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.