Defending safe spaces for students of color

By Elissa Vinnik

As a white fourth-year American Studies major, I want to contribute to the discussion about the Critical Race Theory course. Two years ago, like the student who brought this issue to the campus’s attention, I wanted to join the “Historians and Critical Race Theory” course, but after speaking with Professor Rachleff, I did not enroll. However, I want to unequivocally voice my support for preserving this class and space for students of color.

Though I shared this student’s frustration, I urge the readership to ask themselves about intentional academic spaces for students of color on this campus. I can think of no other. Spaces on this college are largely white. Though I do not know first hand, being a student of color on this campus is difficult at best. If we are a college truly committed to diversity and multiculturalism we ought to support the existence of such a safe space. I did not necessarily understand that as a sophomore. Nor did I see how my presence as a white person might curtail discussion of such particular experiences. My support is not without criticisms. The college should take this opportunity to invest in an additional course that allows students of all grades interested in critical race theory to explore their curiosity. Developing a lower-level course would not be sufficient alone. One of the greatest attributes of the present course is its size and varying grade levels of its students. Indeed, the low learning curve of the small sophomore cohort was one of the reasons discussions in Professor Rachleff’s alternative course (in which I ultimately enrolled) fell so flat.

I also worry that by racializing spaces to learn about race theory, white students and students of color alike are denied the chance to find allies. It is unfortunate that it has taken three years to find such a space in my American Studies Senior Seminar. If a first- or second-year is deemed not to have the necessary prerequisites to join the current course, how will he or she be able to accumulate requisite experience? It is not the responsibility of students of color to teach this student. Rather, I hope to demonstrate the importance of an additional accredited, intentional, and safe space in which all students with similar interests have the opportunity to learn from one another.

Likewise, the college should also support the creation of an intentional academic safe space for white students to discuss critical race theory. In this country, we all experience race, albeit differently. White students should get an opportunity to learn and deconstruct racial theory and/or their own positionality, privilege, or lack thereof.

But the solution is not to destroy the current safe space. If I have learned anything during these last four years, it is that equality is not achieved by treating all people equally. Rather, resources should be distributed disproportionately to those who have been traditionally underserved. If you are a white student interested in issues of race, enroll in an American Studies class, join the White Collective, get involved in Pluralism and Unity, enroll in an EXCO Class study group, or push for the creation of new spaces. It may not be everything you want, but we have guaranteed access to so much. We can take this opportunity not to deny others what we so often take for granted.

Elissa Vinnik ’08 is an American Studies major from Washington, D.C. She can be reached at [email protected]