spaces and trigger warnings exhibit an embarrassing lack of knowledge and are riddled with conflations and false equivalencies.

Those unfamiliar with safe spaces and trigger warnings may be interested to know that neither of them involve censorship. In the letter, UChicago celebrated its commitment to academic freedom in conjunction with denouncing safe spaces. Academic freedom is the liberty to exchange ideas and practice inquiry. Trigger warnings do not cease the exchange of ideas, eliminate topics from a curriculum nor censor a professor’s lesson plan. Instead, students receive notice before a potentially distressing item emerges. This is hardly the so-called insulation from difficult topics. Students still grapple with controversial and challenging ideas when professors use trigger warnings.

If colleges want diversity, they have to create an environment where diversity can exist. Diversity is not free. Reif’s claim that safe spaces are not vital to diversity is shortsighted. One must only look at the report assembled by a University task force on the black experience at NU to see that more than half of black students surveyed disagreed with the statement that Northwestern is a safe place for them. This is likely the case for other marginalized groups at NU and at other schools. Marginalized students are not marketing tools for schools to use on their outreach pamphlets so that they look inclusive. Colleges must actively work to create inclusivity. Safe spaces and trigger warnings are the cost of diversity. They create inclusion, not coddling. True coddling and weakness occurs when we allow privileged students to avoid the hard work that respecting marginalized identities requires and let them lack empathy.

Sky Patterson is a SESP sophomore. She can be contacted at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.