What Mizzou And Yale Are Really Teaching Us About Race, Free Speech, And The Future Of Public Spaces

Thought Catalog / Daniella Urdinlaiz
Thought Catalog / Daniella Urdinlaiz

On the morning of November 11, today, The University of Missouri’s Online Emergency Information Center released a statement saying that the university’s police have captured the suspect who posted threatening messages on Yik Yak and other social media. According to two screenshots on social media of Yik Yak, the suspect separately wrote, “We’re waiting for you at the parking lots. We will kill you,” and, “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see.

This comes during a time of unrest at the university following several incidents of racism, such as the student body president, Payton Head, who was the victim of racial slurs while walking through campus. That incident took place in mid-September. But the spark that lit the fire of unrest took place on October 24th. On the wall of a brand new college dorm, a swastika was drawn with human faeces, according to The Washington Post.

Graduate student Jonathan L. Butler was on a hunger strike up until the university’s president Tim Woolfe resigned from his position on Monday. This was after protests by students, including the student group, “Concerned Student 1950.” The student group refers to the year the first black graduate student was admitted to the university. Woolfe is said to have resigned for his lack of competence in dealing with incidents of racism and prejudice, and in failing to address students in a timely fashion as their concerns arose.

Graduate student Jonathan L. Butler was on a hunger strike up until the university’s president Tim Woolfe resigned from his position on Monday.

Approximately 1,170 miles from Mizzou, as the University of Missouri is often called, is Yale University. Yale has been dealing with its own racial and racist dilemmas–a “white girls only” frat party at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) Yale chapter that saw black and brown girls turned away. On October 31st, Yale sophomore Neema Githere wrote a public Facebook personal account of how she had received the same treatment last year, presumably as a first-year student.

There is also the matter of what is now a famous or infamous email – depending on who you ask – that was a response to guidelines about “appropriate” Halloween costumes. The email, written by Erika Christakis, an early childhood educator at the university, and who along with her husband, Nicholas Christakis, is responsible for residence life at Yale. Nicholas, is in fact a “master.”

According to the university’s admissions communication material, “The Master of each college is responsible for its academic, intellectual, social, athletic, and artistic life. Masters work with students to shape each residential college community, bringing their own distinct social, cultural, and intellectual influences to the colleges.

The response to the Christakis’ has been protests by many students who have called for a formal apology, and for the couple to resign from their post. The response, according to one account from Yale senior Aaron Z. Lewis, has also seen students gathering to share accounts of personal racism at the university. Yale college dean Jonathan Holloway’s response came late, which Holloway acknowledges in a letter to students – included in Lewis’ account.

In analyzing both Mizzou and Yale, there are clear distinctions in the racist incidents that took place and their immediate aftermath. Indeed it matters too that one university is an Ivy, and the other is not. The details of each specific context that led to racial unrest at each university very much matters. But it would be careless and perhaps even ignorant to not discern the cultural climate both these racial unrests take place in, and the implications for our conversations on race, free speech, and the future of public spaces, which may include safe spaces and intellectual spaces.

A friend asked me on Sunday what I thought of all of the events. I said, “I am still in the midst of thinking, but part of me cannot help but feel the chicken has come home to roost.”

beetlejuice

The experience of being a person of color, a black (foreign) woman at a predominantly white institution or PWI, is a part of my identity. I did both my undergraduate and Master’s work at PWIs – first at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and then at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

The importance of this fact is that I know and understand and have some of the same experiences as students of color in both these universities – and indeed in universities across the country. The dimension of being foreign and a Nigerian third culture kid is important. But it didn’t negate racialized and often casually and covertly racist experiences in my schooling.

In this way, it is very easy for me to be in solidarity with the students of color at both universities. Though I witnessed and experienced very few incident of overt racism, the casual, silencing racism, often in the form of microaggressions, is part of being a person of color in a predominantly white space. Microaggressions such as the expectations of intelligence, the questioning of whether you “deserved” to be in such a space (read: that you didn’t “take some other white kid’s spot”), and whether you did in fact “merit” your merit scholarship. But there is more.

