The need for self-examination

November 18, 2015 by Wendy Suiyi Tang

This past week, strings of student protests have called the nation’s attention to the reality of racial tensions and marginalization at college campuses around the country. But even as academics, pundits, students and news outlets watched as student activists rallied at the University of Missouri (Mizzou), Yale, Smith, Ithaca College and Claremont McKenna, the protests have been mired in controversy and conflation. Talk of free speech transmuted into criticisms of political correct (PC) culture and vituperations against the fallibility of “safe spaces,” as academics and journalists alike accused students of being coddled and oversensitive.

At the College, discussion has been lively, albeit privately negotiated in the confines of separate student groups. Last Thursday, the Black Student Union held a moment of silence in Baxter Hall, attracting some 100 students, who, donned in black, stood in symbolic solidarity with the Concerned Student 1950 of Mizzou. While the courage of student protestors served as a source of inspiration for much of the College’s student body, for others, the validity of these students’ actions has been the subject of doubt and confusion. Indeed, the national discussion of “safe spaces” and freedom of speech come at an opportune time, as the College community itself has been fraught with division over the controversy of the recent Suzanne Venker case, in which an anti-feminist speaker was purportedly uninvited at the behest of student backlash.

But a clear point must be made about both the student protests at Mizzou, Yale, Smith, Ithaca College, Claremont McKenna and those on the College’s campus. The central issue of student protests at Mizzou, Yale, etc. is fundamentally detached from that of free speech. Student activists at each of these schools are neither asking to be coddled, nor are they advocating for the policing of free speech in line with what New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait has accused to be a “perver[sion] of liberalism.” Rather, as Yale professor Zareena Grewal writes, “[S]tudents’ aim isn’t to suppress the free expression of their classmates, but to press the university that recruited them, and that they chose, to provide an academic environment where they’re afforded respect.”

Further, as she points out, “free expression and anti-racism aren’t mutually exclusive.” The point isn’t about silencing offensive ideas; it’s about confronting and acknowledging the fact that “the unquestioned freedom to mock the powerful is qualitatively different [from] the freedom to, effectively, bully the most vulnerable members of our community.” Concerned Student 1950 at Mizzou, and student of color coalitions at Yale, Smith, Ithaca College and Claremont McKenna, have convened to address the issues of anti-blackness and racial marginalization on their campuses; they have gathered to protest their administrations’ ignorance of student of color issues and needs, and the de facto perpetuation of a racialized climate in which students of color serve as targets of hate crimes, are excluded from the purview of university services and are viewed as not fitting the “mold.”

Though issues of freedom of expression and discomfort in the academic environment certainly serve as a part of the discussion on racial climates, they are far from being the heart of the issue. The media focuses on them, instead of on the central claims raised by students, as an effort to detract from the bigger issue of racial discrimination levied by student protestors. By conflating student protests with the question of free speech, critics are in truth attempting to delegitimize the validity of the student’s claims and direct attention away from their fundamental struggle against racial inequality within their communities. The inflammatory remarks, which in part sparked protests at Yale, Ithaca College and Claremont McKenna are only one part of the issue; they are indicative of a larger problem of insensitivity and marginalization, which student protests are forcing the public to address, to its discomfort. These students understand that free speech does not come without responsibility; what’s more, the truth of our speech reveals much more than we are willing to admit.

At the College, these events provide us with an opportunity to examine our own racial climate and the responsibilities of expression. The Suzanne Venker case raised an issue of uncomfortable learning, but it’s unfair to turn student protests at Mizzou, Yale, etc. into an accusation against student activists at the College who sought not to silence Venker, but to confront her with the statistical flaws of her own theory. We should neither be conflating the issues of racial marginalization with the controversy over Suzanne Venker, nor should we be denying the existence of discrimination and racism on our own campus without careful self-examination.

Such examination is precisely what we need right now at the College. Without appropriating the struggles of student protestors at schools across the nation, we must use their example as an opportunity to examine anti-blackness and racial marginalization within our own communities. Furthermore, we are afforded an opportunity to examine the nuanced contours of intra-group solidarity, the often fraught alliances between people of color and the framing of the discussion of anti-blackness and racial marginalization in a way that does not conflate, compare or erase the unique struggles of each group.

