Part of what is great about Knox is that despite being a small campus there exists a diverse student body which is actively engaged in organizations that are working toward an open and inclusive campus. Integral to the goal of all these organizations is making Knox a safe space without the constant threat of discrimination that is so prevalent in the wider community. The hope is that this endeavor finds a way to translate into places beyond Knox, but to do it has to be a case of first getting our own houses in order.
A safe space is where anyone can be fully expressive without the fear of being discriminated against on account of sex, gender, race, sexual orientation or physical and mental ability. I believe that student-run organizations should make it a priority to create safe spaces as the base for any and all interactions. The creation of safe spaces is important for organizations such as SASS, ABLE, Common Ground and APA to function. But there needs to be a lot more work behind the conception of safe spaces before they can be said to be truly inclusive. Many of these spaces often tend to forget intersectionality and normalize instances of discrimination.
I was in attendance at Take Back The Night, which is an initiative by Safe Harbor to inform and work against the culture of violence in society, domestic or otherwise. The show of solidarity was truly wonderful and it was a great way to stand with victims of patriarchal violence. During the event, however, there was a point when a slideshow of celebrities who have been guilty of violence against their partners was played on the projector screen. It was a deeply problematic thing to have in a place where it is imperative to make participants feel safe. As one attendee rightfully pointed out, a disproportionately large number of the celebrities that were shown were black. She went on to say that given the racial oppression that African Americans face in this country, depictions such as that make it doubly hard for survivors to speak up, for fear of having the issue turn into a racial one.
That was an example of what is not a completely safe space. A reason for this is many of these instances of discrimination have been normalized to such an extent in society that we fail to notice as they pass under the radar. It is also an example of how intersectionality is often ignored in safe spaces.
The first step toward reconciliation is to acknowledge the fact that diversity exists internally in all spheres that leads to minorities within minorities and becomes a case of an oppressed group turning into internal oppressors. Racism can be sexualized and oppressed genders can be racialized. It’s also important to do away with direct causal relationships between systems of oppression. A woman’s rights group focusing on issues of patriarchy would do well to distinguish between the racial segregation inside of the term “man” – it isn’t one homogenous entity. There are men of all races, religious affiliations, physical and mental abilities. In much of these cases, “man” becomes normalized with racial privilege and becomes the “white man.” In much the same way, discussions on racial segregation may slip into historically patriarchal themes where the male gender becomes the only one that is prominently portrayed.
The dynamics of intersectionality are complex and require much more attention than has been afforded them.
The Knox community has a long way to go before making the campus a truly safe space, minus all the instances of normalized oppression. Everyone, in whatever situation they are in, faces oppression of one kind or another. Dealing with intersectionality means dealing with the idea that oppression cannot be quantified into “my issue is more important than other issues.” All issues are equally important because they cannot be tackled separately, since human interactions are hardly ever that cut and dry. It’s a tough ask, but this is the bigger picture and we are a part of it. So we might as well roll up our sleeves and get to work.