“Why do all the black kids sit together?” This was a real question asked by white schoolmates. Nobody ever seemed to question why white kids sat together as they often did, and they were in the majority. There was the usual “fun-making” of foreigners with particular accents, cultural assumptions and stereotyping depending on who you are and where you’re from, and the unceasing and ridiculous questions that made you wonder if your classmates were really receiving a college education at all.

“Why do all the black kids sit together?” This was a real question asked by white schoolmates.

Being an African too, I was subjected to the most ridiculous stereotypes Americans have about Africans. I quickly began to resist this experience through humor and subjecting Americans to the most ludicrous tales you’d ever heard. But I had gone through four years of college with people who could not refer to me as a Nigerian (or say I had “come from Botswana”), but who would still refer to me as “from Africa.” Make no mistake about it – I am an African. But the insistence of referring to me as per my continent is socially located in the erasure of Africa as a diverse place of plural identities.

I was often on the receiving end of “positive racism” too – being the “well-spoken” black girl. One comment made about me that I cannot forget even if I wanted to because I have heard it multiple times is, “You’re not like other black people.” I still remember the first time I experienced this in college. I was in a state of shock and anger that left me silent. But I soon began to respond to that statement by asking, “What do you mean by that?” This would send them down a rabbit hole of their casual racism.

I had been around white people my whole life but never like this. And to be fair, as a foreigner who was significantly more cultured than many of my classmates as an undergrad, some of the experiences were unsurprising. Still, I had never been around a more ignorant, clueless group of people in my entire life. I made friends – yes, I made good friends there – many whose friendship I have maintained.

I have also passively kept in touch with many who I would not call friends, but whose lives appear on my radar because of social media. And indeed it is not a surprise to see the performance of mental gymnastics they undergo whenever a black adult or child is confronted, assaulted, and killed by police. It is not a surprise that many more just wholly remain silent on the race issues of our time. Growing older does not mean people change.

So yes, having been in the shoes of many Yale and Mizzou students of color and had the same same experiences, I understand their plight.

beetlejuice

As a graduate student at DePaul, I had the pleasure and privilege of being in the classroom teaching. It became clear that like my parents – who are academics – I also very much enjoyed being on the other side of the classroom table.

I taught Intercultural Communication. Correction: I taught Intercultural Communication to majority white but significantly more diverse students than my undergraduate classrooms, as a Black, African woman. The class centered on capitalism, racism, sexism, nationalism, and subcultures in America. Basically all the things that generally make people uncomfortable.

My classroom was a place where on the one hand, as a young person, and a young black woman at that, I had to establish authority and respect from the get-go. On the other hand, I had to foster an environment of dialogue and disagreement in an intellectual space, all while maintaining a safe space for all students.

This is a great ask of any teacher and indeed it involves a delicate balance of openness, plurality of opinion, asking one’s self and one’s students to be challenged; asking and answering difficult questions, and allowing students to engage in critical thinking that doesn’t always arrive at the same conclusions. Having completed the graduate program and reflecting on my experiences in it as an organizational and multiculturalism scholar, who studied diversity, whose research looked at race conversations in digital media, and then also as a teacher as well – being a person of color in an academic space is interesting, and filled with many contradictions.

On the one hand, one of the (valid) criticisms of academic institutions is their liberalization – small l. This liberalization often means that those with opposing viewpoints – conservative, perhaps even middle of the road, or completely off the spectrum – may struggle with the classroom and the academy as a place that truly allows for plurality of perspective. As an intellectual space, this is a criticism that has not been addressed seriously enough.

On the other hand, despite this liberal space, which is deemed more friendly towards marginalized groups, academia and the university space is wrought with the same experiences of discrimination as elsewhere in the culture, from the student body to the faculty to the administration. The reality of being in the university as a person of color, who seeks an intellectual space, but who also desires a safe space, can mean being caught between a rock and a hard place.

beetlejuice

When we talk about safe spaces, what are we actually referring to? Public spaces are much more easily understood, as are intellectual spaces. Public spaces are almost self-explanatory in that they are to be utilized by everyone, in compliance with legal regulations. It is worth noting of course that public spaces in the country have not always been equal; it is important to remember that legality and fairness and equity are not synonymous.

Intellectual spaces are also self-explanatory in that these are places where learning occurs and is encouraged at a higher level such as universities. Like public spaces, intellectual spaces were built on foundations of exclusion, dependent on race and gender/sex, most notably.

