The University of Chicago sent a dizzying letter to its freshman class last week, pledging its allegiance to two principles: academic freedom and freedom of expression. The letter expressed this commitment by denouncing "so-called trigger warnings" and "intellectual ‘safe spaces.’" To those unfamiliar with the UChicago’s abysmal campus climate, a strong stance against echo chambers may seem reasonable. But marginalized students know that this declaration ignores the real problems on campus: sexual assault, racial profiling, and other troubling issues.
I would know. During my four years as an undergraduate at UChicago from 2011 to 2015, I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the university’s willful ignorance of students’ concerns, especially students of color. As a first-generation black student, I needed safe spaces like the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs — not to "hide from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own," but to heal from relentless hate and ignorance, to hear and be heard. My ideas were always challenged, but never my humanity. I mattered.
Full of robust dialogue, safe spaces are not a bubbled-wrapped echo chamber, but a places where "civility and mutual respect" actually matter. Though spacious, the multicultural student affairs office was always full of students sharing their struggles and grappling with oppression. Underfunded and understaffed, it was a house-turned-sanctuary for students and student groups alike. I even slept there during a particularly brutal finals week. I, like many other students, wouldn’t have survived UChicago without this place to call my home.
If you want diversity, you have to have safe spaces
Alas, UChicago does not seem to get it. The university claims that it values diversity, boasting about its history of championing black, LGBTQ, poor, and femme-identified students. But you do not get our "diversity" without safe spaces, trigger warnings, or some institutionalized form of respect for people with different experiences.
You want the perspective of someone with PTSD, then you better be prepared to do the work to make them comfortable enough to speak up in class, and that means giving them a heads up when discussing potentially triggering topics. Classrooms should not be a form of exposure therapy. The Office of Multicultural Student Affairs always started its dialogs with trigger warnings and had people on staff trained to handle PTSD flashbacks.
You want the greatness femme-identified folks have to offer, then you have to support them in their endeavors and take sexual assault and harassment seriously. While the university continually failed to take rape and rape threat seriously, the Phoenix Survivor Alliance held solidarity circles to support survivors at Hull Gate.
You want low-income and first-generation students to focus in class and thrive in your elitist institution, then you better fund the Student Support Services (for undocumented and low-income students) and address the classist onslaught inherent in UChicago culture. When the dining halls closed on Saturday nights, low-income students (myself included) went hungry. Where did we go? The Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.
You want trans and LGBTQ students to show up to class and elevate the conversation with their brilliance, then you need to create a culture where misgendering and deadnaming are taboo. Fully staff the Office of LGBTQ Student Life and make more places where these students can speak freely about their struggles.
You want me to elevate mediocre conversations about race with my personal experience and critical lens, then you better do something about the students muttering about affirmative action every time I speak, or the campus police who stop me on the street for not looking "UChicago enough." During my time on campus, I met more than couple people who believed in the genetic inferiority of black people. I was never afraid of their thinly veiled bigotry, just bored and disappointed. I needed a space where I, a biology major, was not expected to give free race theory classes.
You want black women and other women of color to do anything at all for your gentrifying, police-protected institution, then you better just do better.
If you want a university with people who have experienced "real life," then you need to listen to them, address their problems, and create places where they can heal. One house is not enough. Do not disparage the tools we have created as a show of intellectual bravado, then claim our success as your own.
How trigger warnings and safe spaces encourage the academic freedom UChicago says it wants
If, on the other hand, you only want the boring babblings of rich, white, cis, straight men whose worst experience was burying their fourth family pet, then keep doing what you have been doing since your inception. Keep pandering to the politically incorrect and the privileged if you want, but do not expect the depth and nuance that experience brings. Don’t expect us to show up.
UChicago should know that trigger warnings and safe spaces exist to give those with firsthand experience a way to engage without sacrificing their well-being or safety. This accessibility is the key to a truly open marketplace of ideas and an essential pillar of academic freedom. Recklessly painting trigger warnings and safe spaces as enemies to academic freedom will only make UChicago a more hostile environment for marginalized first-years.
Being diverse isn't easy and our diversity ain’t free. Don’t let us in if you can’t make room for us.
Cameron Okeke is currently earning a master's in bioethics at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Berman Institute of Bioethics in Baltimore, Maryland. His views are his own and do not represent those of the institution he currently attends. Find him on Twitter @CamTheJust.