Criticism of safe spaces unmasks white supremacy

The debate about campus free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and related topics in schools and universities is very old. Indeed, modern campus activism traces to the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, where the student body fought against an administration that wanted complete control of conduct.

Though safe spaces have been placed in direct opposition to campus free speech in many discussions, I will point out that the University of Chicago’s stance against safe spaces is the same sort of administration power play that free speech coalitions have fought against. Issues differ, but it is all rooted in the same power dynamic

Well, the University of Chicago has always embodied the Slowpoke meme. Always relishing its anachronisms. Thus, it’s not surprising that they take fairly regressive stances on campus issues. Students and former students like Cameron Okeke have criticized the university’s stance, saying it has no appreciation of how safe spaces can improve campus function and dialogue, not hinder it. They’re right.

Within education there is a bizarre, unresolved contradiction. Schools, especially universities, are supposed to be about open exchange and freedom. Yet these institutions often serve to bolster white supremacy and obscure historical injustice. Whatever your age, if you were born and raised in the United States, what was the first thing you ever learned about the indigenous people of the Americas? Probably the first Thanksgiving, which occurred over a century after contact. We are told there was harmony, while the systematic extinction of the original inhabitants starting with Columbus is taught much later. Humans tend to believe the first thing they are told about a subject, even if it is later proven to be false (in psychology this is called anchoring). Thus many people think Thanksgiving, not the forced mining or Trail of Tears. If you grew up in California, you spent a whole half-year talking about the mission system. I’ll bet subjugation of natives to serve as labor was probably glossed over. Same with focusing on the Founding Fathers crafting a republican form of government, rather than how it excluded anyone who wasn’t white and wealthy.

So if primary and secondary education fail us, universities have to serve as the counterpoint. But eliminating safe spaces doesn’t make the discussion better, it makes it worse. In most elite schools, black and Latino/a students are under-represented. The strain of often being the only black or brown student in a class, or on the floor of a dorm, is huge. Universities that historically had no people of color (or women, for that matter) are not welcoming, especially if no effort is made to change. Safe spaces, trigger warning, etc. are an effort. U of Chicago is nailing its feet to a place between the beginning of the civil rights movement, and now. It can only fall further behind.

Cal State Los Angeles has recently gotten attention for offering campus housing that is designed for students interested in black culture and issues. This has been called segregation (it’s not), but this all seems to be about comfort. Namely, sacrificing the comfort and safety of students of color in favor of the comfort of white people, who would rather not be reminded of how the university works for them but not for others. That lofty concepts like academic freedom are being dragged down is distressing, as it’s just a fig leaf. Administration wants control, nothing more and nothing less.


Mental illness as disability in college

So I was reading a 2012 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recently. Over 750 college students were surveyed, with NAMI attempting to determine views of mental illness among young adults, and the quality of campus services. The report is located here (PDF).

Most interesting to me is the data on disability accommodations (pages 12-13). While there is a lot of current data on students and mental health, they usually focus on counseling services. In that area, the rate of students getting help has sharply increased, though college-age adults remain the group least likely to seek help. This isn’t a terribly good survey in terms of research design, but any information is good.

A couple key insights emerge, which I’m fairly confident would hold in a more rigorous study.

  1. There is a substantial difference between how many people with mental health conditions who know about accommodations, and those that actually use them. About 20 points separate the two.
  2. Disability resource centers are orientated to physical disabilities, and aren’t designed with psychological conditions in mind.
  3. Among those that dropped out of college due to mental health issues, getting accomodations may have kept them in school.

The conceptualization of disability in the United States has created these conditions. This gap between physical and mental doesn’t emerge from modern disability law necessarily, where the definitions are broad and inclusive. Rather, society has yet to shift its perspective on mental illness. Some tendencies:

  1. People discount any claimed disability that is not clearly visible to outsiders. When I served on a county disability commission a couple years ago, a long impromptu discussion broke out during a meeting about people being harassed for parking in the special spaces because they didn’t “look like they needed it.”
  2. The stigma against mental illness and disability are different, and a sizable group of people accept their belonging in the former group but not the latter.
  3. The type of assistance given to people with psychological conditions, including more time on exams, exams in a quiet room, and longer deadlines, may seem unearned by those who qualify. Accomodations otherize. If you take your exams in a different room, or have different deadlines than your classmates, there may be resentment.
  4. Faculty treat psychological accomodations as less important than physical accomodations.