This Sunday, the Minority Coalition is hosting a GenForum to provide a space for students to process the events and share their experiences and feelings from within their communities at the College. It will be a space for reflection, support, solidarity and healing. It is only the first step, but the beginning of what will hopefully be a sustained and fruitful discussion about the uncomfortable reality of race at the College.

Wendy Suiyi Tang ’19 is from San Francisco, Calif. She lives in Dennett.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Min Kim '07 November 18, 2015 at 10:10 am

“[S]tudents’ aim isn’t to suppress the free expression of their classmates, but to press the university that recruited them, and that they chose, to provide an academic environment where they’re afforded respect.”

This sounds like trying to make a distinction which is irrelevant. No, the protesting students’ “aim” isn’t to suppress free expression. Their “aim” is to achieve a very noble and legitimate goal of having the university provide an environment where they’re afforded respect. The means by which they go about achieving that is by suppressing the free expression of other students and faculty. It’s inaccurate to conflate the problem one has with this means with problem one might have with their aims. For example, Obama has stated that he is sympathetic to the protesters’ goals and pains, while still denouncing their attempts at shutting down opposing opinions. “We’re fighting for a good cause!” is not a sensible response to “we think you’re fighting for a good cause and actually support your cause, but we have a problem with you hurting people and infringing their rights for that cause!”

“Free expression and anti-racism aren’t mutually exclusive.”

This is absolutely true and the exact point of the critics of the protesters. It’s possible to fight against the entrenched systemic racism that pervades modern US/college culture without suppressing free expression of opposing ideas. The protesters who are being criticized do not seem to acknowledge this, and when called out on their suppression of free expression, tend to respond with the fact that they’re fighting racism, as if that excused or required the suppression of free expression. It doesn’t excuse it, nor does it require it.

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Wendy Tang November 18, 2015 at 2:06 pm

The claims about students suppressing freedom of expression as a means of furthering their agenda is simply untrue, at Yale and Mizzou, and beyond. Jelani Cobb (New Yorker) puts it well in his article, “Race and the Free Speech Diversion”:

“The conflict between the Yale student and Nicholas Christakis, the master of the university’s Silliman College—whose wife, Erika, the associate master of the college, wrote an e-mail encouraging students to treat Halloween costumes that they find racially offensive as a free-speech issue, in response to a campus-wide e-mail encouraging students to consider whether their costumes could offend—was recorded on a cell phone and posted on the Internet. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national campus free-speech organization, posted the video to their Web site. Since then, a young woman who argues with Christakis in the footage has been called the ‘shrieking woman’ by the National Review and subjected to online harassment and death threats. Surely these threats constitute an infringement upon her free speech—a position that has scarcely been noted amid the outraged First Amendment fundamentalism. This rhetorical victory recalls the successful defense in the George Zimmerman trial, which relied upon the tacit presumption that the right to self-defense was afforded to only one party that night—coincidentally, the non-black one. The broader issue is that the student’s reaction elicited consternation in certain quarters where the precipitating incident did not. The fault line here is between those who find intolerance objectionable and those who oppose intolerance of the intolerant.”

At Mizzou, there is much to be said for why student protestors asked reporter Tim Tai to leave: here, the issue is again not solely about free speech. Terrell Starr writes in the Washington Post, “Certainly, Tai – like any journalist – had a legal right to enter the space, given that it was in a public area. But that shouldn’t be the end of this story. We in the media have something important to learn from this unfortunate exchange. The protesters had a legitimate gripe: The black community distrusts the news media because it has failed to cover black pain fairly.”
There is also something to be said for the scaffolding of Tai and the Asian American CMC protestor as victims of activist oppression. The fact that the two most prominent student victims hailed by the media are Asian American is no coincidence and points to a longer history of the racial “divide and conquer” strategy, wherein one racial minority group is used as a block to 1) legitimize the dominant group’s narrative against other “inferior” minorities, and 2) disrupt the solidarity between minority groups and therefore weaken the threat to white supremacy. This is another fact that we must be keenly aware as we consider the particular case at Mizzou, and CMC. It is another reason we must be hesitant to jump the gun and label the situation a simple violation of free speech. We must resist the urge to erase the nuances of the case and participate in the public tendency to deflate, decontextualize, and ultimately, delegitimize the struggles of the students against racial injustices that are indisputably present.

