The following is a guest post by Trav Mamone. Trav is a bisexual genderqueer humanist blogger who writes about the intersections of social justice and secular humanism at Bi Any Means. They also contribute to Queereka and The Humanist, and they host the Bi Any Means Podcast.
According to most media outlets, the protests happening at Yale right now are nothing more than tantrums from children who got their feelings hurt. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, for example, says the protesters are“behaving more like Reddit parodies of ‘social-justice warriors’ than coherent activists, and I suspect they will look back on their behavior with chagrin.” Philosophy professor Dr. Peter Boghossian has been having a field day on Twitter making fun of the so-called “coddling” of American college students (including this rather facetious tweet suggesting colonialism wasn’t so bad after all). However, as usual, the facts reveal a more complex issue.
According to Yale student Aaron Lewis, what’s happening at Yale right now is the result of several incidences over the past year. Last year, according to Lewis, someone drew swastikas outside a dorm, but concerns for students’ safety were not properly acknowledged. He also says just recently, a group of women of color were turned away from a social event because it was a “white girls only” party. The protests, Lewis writes, “[are] about real experiences with racism on this campus that have gone unacknowledged for far too long. The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn’t.”
While everyone is focused on the students’ behavior, very few media outlets are talking about how colleges should address racism on campus. As we’ve seen with the #BlackLivesMatter protests, many of our institutions are steeped in racism, including our academic system. As Dianna E. Anderson recently wrote, “Black Americans could not be educated at these institutions to begin with, and that legacy is still felt on campus, where students of color feel as though they are entering yet another white space that ignores their identities or treats them as debatable issues.” So despite what Boghossian or Richard Dawkins may say, the Yale protests is not about hurt feelings; it’s about systemic racism that’s not being properly addressed.
Which leads us to the next question: How do we address racism on campus?Jessica Xiao of the American Humanist Association recently wrote an article for The Humanist explaining that while microaggressions are harmful, dialogue is more effective than speech codes. She writes, “We have the capacity, when we hear the expression of a controversial, offensive, socially taboo opinion, to change minds, create allies, allow for stories of redemption to emerge, and to color our self-narratives with lessons learned instead of polarizing mistakes.” Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes social justice activists (including myself) make is crucifying other activists when they make mistakes. As Kai Cheng Tom of Everyday Feminism writes:
I’m not saying that we should stop calling out oppressive language or behavior, or that we should tone police folks who are talking about the oppression they are directly experiencing. Definitely not – we have a right to speak up and to be angry about oppression. I’m saying that doing the work of social justice is a skill that takes time, patience, and teaching to learn. I’m saying that we can’t treat people as though they were disposable – try one out and throw them away if they don’t work out.
I don’t have enough hands or feet to count all the problematic and flat-out wrong things I’ve said, but I’m learning from my mistakes, and so can the faculty at Yale.
So how can college faculty do a better job addressing racism on campus? Unfortunately I don’t have all the answers, but I do know the best way to start is to grant a platform to marginalized voices.
As Sincere Kirabo wrote in The Humanist earlier this year, granting a platform to marginalized voices is the best way to understand an issue instead of relying on personal bias. He writes:
When people fail to seek enlightenment from the out-group, they are inclined to possess uninformed and patronizing views about matters they are only tenuously familiar with by virtue of hearsay, anecdote, and disinformation presented by in-group peers, media sources, or token figures (for example, assenting to what African-American conservative media darlings Ben Carson or Stacey Dash have to say on race issues would be ill-advised).
And this is what’s been missing from the debate about safe spaces on campus: no one is listening to the actual students. The discourse surrounding safe spaces has been dominated by white heterosexual cisgender men, and as a result, those who mention trigger warnings and microaggressions are often automatically labeled “social justice warriors.” While there are certainly extreme cases in the debate (although the play The Vagina Monologues mostly focuses on white cis women, I wouldn’t prevent it from being performed, like Mount Holyoke students recently did), even these extreme cases bring up concerns for people who are often ignored in conversations. By giving marginalized people a platform upon which to speak—and, more importantly, listening to them—we can rethink our previously-held beliefs, and discover new ways to diversify the general discourse.
While we can debate whether or not the students of Yale are reacting appropriately, hopefully we can all agree that this should be an opportunity to have difficult yet necessary conversations. And part of that conversation means listening to marginalized voices.