by Lisa Freeman and James A. Baumann
Cities around the world erupted in demonstrations last month to protest the violent and brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officers. They called for justice, accountability, and action. Violence against Black community members is not a new concern. As the world observed such a horrific act, for the first time in years there was a uniformed gasp of disbelief and outrage that an individual could be treated in such a horrific manner. This time the inhuman treatment was blatant and could not be denied. This time, perhaps, the voices that have cried out for justice would be heard.
Micere Keels, an associate professor in comparative human development at the University of Chicago, wrote her book Campus Counterspaces: Black and Latinx Students’ Search for Community at Historically White Universities (Cornell University Press) long before these incidents. Nonetheless, the current climate makes the book’s lessons all the more pertinent. One can imagine minoritized students who will return to campus carrying emotions that are fresh and raw. There will be concerns for personal safety and a desire to be in spaces that are affirming and safe. There will, undoubtedly, be a need for spaces and for minority voices to not only be heard but to be protected and affirmed.
Keels, along with guest authors, makes the case for counterspaces by drawing from a combination of surveys and interviews of more than 500 students from five American campuses. The goal was to better understand their lives and educational experiences as well as the role their racial identities played. Within the stories of their successes and challenges, readers learn of the opportunities that campus counterspaces provide. She writes early on that she approached this topic after she felt “inundated with news articles skeptical of minority students' ‘imagined’ campus microaggressions and mischaracterizations of their desire for safe spaces as self-infantilizing.” She further differentiates the term counterspaces from safe spaces which, she notes, were virtually interchangeable before the latter was “co-opted.”
She continues that “many of those who argue against safe spaces . . . consider only the prototypical college student whose development is not placed at risk by engaging in a combative exchange of ideas.” Counterspaces (or “brave spaces” to use another term), on the other hand, provide settings that “enable marginalized students to be brave in their critique of themselves and their group in ways they cannot in contexts where they must defend the very validity of that group membership.” In a counterspace, she says, “individuals do not have to debate the existence of marginalization and oppression, they are freed to move on to deeper, more radical discussions.”
If this is, indeed, to be a moment of seismic change, the concept and realities of counterspaces will only be of increasing importance. The Talking Stick emailed Keels a series of questions about her book, the lessons she learned, and for any insight into ways that housing programs could support counterspaces.
Please note that the questions were sent prior to the most recent demonstrations.
TS: How can campuses, and housing specifically, balance the need to create spaces for minoritized groups against encouraging the integration of spaces that are diverse?
I don’t think of it as balancing the two. Meaningful integration is most likely to happen when minoritized students feel safe and feel a sense of belonging on campus. It is also helpful to think about integration as a pull rather than a push. Integrated spaces are experienced as so inviting and welcoming that students feel pulled to engage with them.
Integration should absolutely be encouraged. Minoritized students expect to be in integrated campus environments. The issue is whether it is a “white space” that minoritized students are invited to participate in versus a diverse space that all students are invited to participate in. When thinking about housing and the intimacy of sharing a residence hall room with someone, there is little benefit and probably some harm in forcing students who enter with discomfort or hesitation to room with students of particular groups (however those groups may be defined). This is not a simple yes or no assessment but a more nuanced assessment of preferences, concerns, and past experiences.
I grew up in Canada and lived at home for undergrad; when I went to grad school in the United States, my parents made me email my potential roommate (arranged through the grad program) to tell her that I was black so that she could consider that in her decision making. Both of them had horrible racist roommate experiences in college and would not let their child go blindly into a living situation that could derail her educational experiences and make daily life miserable.
TS: You share that the residence halls often are the first meaningful campus spaces that students of color experience. What steps would you suggest housing take in practice, policies, etc. to improve this transitional experience?
I also work with K-12 schools on issues of diversity and equity. I thought about that work in reflecting on this question. One of the things we discuss with K-12 schools is the consistently observed racial and ethnic differences in the sense of belonging in various schools. I tell teachers that school belonging is equal parts what schools and teachers do to facilitate belonging and how students experience those actions. Are they experiencing your efforts at creating belonging in the ways that you intended? We caution teachers that, especially when students are of different cultural and/or socioeconomic backgrounds, they have to regularly assess whether students are experiencing their actions as intended. There should be ways for housing staff to determine whether various subgroups of students experience particular initiatives and events as fostering belonging and what they may need differently. Given the ease of things like text surveys, this should be a process of brief and ongoing check-ins.
TS: Much of the programming in housing is about gathering students together – whether that is hall meetings, living-learning programs, socials, etc. – and then assessing engagement and attendance. I kept thinking about that as I read the chapter on students’ strategic disengagement. Could you discuss that concept a bit, as well as how programming could take it into account?
Strategic disengagement is when students make a clear decision that their academic engagement is best maintained by separating from the campus social environment. Sometimes it is not a clear decision but the result of avoiding interactions and spaces that feel psychologically and emotionally damaging. This was observed among students who were heavily emotionally affected by microaggressions, which also tended to be students who put themselves out there to integrate into campus social life.
The thing is to not assume that all minoritized students who are disengaging from campus life should be pushed to engage with campus life. High engagement may be damaging for students who are sensitive to experiences of marginalization. Residence hall staff may help these students best by helping them find counterspaces where they can experience belonging on campus.
TS: What should be the role faculty play in affirming the need for racial-ethnic and academic identity space in the classroom or on campus? Again, is there a way faculty and housing could partner to achieve that goal?
I’m not sure about this one. I know that I don’t have the capacity to do one more thing on campus. I see this burden falling on a few faculty who are already called upon to work on many diversity initiatives. It is important to engage minoritized faculty in the issues in ways that will also count toward their promotion.
For example, a colleague of mine did some research for the university and collected data that resulted in papers on microaggressions.
TS: Understanding that each student comes to campus with a different background, expectations, and needs, do you feel it is the responsibility of the institution or the individual that desires community to create spaces that allow it to occur? How may intersectionality impact that?
It is the responsibility of the institution to create opportunities for meaningful community that crosses boundaries of difference. Most students come to college with limited experience with diverse peer groups on many different measures of diversity. Our neighborhoods and K-12 schools remain highly racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically segregated. This means that colleges also need to teach students how to engage with diverse others.
TS: While reading your book, I found myself going back and forth between considering counterspaces as tangible manifestations on a campus (i.e., a multicultural center, etc.) and also as a more amorphous concept (perhaps a certain program or organization). I also wonder how social distancing and virtual programs will shape the upcoming school year. How important are dedicated physical spaces, and what could that mean for a campus’s efforts moving forward?
I think all campus cultural centers should have a plan for creating virtual counterspaces for this coming academic year. They are forced to do it now because of COVID-19, but I think they should continue virtual counterspaces long after COVID-19 is the central organizing factor that is determining how we interact.
Creating an engaging virtual community could be one way for campuses with small percentages of students of a particular group to broaden the community. This is because alumni could maintain a strong presence in the virtual counterspace. The need for social distancing is no excuse; this generation of youth lives online, and there are an abundance of digital meeting, communicating, and collaborating tools. Additionally, many historically marginalized students are in home communities where few of the people in their immediate environment will be in college, so now more than ever they need a college-going support community of others like themselves who can keep the connection between their social identities and their academic identity.
Lisa Freeman is the director of residence life at American University in Washington, D.C., and also serves as the Inclusion and Equity Director for the ACUHO-I Executive Board. James A. Baumann is the Talking Stick editor-in-chief and the ACUHO-I director of publications. The photos of marchers in Charlotte, North Carolina, including the cover photo, were taken by Clay Banks and made available via Unsplash. Keels has made additional materials, including a discussion guide, available online.