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PAF Sessions and Privilege

Customs Week 2016 – Photograph by Holden Blanco ’17 courtesy of Haverford College Communications Department.

Disclaimer: This article in no way is intended to attack my Customs team nor other Customs teams on campus. My main purpose is to address the faults in PAF/AMA sessions as a whole, from my own experience and those who talked to me about their experiences. Names and direct quotes from those who spoke to me for this article are not included to keep the anonymity of the individuals.

At Haverford, we often hear the term “safe space” each time we begin a PAF/AMA session, referring to a discussion where individuals are free to express their thoughts on a certain topic and are met with listening ears. Issues concerning race, gender, identity, among other sensitive topics are supposed to be held during these safe space sessions, and we are expected to feel comfortable sharing our personal ideals. Even though these conversations are hard to hold at times, they are essential for college students since they are about issues that are relevant, especially at a liberal arts school that promotes social justice and diversity.. While these sessions have good intentions, they sometimes fail to nurture a healthy conversation that acknowledges different perspectives, often hurting the credibility of the “safe space” these sessions try to create. Simply stating a space is safe does not mean all individuals in these sessions feel like they can express their ideas comfortably.

Every freshman hall has a different dynamic so not all PAF/AMA sessions have the same issues. However, these issues I present in this article should be addressed by all halls, not only those that are already experiencing these problems. One of the concerns expressed by some first-year students is that it takes a while for conversations to start, usually attributed to the fear of “misspeaking.” Because Haverford is generally liberal, some students are scared of expressing some more conservative views. Worries about not being “properly informed” about certain topics also cause long silences during these sessions. Silence is not always bad during these safe spaces. In many cases, it may be necessary in order to give those who struggle to speak up time to build the courage to contribute. Additionally effective silence also occurs when people take in what someone just said and evaluate it silently. But if people are not speaking simply due to the fear of saying something wrong, then the silence is no longer effective. The fear of misspeaking is understandable, but one learns from their mistakes, so they should not be afraid of making them. The fear of judgement is getting in the way of this learning.It is getting in the way of an effective safe space. If safe spaces are to be truly safe, then we should not be afraid of judgement for our thoughts.  Of course, saying something offensive is not justifiable, but at the same time, misspeaking allows us to learn what we did wrong, and as long as we own up to our mistakes and apologize sincerely, then we can grow from our errors.

In some halls, there are individuals who fail to realize how much space they take up. While participating in these discussions is essential, participating too much prevents other students from partaking in the conversation. These conversations need multiple perspectives to be successful, and if only a couple of people are dominating the conversation, then the session loses its purpose. Often times, it is even those who belong to privileged groups* that tend to dominate the conversation (Although we all have our privileges, in this case, I am referring to those who have privileged identities in the topics being discussed in the PAF/AMA sessions). While their opinion still matters, dominating the conversation simply extends their privilege. They are taking away from those who are already being silenced by our society. This space should not only be a place where we can express our thoughts, but it should also be a space that aims to give individuals with marginalized identities a place where they can speak up after being silenced for so long. I find it troublesome when those who have the privilege and opportunity to speak up in our general society are taking away the space for those who do not have that privilege. And what makes it worse is that I often feel like these dominating individuals are trying to make me feel a certain way since they feel the need to constantly speak. Though it would be ineffective to tell certain people to stop talking, the discussion facilitators should encourage students to realize how much space they are taking up and think about this throughout the discussion. Part of the idea of these discussions nurturing safe spaces is that students should feel as if their voices are given a chance to be heard. Out of fear that someone will speak over them, those who have a harder time speaking up will continue to be silent because they do not feel safe about expressing their thoughts. If certain individuals still continue to dominate the conversation, sometimes, confrontation is required. Not necessarily during the session, but possibly after the session is over, the facilitators should make sure that these individuals realize the danger of dominating a conversation and prevent this from reoccurring.

But one of the biggest issues expressed by first-year students is that PAF/AMA sessions stray away from the “big and real problems.” Topics such as race and class are avoided during discussions about privilege, even though to truly comprehend privilege in a predominantly white institution, these topics are essential. This is partly due to time constraints: when these sessions only last an hour, it is difficult to delve into topics as complex as race. With the college life being so busy, it is hard to have all first-year students in a hall to gather together for too long. But these discussions need to be held. Our voices need to be heard. Avoiding such topics is damaging because it is as if these topics are being ignored. As a person of color, not having the opportunity to talk about race is hurtful because it is as if my concerns and my issues are being pushed to the side, all for the sake of time. Sharing my own experiences with privilege would not only benefit me, but can also serve to teach others what privilege really means. Facilitators should realize how essential it is to have conversations about these topics and encourage them. Avoiding the “big issues” simply makes the session ineffective and damaging. If I cannot even express my experience as a person with marginalized identities in a space that is supposed to make me feel safe and free from attacks on my identities, then how can I possibly feel comfortable having these identities at all on this campus?

Ultimately, PAF and AMA sessions provide an environment in which important issues can be discussed in a relatively safe space. However, these safe spaces need to be earned, not simply stated. Addressing these issues can help make these spaces truly feel safe and provide a learning experience for all members of the session. This is not only a call to action for Customs team members but also for first-year students partaking in these sessions. To make these sessions effective, it does not only take work from the discussion facilitators but also those partaking in the discussion.


Photo by Holden Blanco ’17. Courtesy of Haverford College Communications.

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