The gym can be pretty awesome.
For some people, going to the gym is often viewed as a time of release. This is especially true of those who go to the gym to play sports. The nature of recreational sports is that they are voluntary acts of fun. On Hofstra’s campus, one particular area of the gym stands out as possibly meaning more than temporary fun and stress relief: the basketball courts.
Immediately to the right, once you pass the entrance desk, are two side-by-side high school-sized basketball courts. Together, they form one large collegiate-level court. This space has become a home away from home for men of color, especially black men.
These men treat the gym as sacred meeting ground – a safe haven – commonly referring to it as the “rec.” If you were to go to the gym on any random afternoon, you’ll notice that the majority of the men playing basketball are minorities; most of them are black and Asian, who make up roughly eight percent and 10 percent of the Hofstra population, respectively. In an average room of 25, that would translate to only two black people and two and a half Asian people. The staggering difference between the on-campus representation and the gym means that the latter can be interpreted as a safe place.
“In the gym, there [are] more people that look like me compared to on campus. More African Americans and more Asians. It’s more diverse,” said junior community health major Mayokun Esan about how the gym can be a perceived safe haven.
He went on to describe how he would see people he wouldn’t normally see on campus and they would now have an opportunity to speak because of their shared bond of sports and race.
“You would go to the rec and then you’d see a whole bunch of new faces and people that you never saw before and then you just start talking to them. It’s just a really great place. You have tests and midterms, what-have-you, and you forget all of that and you can just ball with these people,” Esan said. “You know what to expect when you go there and it’s a place of comfort.”
The rec isn’t an exclusive, secret hideout that people just so happen to know about; it isn’t fight club. Everyone is welcome to join, and everyone is welcome to play. The draw is basketball. The people come for the basketball and realize that there’s a number of people that happen to look like them that came for the exact same thing. There isn’t an absence of a white presence, it just tends to be the minority in terms of raw numbers. Sports, among other things like music, can often be viewed as a universal bonding language.
“Not just stereotypically, but as you can see by the numbers, at the gym African Americans are more likely to play basketball. The safe space generates from this environment, and the side conversations and interactions that stem from it,” said senior sociology major Donovan Harvey.
He noted a common vernacular used and an absence of “code-switching” at the gym. “People let their guard down a little bit, and you don’t have to worry about representing a group or how you come off. They talk how they might talk and approach issues how they might otherwise approach issues. This, to me, is what a safe space is supposed to be.”
The safe space has that organic, home-like essence. People go in and feel that they can be themselves. “There’s no pressure of having to be a representative ... you can just show up and play basketball,” Harvey said.
This same comfort men of color find in the gym, can also be one that – outside of the context of basketball – may slightly ostracize other groups. While basketball may be what brings people to the courts, the interactions don’t stop there. The resulting conversations can be a source of discomfort or confusion to others.
Harvey mentioned, “If you aren’t from the group, things sounding differently is liable to make you uncomfortable. Conversations may start to sound more urban or more black [additional coded language] and that reality is different for a white man from Long Island.”
There isn’t any harmful intent toward those who are not “rec” regulars, there just happens to be an absence of those other voices that may lead to uneasiness or discomfort due to “locker room” talk, slang or even the random derogatory term.
Without a balancing of voices, a situation like this is unsurprising and is somewhat reflective of the real world that we live in today. If we had true balance, a lack of ignorance and acknowledgement of commonality, we may not even need safe space.