A group of black California college students requested that they only live with people of color in a Facebook post that has since gone viral and sparked a national debate about racism and safe spaces at US universities.

Three students at Claremont colleges, a consortium of five undergraduate liberal arts schools in southern California, recently posted that they were searching for a fourth roommate in an off-campus house and added “POC only” to the listing, referring to people of color.

The Claremont Independent, a student magazine, published an article on Tuesday about the housing request and ensuing online debate, with the headline “STUDENTS AT CLAREMONT COLLEGES REFUSE TO LIVE WITH WHITE PEOPLE”. Accompanying the story was a photo of a black man at a water fountain, with a sign reading “FOR COLORED ONLY”.

The article quickly spread beyond the private college campus near Los Angeles to conservative news outlets and mainstream media organizations across the US, launching heated arguments about the experiences of people of color on predominantly white college campuses and raising questions about whether the “POC only” statement was a form of racism.

By Friday, students said the controversy had been blown out of proportion, with some defending the rights of the original Facebook posters to live exclusively with people of color.

“It’s a legitimate request,” said Josue Pasillas, a 21-year-old senior and president of the student senate at Pitzer College. “Students of color should have the right to create spaces where they feel comfortable on campus and off campus. It’s all about living in solidarity with others without the judgment and racism that they face on a daily basis.”

Pasillas, who is Latino, scoffed at commentators who have presented the situation as a case of “reverse racism” or “racism against white people”.

“This is about comfort in one’s residences and nothing more than that. This isn’t racism.”

In recent years, there have been increasingly tense debates about students on college campuses fighting for “ safe spaces ”, with people of color and LGBT activists arguing that they should, for example, have access to spaces that are explicitly black or queer, insulated from hate speech, racism and homophobia.

Opponents have argued that this constitutes “political correctness” run amok and have criticized movements seeking to prioritize people of color or exclude white students.

The firestorm hit the Claremont colleges on the heels of intense protests about racial biases on campus last year. Mary Spellman, dean of Claremont McKenna, stepped down after she emailed a Latina student, saying she would work to serve those who “don’t fit our CMC” mold, launching student rallies and hunger strikes.

Karé Ureña, one of the students behind the original “POC only” post, said that critics accusing them of prejudice and segregation were missing the point.

“The conversation that the public is having is focused on white people and their exclusion in this housing ad,” she said by phone on Friday. “But this is not a conversation about segregation and racism. These terms are deeply rooted in historical and systemic acts of violence towards people of color that white people have simply not experienced.”

Ureña, a 20-year-old junior who identifies as Afro-Caribbean, continued, “We want to reframe it so that it becomes a matter of students of color simply prioritizing their need for survival in the face of historical oppression in higher education.”

Isaac Tucker-Rasbury, one of her roommates, said that they’ve faced hate mail and harassment since the story went viral but that he wanted people to understand why this was important to them.

“There’s an amount of shared experience … as people of color that I would like to have with my housemates,” he said.

Tucker-Rasbury, 20, noted that he has lived with white classmates in the past but that this year, “I thought that it’d be important to cultivate a space where we feel comfortable coming home and taking care of ourselves.”

Chance Kawar, a 22-year-old senior who is white, said he was surprised to see how much attention the post has received..

“It seemed like a relatively innocent Facebook post that has sparked a very big controversy,” said Kawar, who is senior class president.

Kawar said he supported the students’ request, noting that he is gay and prefers to live with women.

“People should have the opportunity to live with those who they feel safe and comfortable with,” he said. “We shouldn’t be making a big fuss about what they need to do to take care of themselves.”

A Pitzer spokeswoman referred the Guardian to a letter college president Melvin Oliver sent to the campus on Wednesday, in which he criticized the original Facebook ad.

“While Pitzer is a community of individuals passionately engaged in establishing intracultural safe spaces for marginalized groups, the Facebook post and several subsequent comments are inconsistent with our mission and values,” wrote Oliver, who was the first African American president to lead a Claremont undergraduate campus.

“This is but another example to us that social media is not an effective platform to engage in complex dialog on seemingly intractable critical issues that have varied histories and contested understandings,” he added.

Jessica Saint-Fleur, a Pitzer student and member of the black student union, said it was reasonable for students of color to want to live with other minorities, especially considering how black students are so vastly underrepresented on campus.

As of last fall, Pitzer undergraduates were 48% white, 15% Hispanic, 9% Asian, 9% multiracial and 5% black.

“You’re asking to live with people that look like you and kind of know where you’re coming from,” Saint-Fleur, 20, said, adding that black students’ needs are often neglected since they’re such a small minority.

“We don’t really have a voice on campus.”

Copyright © 2016 theguardian.com. All rights reserved.


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