The disability office as an institution is caught in the crossfire. It can be a key part of students succeeding in college, but many people have no concept of mental illness as being connected.



First thoughts: campus mental health


This post is to mark the beginning of  How Are You at UC San Diego, a student mental health overhaul instigated system-wide by the UC Student Association (UCSA). Mental health for students, from elementary school on through graduate education, is in crisis on a structural level. The toll of mental illness has always been underestimated, and thus few schools have services to match need. Nationwide studies find sharp increases in college students seeking counseling.

Dr. Victor Schwartz in the linked article outlines two potential reasons that campus services are being overwhelmed. Number one, that college students as a population are having more issues than before. Number two, more people with existing issues are seeking treatment, so it’s not the density of the problem but the response rate.

I’m firmly in the camp that thinks reason two is the key issue. In my previous post on student health, “The fantasy of perfection,” I wrote about the crisis that appears when mental illness is viewed as weakness. Society waking to the reality that mental health problems, both acute and chronic, are common features of the human experience is a huge development. So while the present is a challenge on a resource level, it is at the same time an incredible opportunity.

So I’m just going to list nine things that should be considered by the How Are You campaign at the UC schools, and campus mental health campaigns in general.

The introduction of mental health resources to new freshman and transfer students. Existing orientations tend to lump all resources together- first-generation college students, sexual assault counseling, centers for racial and ethnic groups, reporting discrimination, with psychological services and disability services mixed in among them.

Identification of students who may need help. In particular, the training that RAs, graduate assistants, professors, and student leaders have, and the criteria by which they intervene.

Outreach to special groups. This can be split into vulnerable populations at risk of dropping out, and those coming from a culture where mental illness is a taboo subject. This includes having diversity in personnel, as in America counseling often defaults to white women.

Handling of acute crises. Some students need to see someone more or less now. There needs to be slack in the system to deal with an irregular number of special cases.

Handling of chronic cases. Each new person with a chronic need aren’t filling up one slot, but several each term. This leads to:

Referral. At some point, a delay for someone with chronic need becomes excessive, and off-campus help is preferable. The system needs to provide a sufficient variety of options- not only diversity of practitioners but choice easily accessible by students without a car. This includes student health insurance being accepted at most practices, and referrals being timely.

Connections with disability accommodations. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with chronic psychological conditions have special rights and can qualify for accommodations to make academics easier. However, the stigma of mental illness is distinct from the stigma of having a disability. Thus additional outreach must be made. The counseling office and disability office need to be well-connected.

Faculty education. In particular, making sure that accommodations students receive for a psychological issue are respected. Professors may resist making changes to their routine, such as letting students take a test at a different time. This needs to be restated as a civil rights issue.


Letting peers tell their own stories. Having experience with a speaker’s bureau, I can attest to the power of having people with mental health issues open up. Having the ability to educate is empowering. People dealing with mental illness should be able to self-liberate.

Onwards and upwards.


I need a dollar: free college and artificial scarcity

So the Million Student March was held in more than a hundred locations last week (UC San Diego had a march that I helped organize). #StudentBlackOut occurred today, as students of color added their own demands about representation in faculty, in the student body, and serious mandatory education on race for students, faculty, and administration. The larger social reaction to these movements and their demands indicates how narrow the debate is about social justice and investment in youth and people of color.

The reaction to the Million Student March- among conservatives and old ‘I paid my way through college working at the soda fountain’ liberals, is that there is no money for free education, and any more money into higher education will come from the pockets of hard-working Americans.

The debate is defined by artificial scarcity. Making higher education free is possibly the cheapest thing the United States could do to increase long-term GDP growth. The actual figure- somewhere between 62 and 40 billion a year – is a minuscule fraction of defense spending and could be met by canceling dumb ideas like the F-35 (1.45 trillion total projected cost), stop making equipment like tanks the military doesn’t even want, and not approving new dumb ideas.

