The Issue with ‘Safe Spaces’ at Payton

By Malachi Asberry


Two new seminars are being introduced for faculty and students at Payton for the second semester. The new spring 2020 additions are called “Interrogating White Privilege” and “Under-Represented Students @ Payton,” or “US @ Payton” for short. “Interrogating White Privilege” is an affinity space for students to examine or interrogate white privilege. This seminar will utilize the workbook “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla Saad, who is an international writer, speaker, and podcast host on the topics of race, identity, leadership, personal transformation, and social change. The book will be used as a resource for the students to reflect on their beliefs, behaviors, and mindsets. “Under-Represented Students @ Payton” aims to connect students of color with alumni of color to give voice to the challenges and triumphs of being a part of the Payton community, to support students of color, and to build a deeper awareness of self, community, and potential solutions to current areas of concern at Payton. Although these seminars focus on remedying racial issues at Payton, they are exclusive to their respective groups. “Interrogating White Privilege” is solely for white-identifying students, while “US @ Payton” urges that only students and faculty of color attend. As a black student at Payton, I feel that programs like these promote segregation within our school.

          After finding out about these seminars from one of my teachers, I immediately thought to myself, “why aren’t these seminars open to people of all demographics?” I’ve spoken with faculty members with whom I have close relationships, and they’ve all shared the same sentiment when exposed to these seminars. I feel that anyone should be able to attend these seminars, despite them existing to support particular groups. Many would agree that Payton thrives off of its diversity and the culture that is created throughout the school by students from all over the city, so having support from a broad range of students from different backgrounds can help rectify these problems much faster. The vast majority of students at Payton have diverse friend groups, and consider themselves allies to their causes and empathize with the challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis — myself included. It would be most beneficial to have seminars and enrichments open to people of all demographics. By limiting who can attend these programs, less can be done to remedy issues throughout Payton, and fewer students will be aware of the problems that they are striving to address overall. Payton encourages ideologies such as unity and safety amongst all identifying groups.

          The introduction of these seminars also raises the question, “what exactly is a ‘safe space’?” Following the ideologies previously stated, I believe a safe space in Payton is where students and faculty alike from any group should be able to voice their viewpoints on any topic without being attacked, while creating an environment where we can learn together and express our feelings to one another on subjects that we are passionate or confused about. A great example of this definition is Black Student Union, which started out as African-American Club. The enrichment addresses black-specific issues at Payton, is not exclusive to black students, and has been this way since it was created. Black Student Union is an affinity space, and while “Interrogating White Privilege” is described as such, it is not. An affinity space is a place where people affiliate with others based primarily on shared activities, interests, and goals, not shared race, class culture, ethnicity, or gender. “Interrogating White Privilege” will host only white-identifying students, which disregards those who are not white-identfying who want to attend due to their interest in the topic altogether. This seminar is the polar opposite of an affinity space. 

          It is what would be described as a caucus group, which in this case is a group for white-identifying students to work explicitly and intentionally on understanding white culture and white privilege, excluding people of color from their discourse. Although the primary objective is to increase their understanding of these concepts, their perspective will be dictated by the work of one person of color, Layla Saad, and while I do not discredit her knowledge on the subject, I feel her viewpoints on white privilege and white supremacy will be skewed dramatically from most of the population of people who are minorities, since she is also of British descent. Having a group of teenage minorities attend could be more valuable to the conversation than depending on the ideologies and opinions of one adult individual who is not white-identifying.

There is no justifiable reason why these seminars are either confined only to white-identifying students or students of color, and if the facilitators had any reason for doing so, it should’ve been addressed as they were being introduced, especially for “US @ Payton.” In fact, it is against the law. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act provides that “no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights). I could even argue the prime reason “US @ Payton” exists is because we as minorities only represent ourselves. Ethnicity-restricted seminars leave no room for students from different backgrounds to demonstrate their allyship to causes outside of their own, and allow minority groups to remain under-represented within Payton. In any case, no student at Payton should be or have to feel left out of a conversation. It is in our best interest to gain an understanding of one another — to resolve the issues that occur within ourselves — as well as Payton. 

UPDATE: The “Interrogating White Privilege” seminar has been cancelled for this semester.

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