Last week, stories of student protests against campus racism took over our news (at least until ISIS struck Paris). Independent protests began at the University of Missouri and Yale. Students of color from colleges around the country then followed suit and staged protests on their own campuses. Many lauded this strategic student activism that brought immediate change to campuses. Others, particularly conservative commentators, decried the strident tone of the activists and a campus culture that seeks to silence those with unpopular opinions.
I’d like to look at both of these responses, in turn. I am going to boldly wade into this discussion because there are two points I have not seen made. In this post, I will examine conservative reactions to last week’s campus protests. In a follow-up post, I will explore the strategies of the student protestors and then boldly make one suggestion.
Many conservative commentators have suggested that the student protests were simply the whining of an entitled generation whose members think they should never get their feelings hurt. Some have declared it laughable that Black students at a place like Yale would complain about others’ privilege. They go on to urge college administrations to stand up to these coddled students rather than capitulate to them. Typically, these commentators deride the concepts of “safe spaces,” “white privilege,” and “ethnic pain,” and call student protestors “social justice warriors.”
For a moment, I’d like to step back from the overarching questions of entitlement culture. To truly consider the perspectives of black college students, I think it might be best to disentangle their concerns from other groups who also perceive themselves to be oppressed, like LGBTQ students and women. While black student activists often use the same words to describe their cause as gay and feminist activists do, I do not think it is accurate to think of them all as one monolithic group who share a single experience and speak with one voice. Let’s listen to black students alone for a minute.
While it is easy for people like me who have never been called racist names or had our lives threatened to dismiss black people’s pain, I think they deserve more consideration than that. We would do well to listen when black students try to tell us how it feels when a noose is hung on a campus statue and how scary it is when they are walking on campus at night and drunken students hurl the n-word at them. Remember, these single incidents occur in a much larger context–a societal history that is filled with the oppression of black people.
This very year a young white supremacist entered a church, was welcomed to join the Bible study, and then shot dead nine participants. Even last week after the protests started, death threats were made at Missouri and other schools. Campus slurs occur in a landscape that includes black men killed at the hands of the police, seemingly every week. In 2015 alone, we have seen at least two incidents of violent manhandling of teenage black girls by cops and security professionals. This is a country in which police corruption and violence against black people have been well documented in certain cities.
Surely, against this backdrop, we can understand that black students feel truly threatened when the n-word is slung at them and when certain symbolic gestures are made. How can we belittle their desires for a safe space? Can we not give them credence when they speak of their pain?
Yes, these complaints occur in a higher education culture that is being overrun by talk of trigger warnings and safe spaces, but that is no reason to reject the pleas of students who manifestly need them. Just because some other students are overusing these tactics does not mean we can reject black students’ claims when they describe their experiences. Let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. Even though they occur in a wider campus culture that is troubling in its increasing rejection of free speech, black protests and claims of mistreatment deserve to be heard on their own terms.
© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2015.