What does it mean to “take up space” and why do we talk about it so much in student affairs? If you’re in the field of student affairs and you aren’t talking about the concept of taking up space, then the sad reality is that you’re probably letting a lot of oppression go on unchecked. To understand what it means to “take up space” in the field of student affairs, specifically, it’s important to first unpack what it means to take up space.
I first became familiar with the concept when I was in high school and found myself frustrated by my peers who raised their hands in class and then spoke at length without seeming to recognize that others had input to share with the group. I remember going home from school and scribbling down my frustrations through poetry. I scratched out draft after draft of the poem, which originally started with a line like, “The air you fill above our heads is stuffed, filled with your words, and I am suffocating trying to breathe around it.” I decided in the end for the poem to just be two words: “Shut up.” I was an angsty teen.
Since high school though, and especially in college, my understanding of taking up space has developed. Words like “manspreading” and “mansplaining” pop up in media often. Both are examples of taking up space – one physical and one verbal. Manspreading is when a male-identified person physically spreads their body in public spaces and takes up an unnecessary amount of room, inconveniencing others around him. Mansplaining is when a male-identified interrupts or corrects a person with a subordinated gender identity to insert his opinion, implying that he is correct and his knowledge is superior. Both take up space. Both happen often. We also see space taken up in less overt ways. Manspreading and mansplaining may be attributed to hegemonic hetero-patriarchial values in the United States, but there is another dominate hegemony that pervades and takes up a lot of space: White supremacy.
White supremacy takes up space in nasty, invasive, sometimes subtle, and sometimes overt ways. The fact that the majority of universities and colleges are predominately white institutions? White supremacy. Don’t try to tell me that it’s because the majority of Americans are white. Do you know why the majority of Americans are white? Because of colonization, genocide, and mass immigration AKA white supremacy. White people take up a lot of space on college campuses and it affects the way people with marginalized racial and ethnic identities navigate their own collegiate experiences. White supremacy spreads its way into residence halls, classrooms, student organizations, athletics, and everywhere else on a college campus. It takes up huge amounts of physical and emotional space.
In student affairs, especially in my graduate program, we talk about taking up space a great deal. My classmates are very aware of the identities they themselves hold and at least some of the identities their peers hold, and it influences our conversations. There is a unique environment created in a classroom and even in casual interactions when a person is viscerally aware of the space they take up and how it affects everyone else. People speak up when they feel like their silence creates a negative impact, and they share less when they feel they’ve dominated a space for too long. We encourage each other to speak and advocate for voices and identities that are usually minimized or excluded. This practice and awareness carries through into our work with students and hopefully those students then spread that awareness to their peers. We use this awareness with the goal of creating more socially just spaces for all.
There is a need for caution though: an individual should never use their awareness of the space they take up as a means for avoiding engaging with a particularly challenging topic. White professionals should not claim, “I won’t say anything because I don’t want to take up too much space,” when asked to discuss the role of race in the collegiate experience. Male-identified professionals should not say, “I’m not going to share as much because I don’t want to take up too much space,” when charged with discussing the impact of gender on professional and classroom spaces. That’s passing the responsibility of deconstructing harmful hegemonies onto those already oppressed. This awareness should be used to empower and enable others to be their best selves, not prevent ourselves from learning and growing. Sometimes, you need to take up space. Sometimes, you need to express yourself even if you run the risk of being wrong or offending someone. Taking up space and learning from its consequences is more beneficial for everyone than if you stay silent and keep your biases hidden. A balance is necessary.
If we want to chip away at the big issues in this country like white supremacy and the hetero-patriarchy, then we, as student affairs professionals, must become more aware of the space we take up as well as the space our students take up. This journey begins with identity acknowledgement and development, and is a journey that probably has no end. But the road we travel together will be a great deal less bumpy if we all let each other take up the space we deserve.
Maggie K. Hussar
University of Delaware c/o 2016
University of Vermont c/0 2018
Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration