Ryerson uproar: Opportunity for discussion not insults

A highly inflammatory article was published last week in The Ryersonian about two non-racialised student journalists getting barred from an event for racialised students.

Safe spaces for any group are important, though not necessarily always understood – which is why the quality of the discussion around issues of inclusion is so crucial.

“White students barred from funded Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) student group event” gained so much online momentum over the weekend that it erupted in flames; lit by ignorance, fanned by feckless anger and fuelled by hatred.

And though the article itself was flawed – from misgendering a Racialised Students’ Collective (RSC) member, to framing the piece in such a way that it appeared to place the RSC’s opinion as less important than that of the students’ involved – it shouldn’t have been taken as an opportunity to sling mud, but rather one to have some constructive discussion.

“It looks like the original story started because of a series of misapprehensions, assumptions and misunderstandings, and how we can get from people being a little unclear, or people a little confused, to people wishing terrible things on each other,” says Lisa Taylor, assistant professor at Ryerson University. “It goes from 0 to 60 without any logic at all.”

The entire issue started with a misunderstanding of the definition of safe space, says Trevor Hewitt, who is a third-year Ryerson student and one of the first-year journalism students prohibited from attending the meeting.

He initially understood it as a judgment-free place, which is not wrong per se, but RSU president Rajean Hoilett says it was intended for racialised students only. Safe spaces require confidentiality, comfort to speak freely without oppression and an exclusive environment to be among those dealing with the same problems.

The Facebook event advertised, “Racialised students who are interested in action and awareness-raising for a more inclusive campus. Join our second collective meeting to discuss and envision our mandate and next steps,” without any particularly exclusionary language.

Hoilett says the RSU strives to improve its marketing strategy of these spaces to students. For those who may not understand some of the implicit definitions of terms such as racialisation and safe space, educational resources are available online and on campus. He also hopes to see student media being more engaged and informed about the issue.

Hewitt says if he had understood the implication of safe space, he would have never even thought the story worth publishing.

Instead, the article made its rounds on Reddit, landing on its front page at one point, later plunging into the hellish pits of a white rights thread, among others.

Over 102,000 views and almost 200 comments later (which are now removed), one thing is clear: no one has a problem having discussions. But why can’t anyone see that the problem is the way in which we are talking to one another?

“I think that both sides used fallacious arguments, I think that both sides were very, very polarized and not willing to listen to the other’s opinions,” Hewitt says. “I just wish that there could have been more mature discussion on what actually offended and on what actually people disagree with.”

The initial conversation was tense, yet tempered. One commenter, TedErling wrote early on, “As a black man it sickens me that white people were kicked out. Racism can happen to anyone. MLK would be sick.”

By the end of the weekend white supremacists called for racial segregation, marginalized people attacked cisgender white males as a whole problem-causing group and vile language ran rampant down the comment page on the story.

“Consistently, the content shows people who are making these comments don’t want to step into the shoes of another person,” Taylor says. “They don’t want to see if there’s a different way of looking at something that they’re exploring. It was just full of hate and no learning at all.”

But there are several things to be learned from this mess.

Language around advertising safe spaces may need to be more explicit for those who don’t understand its implicit definitions. Students need to further educate themselves on these issues, where there are plenty of resources available online and on campus. Furthermore, journalists reporting on these issues need to show more tact, care and compassion.

And if all else fails, those participating in the discussion have the ability to facilitate an environment of growth, learning and progress, rather than just hurling insults and patronizing comments at one another.

“I think a nice silver lining with the story is that it’s started a conversation about safe spaces,” Hewitt says. “And you know what? If thousands of people now know what that word means and have a new found appreciation for it – on top of me – then the story did accomplish something.”

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