Beyond these schools, at Smith, Ithaca, Georgetown, Amherst, and others, the facade of the “free speech diversion” is even more clear. In their methods of sit-ins, rallies, and petitions, student activists at these schools are engaged in an admirable process of confronting the marginalization pitted against them. Contrary to your accusation, by speaking out, students are holding their universities, and the individual agents within their communities, accountable for the overtly racist discourse that are indicative of a broader, more insidious racial climate.

At Williams, the Suzanne Venker controversy is also far from being solely a dilemma of free speech. Ultimately, it wasn’t student critics who forced away Venker. There was no serious threat to her safety, nor an effort to silence her–rather, the goal, as student organizers leading the criticisms make clear (http://williamsalternative.com/2015/10/learning-through-dissent-annika-guy-emily-obrien-gerardo-pelayo-garcia-and-sam-alterman/) was to confront Venker with the fallacies of her own research. The retraction of her invitation was issued from Uncomfortable Learning, and Uncomfortable Learning alone. The flawed coverage on the controversy, which encouraged the subsequent conflation of the Venker case with student protests happening beyond Williams, is problematic precisely because it allows us to buy into the cheap argument of free speech diversion. Such conflation induces a unidimensional disengagement that allows many within the student body to slough off discussion about race at Williams, and engage in a self examination of anti-blackness and racial marginalization that rightly should be happening in light of the events at campuses across the country.

That this conversation is not only limited, but actively being pushed back upon by a substantive portion of the population says a lot about the values of the Williams community as a whole. Is this the campus we want to be?

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Min Kim '07 November 18, 2015 at 3:17 pm

Neither of your points about Yale or Mizzou actually address the issues of free speech. At Yale, students demanded that Erika Christakis and her husband be fired due to the content of Erika’s email. There is no reasonable way to analyze this as anything other than a suppression of free speech. If protesters merely argued against her, that would be one thing and certainly not a suppression of free speech. But in calling for retribution – not only on her but her husband as well – for her opinions, protesters were clearly crossing the line from just expressing their own free speech to suppressing someone else’s speech.

The harassment and threats that the “shrieking woman” received is also very clearly a case of suppression of free speech and is just as abhorrent. Unfortunately, the sources of this suppression are diffuse and anonymous, so it’s only natural that it hasn’t received as much publicity – there’s no explicit group to fight against that proudly stands behind their harassment of the “shrieking woman” the same way that there is one for the harassment of the Christakis couple.

At Mizzou, all the excuses about the media’s unfair coverage or of the conservatives’ divide-and-conquer strategy don’t address the simple issue of a reporter who had every right to be at a place and take pictures being bullied and physically pushed around by protesters. Again, I’m not sure how one can reasonably conclude that this wasn’t a case of suppression of free speech. Maybe it was a smaller part in a larger framework, and maybe that context justifies this instance of suppression of free speech. There seems to be a great discussion to be had about that. But that doesn’t change the fact that the act was one of suppressing free speech.

“That this conversation is not only limited, but actively being pushed back upon by a substantive portion of the population says a lot about the values of the Williams community as a whole. Is this the campus we want to be?”

I see no evidence of this conversation being pushed back upon by a substantive portion of the population. Of Williams, of US college campuses, or of the US as a whole. People, by and large, don’t have a problem with people having conversations about fighting structural racism. But calling for people to be fired due to their contribution to the conversation isn’t merely conversation, it’s an act of bullying and harassment. Using physical force in an attempt to keep journalists out of areas they have every right to be in because you’re worried they might publicize their findings in a way you don’t approve of isn’t conversation, it’s an act of bullying and harassment.

It’s absolutely important that these conversations take place and are encouraged by our universities as well as society as a whole. But you don’t get to pick and choose which views are OK to express in public and which deserve punishment/restrainment and also get to claim that you aren’t suppressing free speech.