Within the University of California system, senior administrative bloat, the product of a corporatized hierarchy where education went from the focus to a way to mine students for money to pay big salaries, is $1.1 billion a year total. The whole student population pays $3 billion, so over a third of their tuition is spent on excess administration!

Higher education is one of many programs put into a zero-sum bucket. More money is not coming from a financial transactions tax or cracking down on overseas stashes of corporate earnings (if Apple brought its cash hoard back into the US they would owe almost 60 billion in taxes– one year of free higher education by itself). Money comes from Medicaid, veteran’s benefits, food stamps, subsidized housing, and all the other non-university levels of education. As long as the scarcity is believed, then poor and vulnerable people fight with each other.

Immense wealth and immense poverty exists- both within and between countries. The political and economic elite has constructed an adversarial system where the only visible enemies are others just trying to survive. A 40 hour job is divided so that no one qualifies for benefits, and there are no stable hours and schedules. The conflict is kept at the individual level, so corporate profits and shareholder values are preserved.


With the Million Student March and the Mizzou movements converging, the question of economics versus identity has come to the forefront. When I went to a town hall meeting about campus racism and lack of diversity, I heard a lot of cutting personal stories. I heard about bigoted TAs, professors, and administrators. Racist publications and campus police. I did not hear about the system that benefits from racism and utilizes it- capitalism. The intersectionality of oppression is vital in any analysis of society, but ultimately the ruling class is that- a class. And it is its own mixture of race, nationality, sexual orientation, and religion. Oppression is itself not a zero-sum game- poor whites can be oppressed, albeit to different degrees and ways than people of color.

I’ll put it this way: when you leave an event, class, or debate, ask if the elite that control the police, military, and economy are glad that you didn’t mention them.

The fantasy of perfection: student suicide and the lies that cause it

There is a corridor of collective hysteria in this country. It is the stretch of land between the 101 and 280 freeways, starting in San Francisco and moving south, eventually ending when the latter turns into 680 and intersects with 101 due east of downtown San Jose.

For the billions of people who know nothing about northern California, I’ve marked the area for convenience.

A corridor in the San Francisco Peninsula that contains many high-pressure prep schools.
A corridor in the San Francisco Peninsula that contains many high-pressure prep schools.

This isn’t exact, but this post deals with places that are within two miles of either side.

The feature “Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection” by Julie Scelfo in the New York Times is excellent. Halfway through, I was not at all surprised to learn that Kathryn DeWitt, the centerpiece of the story, is from this area.

Ms. DeWitt is younger than me, but we both lived through a different Gunn High School suicide cluster around the time we graduated. This is an excellent piece about the two clusters– which are very rare but happened twice at the same school within five years of each other. Student suicide is so commonplace that I’ve never had a conversation about California’s high speed rail project with someone my age without a detour into “will they build it so that kids won’t be able to jump in front of it?”

Student suicide is a classic social problem. It’s complex. There are a ton of institutions that may play a part. Norms are established about academic performance and image are difficult to change. If any part of the system is poisonous, it can undermine everything else. School, peers, parents, media, society, politics, money, sanity- all play a part in the problem, and all have to be addressed to create a real solution.

The prep school culture in the Bay Area isn’t unique. But it is unusually concentrated and reinforcing. It’s a high concentration of wealthy adults, often from immigrant backgrounds and low economic standing. Their kids are expected to make similar progress in their own lives. The high population means not one but many schools that mesh together to create a social scene where failure means weakness and worthlessness. Harker, Crystal Springs, Castilleja, Bellarmine, Pinewood, Woodside Priory, Sacred Heart. Then there’s all the larger Catholic schools; St. Francis, St. Ignatius, and so on. Then there’s the public schools like Aragon (where Ms. DeWitt went), Gunn, Palo Alto High. All the public schools have a substantial honors track that’s insular and indistinguishable from the private prep schools.

Anyone who’s not in the culture would find the whole apparatus absurd. It is, and you should.