Like public spaces, intellectual spaces were built on foundations of exclusion, dependent on race and gender/sex, most notably.

Safe spaces are however, not self-explanatory, and if you ask cultural experts, their definition may even differ, albeit narrowly from one person to another. But the general idea of a safe space is that it is a place, or it is the embodiment of a person (think: “Allies”), oftentimes in an educational environment, that another person–irrespective of identity–can approach without fear.

As defined by the Safe Space Network, a tumblr dedicated to the cause: A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.

Safe spaces are not only noble undertakings, they are necessary in the midst of historically and continually, formally and informally, exclusionary public and intellectual spaces. The problem of course is that the goals of a safe space may appear to contradict the goals of both public and intellectual space, and especially the latter. These spaces aim to exist together in universities but the very problem we are having is their co-existence.

Can one be both comfortable and challenged in a space that aims to be both safe and intellectual? Can one freely speak in a space that is both safe and intellectual and public, when a particular political ideology (liberal) is deemed preferable? Do the very existence of these different goals in these different intangible spaces under what might be an unintended prevailing political ideology, allow for any space to be authentically public and intellectual and safe, without choosing the importance of one over another?

beetlejuice

When I reflect on my experiences as a student, a scholar, a young professional, and express them, I am often asked how I survive(d) in them in all my identities. What people are asking me, I think, is how I (and others) function within these contradictions. I often want to tell them that the entire world is filled with contradictions that most of us survive in. “Survival is not an academic skill,” as Audre Lorde so wisely commented.

In my multiple identities: African, black, woman, scholar, student of culture, writer, and maybe one day even a public intellectual – all of which I exist in white spaces – some whiter than others – I tell people that I put certain values above others, while not rendering lesser values irrelevant. I also tell them that I know that achieving multiple goals needn’t be mutually exclusive. This is vague until I give an example.

My best example is in teaching. I was raised by academics but really I was raised by teachers. And I have always loved the classroom as a student – and in adulthood I would find out I love it as a teacher too. It is imperative to me as a student and as a teacher that difficult, challenging learning take place in the classroom. This, I am willing to argue, is more important than any discomfort I feel as a student or a teacher, with some limited exceptions, such as the known threat of bodily harm.

It is imperative to me as a student and as a teacher that difficult, challenging learning take place in the classroom.

Interestingly, it is my experiences in my identity as black and foreign in White and American spaces that fostered my ability to handle the classroom in an intercultural learning environment, teaching intercultural communication. My students of color saw me as someone who understood their experiences. But my white students understood that their experiences too were of great value in the class, especially when the material challenged them personally.

The classroom as bell hooks asserts, ought to be a contested space. The contested space, according to hooks in her scholarship on feminist classrooms, is defined as “a space that is not necessarily defined by conflict, but which includes room for conflict.

Kyoko Kishimoto and Mumbi Mwangi further emphasize hooks’ point by arguing that, “To imagine that learning only takes place in a place of “calm” is to miss the ways in which contradictions, ambiguities, anger, pain, and struggles can be sources of energy to facilitate critical consciousness necessary for individual and social change.” The reality is whether you are in front of the desk or behind it, the classroom ought to be a challenging learning experience.

One of the reasons for my insistence of speech and thought freedom, and intellectual plurality, is because of my father who is a public intellectual, who was a former journalist, and who knows what it is like to live in a country where freedom of speech is restricted. For my father’s insistence on freedom in Abacha’s Nigeria, the safety (ironically enough) of him and our family was not secure and was what eventually led to us leaving the country.

In my upbringing – which one should never negate in their understanding of self and other – freedom of speech and indeed of the public’s right to knowledge (freedom of the press), along with freedom of movement, is not something that I simply learned as a right. It makes up the very essence of who I am and how I perceive the world around me. With very few exceptions will I ever deem, that these freedoms, can be restricted – in the public space, in the intellectual space, in the safe space, and where these spaces intersect.