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Ian Simmons '09 November 19, 2015 at 1:08 am

I have to say I have enjoyed reading a comment board in which people are disagreeing and yet I have not seen one personal attacked lobbed.

Perhaps I am making too fine a distinction here, but when speaking of freedom of speech, there really are two levels: Free Speech and free speech. Free Speech, as guaranteed by the Constitution, only obliges the government to refrain from restricting or punishing speech. On the other hand, free speech is an ideal held by many (particularly universities) to promote learning and discourse.

So in each of these cases, the “suppression” of free speech isn’t the violation of a Constitutional right, but the betrayal of a principle of civilized society (except maybe in Missouri). In demanding punishment for offensive speech at these colleges, the groups are indeed violating the principle of free speech. Colleges enter a troubling stage where they are picking winners and losers, promoting some opinions/worldviews and stifling others. At Amherst, the protestors demanded the college condemn posters stating “All Lives Matter” and threaten the people posting them with disciplinary action. This violates the very principle the protestors rely on.

Missouri presents a different issue as the university is public. Actions taken by a public university are usually (if not always) considered state action. The university is therefore constitutionally bound to refrain from restricting or punishing speech. While the protestors made many valid points about the apathy shown by the administration, the school is in a very hard position. To do nothing could be construed as state action condoning the ignorant and idiotic actions of the bigoted and prejudicial students causing these issues, but to act too strongly could be explicit state action restricting Free Speech.

I suppose what I am getting at is that, given our rights and the principles we ascribe to, the demands made by the protestors suggesting stricter controls on speech and the creation of safe places (perhaps “speech free zones” is a better term) will do little to bring change and would do more harm than good. You can’t legislate the hate out of someone’s heart, and making some speech illegal/against the rules won’t change what people feel.

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John C. Drew, Ph.D. November 19, 2015 at 2:44 pm

No matter what, students deserve equal treatment under college rules and regulations. We should not have a situation where conservative students are disrespected and marginalized by their college.

A recent letter from the Dartmouth College Republicans indicates the considerable pressures placed on conservative students and the hostile environment in which they function.

See, http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2015/11/an-open-letter-to-president-hanlon.php

This needs to stop. In large measure, the utter domination of our colleges by liberal/leftist activists means they are no longer central to the intellectual world.

John C. Drew, Ph.D. November 18, 2015 at 6:51 pm

Regarding the Suzanne Venker controversy, I’m surprised Wendy Tang writes “There was no serious threat to her safety…”

Unfortunately, the level of hostility directed against the student organizers of UL by their fellow Williams College students was so great that it did raise security concerns. In a Washington Post article, Zach Wood said UL “canceled the event because of security concerns.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/10/27/i-ran-a-speaker-series-to-expose-williams-students-to-unpopular-ideas-it-was-deemed-too-offensive/

I do not think Williams College will heal from this unfortunate experience if key stakeholders shy away from the irreparable damage done by the students whose words and actions caused the UL organizers to fear for Venker’s safety.

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John C. Drew, Ph.D. November 18, 2015 at 1:02 pm

I would think students should be completely free to strongly oppose affirmative action and demand intellectual diversity on their campuses without being labeled bullies.

Objectively, it is the folks who oppose the tyranny of the left who are marginalized and disrespected on most college campuses. Check out this link to learn more about the disgraceful treatment of white students on the Dartmouth campus.

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/nov/16/black-lives-matter-protesters-berate-white-student/

What are we going to do to stop these abuses?

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Bill Venker November 19, 2015 at 12:42 pm

So if the all the students protesting merely sought to confront Mrs Venker on her statistical flaws then why didn’t they? Her speech was printed on the internet……

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Charles Kronick '91 March 27, 2016 at 7:21 pm

I actually see more courage in speakers including Venker presenting to a hostile and unruly community than those engaging in a strictly milk-fed regimen of examination of other’s presumed racial crimes. I have to hand it to whoever said, “youth is wasted on the young.”

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Charles Kronick '91 March 27, 2016 at 7:23 pm

Ms Tang,

I think it unfair to blame the Media for Professor Click’s demise. She held her future in her own hands, attempted a coup, and lost because she couldn’t keep her mouth shut. To the victors go the spoils of war.

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