So it’s happened. Donald Trump is President-elect of the United States. He ran on a white supremacist ticket, and multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault failed to stop him taking the White House. There were reports of racist, homophobic and misogynistic hate crimes within hours of the result being declared. David Duke called the night one of the ‘most exciting’ of his life, and the Vice-President of France’s Front National declared: ‘their world is collapsing – ours is being built’. The Israeli Right took the opportunity to announce that the era of a Palestinian state is over. This only months after the British public voted to leave the European Union, ushering in a hard right agenda which ensures that the US and UK will (in Sarah Palin’s words) be ‘hooking up’ during the Trump administration.
These events are not surprising, even as they are shocking. Both Brexit and the election of Trump are national outpourings of long-held resentments, and a validation of the racist violences on which both the UK and US are built. Voters want to ‘take their countries back’ from people of colour, migrants, and Muslims. Entwined with this is suspicion and hatred of other Others: trans people, queers, disabled people and feminists. This ‘whitelash’ against globalisation and the very meagre gains which have been made in race equality targets all other social justice movements along with it. Under the pretext of ‘anti-establishment’ sentiment and suspicion of liberal political elites, white supremacists are trying to wrest back full control. There is no greater sense of victimhood than when entitlements and privileges are perceived to have been lost.
In this context, talking about ‘safe spaces’ and feminism in university classrooms might seem irrelevant, even indulgent. Don’t we have bigger problems to solve? Yes we do, as long as you think the micro and macro are separate, that the prejudice and unkindness we let pass in private has nothing to do with the bigotry, aggression and violence which has now been let loose on a national public scale. I believe that what we do on an individual level counts. Especially when social and political problems seem insurmountable, we can break through our numbness and inertia by starting with ourselves. The more privileged of us who care about equality have a duty to do this: we can give our more marginalised comrades space to grieve and breathe, while we think about taking action.
The university has potential as a critical and political space. We must not take a romantic view: the jury is certainly out on whether it is a site of radical deconstruction or just a wing of the master’s house (and the answer is probably both). Universities have also been neoliberalised, marketised and financialised (depending on who you listen to) until civic values have been crowded out by other concerns. But in an age of mass higher education, academics are in a unique position to engage with and influence members of the younger generation. We are also pushing on an open door: most of the under 30s in the US voted for Clinton (although this is thanks to the huge majorities amongst young African-American and Latinx voters), and more than 70% of the under-25s in the UK voted to Remain in the EU.
In between spells of despondency (magnified when I look at my young children), one of the things I will be doing in the coming weeks is reflecting with renewed commitment and energy on my role as a teacher. Am I just here to prepare reading lists, mark assignments and validate credentials, or do I aspire to something more? What do I do with the increasing proportion of my students who want me to ‘teach to the essay’ rather than explore issues in the round? How do I create space for political thought and action amongst young people who are often just trying to survive? These are huge, intimidating questions. Answering them constructively requires me to nurture my own self-awareness and capacity for self-development, and to make sure that my classroom is the right kind of space. A space where the most vulnerable of my students can express what they feel, think and need, and where their voices will be heard.
As Akwugo Emejulu has said, creating safer spaces in university classrooms requires emotional labour which academics are not always willing to provide. Now more than ever, we must be prepared to give emotionally to our students. With bigots empowered and intellectual pursuits reviled under a wave of right-wing populism, we will probably also face incessant questions about whose safety matters more. Those of us who have already dealt with student complaints about feeling uncomfortable in our political classrooms will no doubt see more of them, and there may be little support from our institutions in a context in which higher education and progressive values are under attack. Will we keep our mouths shut, worried about our module rankings, or will we defend our teaching and our politics? Will we put our emotional labour into making some students feel comfortable, potentially at the expense of others?
There is a big difference between safety and comfort. Marginalised people are made physically and mentally unsafe by policies grounded in bigotry, and its violent manifestation on our streets. Many of our dearly held liberal convictions encourage us to appease, not challenge, these politics. They are turned into ‘legitimate concerns’, to make people feel comfortable. Marginalised students may be emotionally unable to stay in a classroom while their peers parrot ‘concerns’ which seem benign but are anything but. It is uncomfortable to address this, especially when students think they already ‘get it’. An antiracist classroom should and will feel uncomfortable to a racist, but may also feel profoundly uncomfortable to someone who is not actively engaging with their white privilege. A feminist classroom may feel especially uncomfortable to a cishet man who feels he has been ‘reconstructed’ and has forgotten the advantages he enjoys.
For too long, we have pandered to people’s comfort under the guise of ‘debate’ or ‘freedom of speech’. Media outlets give shocking bigots airtime and column inches and describe it as balance, and we fail to call people out (or in) when they express diluted versions of these views. It’s easier not to rock the boat, especially when you are dealing with family and friends. But the entitlement to hold and share prejudice has now grown into a mainstream, electorally legitimated movement which tells some people their very existence is unacceptable. Go back to where you came from. Your sexual desires are perverse. Your gender identity is made up. This has happened on our watch. Especially in critical and progressive spaces, if we do not name and challenge this and the more ‘reasonable’ politics which appeases it, we will be letting everybody down. We cannot just hang our heads and wait for the wave to break so things will return to ‘normal’. This is the new ‘normal’, and the old ‘normal’ was not much better.
One of the characteristics of the ‘new normal’ is a loosening of what few restraints we had on expressing bigotry and committing violence in the open. Populist-right leaders have encouraged us to be proud of our hatred, and it has come bubbling up to the surface and exploded on to the streets. I am going to be saying this a lot from now on: this will not be tolerated in my classroom, nor will I appease it as ‘legitimate concerns’. I will challenge more and challenge deeper, and give my students the tools to do so too. This does not mean shutting down difficult conversations: it means having difficult conversations in a way that means those most affected are able to speak and be heard. If that makes others uncomfortable, so be it: instead of sacrificing some people’s safety for others’ comfort as before, we must forgo some people’s comfort to ensure that others might one day be able to be safe.