It is these very freedoms that foster my insistence on the importance of safe spaces. The students at Yale and at Mizzou are asking for safe spaces in public and intellectual spaces. And I reiterate: safe spaces should exist in order for people of color to be in places free from marginalization, or at least where they can discuss their marginalization without fear. But we cannot discount that the inherent purpose of a public space, for all its failings, is for multiple people to exist in it; the inherent ask of an intellectual space is for a plurality to be allowed to exist.

And I reiterate: safe spaces should exist in order for people of color to be in places free from marginalization or at least where they can discuss their marginalizations without fear.

Thinking about the email that Erika Christakis sent to Yale students in which she cautioned that the well-meaning guidelines for Halloween costumes, should still allow for people to be “obnoxious,” I think multiple interpretations can and ought to be considered.

Do I think that some of what Christakis wrote can be interpreted as essentially giving people free rein to wear Blackface? Yes. But I also think that interpretation is not discounting that she was asking for students to have the space to be obnoxious, not necessarily offensive. I do not think she was saying wearing Blackface is okay or wearing offensive costumes is okay. I think she was saying something more general: have we got to the point where every facet of free speech must be in agreement with a particular ideology in an intellectual and safe space for it to be allowed?

She has a point. I say this as someone who publicly proclaimed that I would not be addressing white people this year about why blackface is a bad idea. (Because quite frankly if you don’t know by now – and I’ve written quite a few pieces on it – it’s because you don’t wish to know.)

But the questions that Christakis posed in her letter and that her husband Nicholas are both concerned with are worth asking. Especially so, after watching the interactions with Yale students and Nicholas. Do we even know how to entertain thoughts in what is a liberal academic space that are not ipso facto, fitting into popular liberal ideology? I am seeing less and less of that in any space.

Do we even know how to entertain thoughts in what is a liberal academic space that are not ipso facto, fitting into popular liberal ideology?

What I’m essentially saying is that people of color and our voices have to be emphasized because the public space and intellectual space is inherently prejudiced against us. But what I don’t think should occur, is this notion that disagreement in these spaces should be withheld. Consider the journalism professor in Mizzou blocking access to photos and asking for the journalist to be removed from a public and intellectual space, for it to be “safe.” That is unconscionable as someone whose position ought to make them particularly knowledgeable on the importance of the freedom of the press.

We can argue about the prejudices of the press and the hostility that people of color experience. And we must insist and fight for institutions to be responsible for authentically diversifying their spaces with more than just one or two black and brown faces at different levels. We must insist that these institutions actually do the important work of diversity, which is deliberate and continuous. But we also have to fundamentally understand that the protection of free speech is at stake in all spaces and at all times. And even at our own personal offenses, that speech ought to be protected.

beetlejuice

This worry about freedom in intellectual spaces of course is not new. One of the best examinations that have occurred this year was in The Atlantic: “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The author argues for what has essentially become a cultural institutionalization of protecting students from discomfort, at the cost of actually educating students in the classroom, and training them to deal with discomfort beyond the classroom.

While I still have my reservations of the authors’ commentary on microaggressions –  naturally, as a multiculturalism scholar I approach these differently – I certainly appreciated the overall argument and especially the section on the value and implications of trigger warnings. The latter of which though I understand the theoretical desire for them, I question their implications.

In reading “The Coddling of the American Mind,” I noted how my cultural biases coming into play in an interesting way to agree with the authors. Because the other truth of my experience, taking into consideration all of my identities, is that I do very much view Americans as too focused on feeling good, and a seemingly eternal obsession with avoiding pain and seeking pleasure.

In my Nigerian upbringing, I can wholeheartedly say that pain and discomfort are not only allowed, your parents teach you to expect it throughout your life. They even go as far as saying it is necessary for ultimately positive outcomes. It must be said of course in any intercultural communicative space, such as the many we find ourselves in, that the context of these values are important.

In the context of our public spaces however, we know that people of color already are likely to experience discomfort. I asked Madison Moore who is a writer at Thought Catalog and elsewhere, and a research associate in the Department of English at King’s College, University of London, of his experiences at Yale where he earned his doctorate. Moore discussed the prevalence of microaggressions but emphasized that this is not unique to Yale. It is certainly not unique to Mizzou. It is not unique to the American collegiate experience. We know that the creation of the safe space in the intellectual space is an attempt to lessen these discomforts. So how do we achieve this without compromising free speech?