William Deresiewicz, former Yale faculty and current polemicist against the narrowness of mind that selective schools of all levels create, points out that elite schools that fail their students when you look away from the resume-building:

Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history. (“Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League“, The New Republic, July 2014)

Suicide clusters at elite high schools and universities should not be a surprise. These institutions have taken the regular level of stigma in society and piles on. Not only is mental illness stigmatized, as it is everywhere, but a million different forms of imperfection are as well. All the contributing factors to suicidal ideation are turned into overdrive. As all three of the stories I’ve linked to concur, students think they are isolated in their unhappiness. It’s a lie that’s allowed to persist. In Scelfo’s profile, it’s the college counselor who breaks through the illusion. People are messed up. There’s a culture supposedly based on intellect and critical thinking that frequently uses neither. And people are dying because of that.

Forever seeking solidarity

The big development in radical politics this week is the so-called Corinthian 15 (all interesting radical developments include a physical space and a number), who have refused to pay the debts they incurred at their now-defunct for-profit colleges. The New Yorker captured the promise of this action with their article title- “The Student-Debt Revolt Begins”. Given that there exists over $1.2 trillion dollars in student debt, a move towards nonpayment would take the initiative away from private loan companies and overpriced schools.

However, reading an online left-wing community, I was disheartened to see a sentiment that is common, but could fatally undermine mass action. Many of us see for-profit education for the expensive scam that it is, and are at least concerned about the population that goes there. But there’s also an urge towards thinking these people are dumb, and deserve the debt they accrued.

From the start, a potential rift between for-profit students like the Corinthian 15, and other students, plus the public at large. This goes against the basis for popular action in the left-wing ideology- solidarity. The success of the 15 depends on people who aren’t directly affected supporting and expanding the resistance. Contempt for for-profit students creates a hierarchy, where some but not all students are victims of their loan companies and boated universities. If capitalism really is the underlying problem of exploitation, then this split cannot persist. A lack of solidarity is the reason that the British left became a joke in Life of Brian- many groups with the same general goal, but refusing to work united due to minor differences.

If there is no solidarity, no mass action, then the differences are pointless. Arguing over the right path means nothing if the path is not walked to its conclusion.

Another troubling aspect is the trend online for left-wing commenters to say “solidarity from Ireland” or “solidarity from Ohio!” when reading stories or posts about protest activity. It’s harmless, but I feel it cheapens the term, which is about concrete mutual support. When the Gezi Park protests broke out, activists used Indiegogo to raise $100,00 from individuals, many not living in Turkey, to let protestors run a full-page ad in the New York Times. It allowed the movement to speak for itself, and didn’t smother the resistance with rhetoric from outsiders. That is true solidarity, and shows that even if you can’t physically participate, there are things you can do beyond a social media comment. We must becomes more creative

“Solidarity Forever” begins with one of the best encapsulations of what solidarity is and should be:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one
For the Union makes us strong

There is nothing weaker than small groups that could be one large group. Even dedicated socialists and progressives can have elitist tendencies. That’s not surprising, but we have to teach ourselves to accept all exploited people, even if their plight might seem self-inflicted. There’s a world to win, and we must act united.

A farewell to community college

As tomorrow is my first class at a four-year university, now is a good time to look back and order my memories of community college. In all, I attended two schools over the course of four years- from spring 2010 to spring 2014. There were some small gaps, usually due to my pre-stability mental health, but the path was long and sometimes filled with significant obstacles. Previously, I belonged the group that was able to weather school through raw ability, despite serious inconsistency of effort and poor attendance.

Community college not only set me on a different path, it created a new, better self. I am not a perfect person, a trait I share with everyone else. I am both too critical of myself and others, I use sarcasm as a weapon, there are times where my privilege goes blatantly unchecked. Despite these character flaws, a new worldview has been constructed in the last four years. Diversity is better understood, and appreciated. More time has been spent with people all over the socioeconomic spectrum, leading very different lives. I have more empathy, and am willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.

So, what is community college like, for the many people that never set foot on a campus? It is many things. When the sun is overhead, it is a place for young people to decide if college is right for them, or to put into place a plan for a future transfer. Or perhaps dick around, an attempt like many college students to postpone adulthood indefinitely. When all is dark, it becomes a place where non-traditional students start a new career from scratch. Office admins become case mangers. Baristas become radiology techs. Forty year old men and women from many distant countries learn the stupid, unfair rules of the English language.

