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Whose Space?

After a complaint that many white students were using the University of Virginia's Multicultural Student Center, the administration emphasizes that all are allowed in the space.

February 14, 2020
 
Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The University of Virginia took to Twitter Wednesday to clarify: the university’s newly relocated and expanded Multicultural Student Center is open to everyone at the university.

Only a few hours earlier, a video posted on Twitter by the conservative group Young America’s Foundation and others had gone viral. In the video, a young black woman stands up in what many identified as the university’s Multicultural Student Center.

“Frankly, there are just too many white people in here, and this is a space for people of color, so just be really cognizant of the space that you’re taking up, because it does make some of us POCs uncomfortable when we see too many white people in here,” she says to the room. “There’s the whole university for a lot of y’all to be at, and there’s very few spaces for us, so keep that in mind."

The university swiftly posted a statement on Twitter.

“Earlier this month the university announced the relocation and expansion of its Multicultural Student Center as part of an effort to offer a variety of spaces that embrace and support the diversity of this institution,” it read. “In order to foster the diversity of experience and ideas that make UVA a great and good place to study and work, these centers are open to all members of the university community.”

The center had just been reopened in a new and expanded space on Feb. 6, along with the university’s LGBTQ center. A dedicated Latinx Student Center and an Interfaith Student Center were opened on the same day.

In the next 24 hours, right-wing outlets ran with the story. In the wake of increased attention, some students voiced their concerns on Twitter for the student in the video and called on the university to support and protect her. Others emphasized that she did not ask anyone to leave, only to exercise awareness. A few noted that white students did not frequent the multicultural center where it was previously located, in a basement.

How to Create a Center

When the Multicultural Student Center was created at the University of Virginia, university officials and students stressed that it was open to all.

In 2014, students from different organizations formed the Multicultural Student Center Initiative to advocate for such a space. They researched peer institutions, assessed student needs and crafted proposals. Students from ethnic minorities comprise about one-third of the undergraduate population at UVA.

The original Multicultural Student Center opened in the basement in Newcomb Hall in fall 2016, with couches and group tables. It housed the offices of the Multicultural Student Services staff. Programming was held in the space, which had a student director.

Shaun Harper, professor and executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, said that when resources are available, creating several more specific centers for cultural groups can be preferable to one larger center.

“I am a proponent of smaller, well-resourced centers that have been thoughtfully created to serve the specific needs, experiences and cultural identities of specific groups,” he said. When resources aren’t available, a larger multicultural center is likely the best option.

“But even with a multicultural center, institutions have to exercise high degrees of intentionality in the creating of those spaces to ensure that they don’t default to an ‘All Lives Matter’ kind of space,” Harper said.

On a website for the Multicultural Student Center Initiative, since taken down, student advocates laid out their mission. The space would allow students to “meet, collaborate, and innovate.”

“We could open up an avenue for intercultural thought and dialogue to spread around the university,” the initiative said on its page in August. “This center can become a space that is not only used by minority students but also by everyone at U.Va.”

Other students who were involved in the effort emphasized that the center was meant to be open to anyone.

“We want people to be able to study, hang out and host meetings here, or reserve the space in the evening hours for events,” Catalina Pinto, the inaugural student director, said in a news release from the university. “Even though it’s called the Multicultural Center, it is absolutely open to anyone. We want to make sure everyone is welcome in this space.”

Harper said that at the hundreds of colleges and universities he has been to and studied, he has never seen one with a specific “no whites allowed” policy.

“Oftentimes white students just presume that those spaces are not for them,” he said.

But universities might be passing over a chance to intentionally involve white students in specific ways, he said.

“Colleges and universities oftentimes miss the opportunity to say to white students that this center can be a rich site for cultural learning. That if you as a white student want to learn more about the cultural histories and cultural identities and cultural assets of indigenous people, Asian American people, African American people and Latino people, that these centers can be a fruitful site for you to access that learning.”

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