It is not unique to the American collegiate experience. We know that the creation of the safe space in the intellectual space is an attempt to lessen these discomforts. So how do we achieve this without compromising free speech?

It is easy, for example, to talk about the importance of maintaining plurality of perspective when you’re a white male in the United States. The authors of “The Coddling of the American Mind” are just that – white and male. As is Ryan Holiday, who wrote a great piece on why we need to stop protecting everyone’s feelings. Holiday in particular is someone whose public writings I follow closely, and the authors of The Atlantic article – Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt – are both brilliant intellectuals. But their positions as people with the highest privilege in this culture may also foster their perspective, even if and when I agree with them in whole or in part.

In The New Yorker, the brilliant Jelani Cobb, wrote about race and the free speech division. In it, he included the following: “The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.”

The importance of this paragraph is at the epicenter of our “race problem” in our public, intellectual, and safe space intersections. Indeed, our freedoms do not exist on equivalent levels of power – I certainly value some more than others as I have stated earlier. It is also true that people are in different and unequal positions of power in relation to society as a whole, and to each other. It is necessary, as Cobb points out, that we consider the principle foundations of free speech in relation to liberty of self and the other.

Still, if I remember my political theory well, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Rousseau, along with their early influencers including Locke, Descartes, and Bacon, knew that liberty was ultimately a complex subject. Deciding where my liberty begins and ends, and deciding this in relation to yours is a difficult, if not altogether frustrating endeavor that has (and ought to be) redefined based on new information and indeed what has taken place – context. But I am not an expert on liberty, nor do I even wish to enter the unavoidable metaphysics debate going down that path will surely lead us. I only wish to ask questions about how we resolve the public, intellectual, and safe spaces in our current culture.

Deciding where my liberty begins and ends, and deciding this in relation to yours is a difficult, if not altogether frustrating endeavor that has (and ought to be) redefined based on new information and indeed what has taken place – context.

What is the future of the intellectual space if it does not allow for plurality of opinion? The result is the reduction of academic freedom and the new (and growing) model of customer-service relationships being applied to the student-teacher relationship. What is the future of the safe space? The safe space suffers too because everyone stakes a claim to marginalization, even if their claims are ahistorical. And the public space? The public space becomes even worse than it is now – the fights, from petty to institutional and economic – become more polarized.

Some of the solutions to our space problem have already been provided. Implementing cognitive behavior therapy to deal with potentially triggering events and discussions, as Lukianoff and Haidt present, should be considered by educators and parents alike. The economics of academia and the economic burden it presents ought to be considered too. My personal theory is that we simply can’t go on like this, from a financial well-being perspective for the nation. But also, that the less economic rationales students (and their parents) have for becoming a hindrance to education and learning, the more freedom teachers can exercise.

As for safe spaces, there too needs to be more practical guides of functioning beyond their borders. There needs to be a plurality of opinion presented on how to deal with microaggressions in public and intellectual spaces, to confronting challenging conversations and subjects in various ways. Is the best way really (and always) avoidance? Teaching young people – and I can say this as a young person, albeit from a different culture – to avoid discomfort, poorly prepares them for greater educational pursuits, and for life.

You know what my father said when I graduated college in the summer of 2011 and was unsure about law school and life? What he said about most challenges to me at the time: “Growing up is hard. You will learn. You will survive.” To which my mother added, “Things will be more difficult for you too, because you want to achieve so much.” It’s not good practical advice for resolving some of our space problems, but it is good life advice; one must survive first, before anything else.

So indeed I stand with the students of color at Mizzou and Yale. I stand with them in solidarity. I stand with their calls for diversity. I am with them in experience and in spirit. But I would do them and myself and anybody who I influence through my words on the (digital) paper or in a classroom, if I do not also demand that we rethink the direction of our intellectualism.

We need plurality of ideas and perspective and voice – we need it more for people of color because of historical disadvantages but we need it too, for the benefit of all. We need it in our intellectual spaces and we need it in our safe spaces and we need it in our public spaces, and the spaces where these three intersect. Without it, we are a people still concerned with having power over another. With it, we are a better people: a people who can advocate for racial justice and truth, diversity, and not just free speech, but ultimately better speech, in any and all spaces. TC mark

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