Initially, I chose the obvious path for college prep kids- a path that ended at the gates of a liberal arts college. From one white-dominated institution to another. Where ethnic studies is a theory class, devoid of a real-world foundation. After a few months, I dropped out. Four-year college was not right for me. My mental health was inconsistent and not well-managed in the remote town the school was located in. I had no “study hygiene” as I dubbed it, an inability to deal with a demanding academic schedule. What the hell was I doing with my life?

Community college is an excellent place to wrestle with that question. Tuition is cheap, the system is built for those on an extended schedule. And totally unplanned, I fell into the public school system for the first time at nineteen. Failure, by one metric, had turned into valuable opportunity. Latinos comprised the plurality of students, only three in ten were white. Many came from poor backgrounds and a violent childhood. W., who sat next to me in public speaking class, told of the many fights he participated in, as different ethnic gangs brawled in a urban high school. A girl younger than me had to plan an honors seminar around her obligations to her six-year old daughter.

Those next to me in the sociology survey course struggled through language barriers, or had a reading level several grades behind what they needed. Some came to please their parents, others used class to treat an existential fear they had about the future. Every room was filled with (often unstated) chaos.

In popular culture, the junior college is a punchline, depicted as full of burnouts and those too dumb to get into a real school. That scene that introduces Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting comes to mind. The nickname it has, “13th grade” is true in some sense. Attendance is taken fastidiously. In core classes, handholding is present and often expected by the students. Yet some of the most intelligent people I have ever met sat next to me. Many high school students who do not fit into the mould they are placed in participate in “middle college”, where they take college classes alongside their regular work. One girl was accepted to Stanford at 16, but chose junior college because of the poor treatment the school gave her as an underage student. Several went on to Berkeley or UCLA, having saved thousands of dollars by doing their general education here.

Lurking in the shadows is the hidden secret of community college- they provide superior teaching than a top university, at a fraction of the price. Most introductory classes are massive- my parents’ calculus class at Michigan State had over a thousand students. Yet that is impossible at the community college level. No building seats more than 200, and most classrooms sat around fifty or so. Combined with this more intimate learning environment, the professors are devoted solely to teaching. They are more accessible, more invested, and more dedicated than most university professors. An esteemed professor at Berkeley publishes papers and writes books. A community college professor is the one who translates that work and makes it understandable.

Of course, upper division courses are another story. One of the things I longed for were advanced, specific courses. But the comparison here is lower-division, general education. I have my pick of upper division courses, because everything else has been taking care of. There were only four sociology courses available, but they transferred to take care of the four lower-division major courses.

Community, ironically, is absent from a community college. Everyone commutes, many have full-time jobs or kids to deal with. For those with no friends going in, most of my connections were with the faculty. In some sense, community is what you are paying for at a four-year. Student organizations, traditions, spaces to just hang out and talk about the nature of the universe. The library system in a community college district is appalling; any detailed assignment required a trek to the colossal cave system of Green Library at Stanford. Research opportunities exist, but they are narrow in scope. Social sciences are ignored in favor of STEM programs, which have been the source of almost all new funding for the institutions. Few innovative speakers make their way to our theaters.

So both systems have their troubles. There is no school that has top-shelf infrastructure and bottom-barrel tuition costs. Typically there is a trade-off between research opportunities and professors with a focus on teaching. My university has a flat tuition cost per term- to take one class a quarter would be financial suicide. Yet a woman with a serious disability graduated alongside me this spring; both her and her service dog wore the cap. It had taken her seven years to finish.

In some sense, community college is where we start over. Whether you immigrated from Guatemala, or are looking to change careers in middle age, those that come look to build a new, better world.

Fifty-three months passed between my entrance and exit. I volunteered on political campaigns, I Occupied and shut down a port. Afternoons were spent tutoring poor kids. I spent a year serving on a disabilities commission. 2014 was the year I became a semi-professional lunatic, joining other people living with a mental illness to talk about our lives and help fight stigma. Community college was the catalyst. If you come from privilege and little diversity, you have an obligation to seek others with a different story. Diversity may not come to you, you may have to seek it and let its lessons seep in.

At my high school, which was Benedictine, most church services began with the saying- “always we begin again.” Junior college is a place where those words ring true.