Last week, several hundred students at Stanford University, where I am a professor of comparative literature and comparative studies in race and ethnicity, held a rally in solidarity with students at the University of Missouri, Yale University, and Ithaca College. Such protests show no sign of abating — and are in fact spreading — because they are about more than Halloween costumes. They are tapping into something profound and festering about racial inequality on campus.
For some in the media, these protests are a godsend. Commenters on the left and right used the events to smugly confirm that political correctness is a Stalinist attack on free speech and that “coddled” millennials are trampling on the Constitution in demand of “safe spaces.” But those mocking students’ calls for “safe spaces” ignore the firm legal basis for this demand, as well as the related economic injustice that takes place every day on campus. Students of color are exploited for their “diversity” and told they cannot ask for anything in return.
Like everything else in life, there will be extreme cases, where it's hard to believe serious threat exists. But those who dismiss all talk about safety as trivial obscure the sense of whose safety — and under what conditions, and with which distributions of power — is at stake.
It's widely known among faculty that students feel unsafe, and these feelings are met with puzzlement at best and antagonism at worst. At universities, I have witnessed and heard of cases of trans people asked about their genitalia, female students’ complaints about sexist language in the classroom greeted with smirks or eye-rolling, senseless generalizations about lower-income students defended completely with dubious anecdotal evidence, and students of color told they are too sensitive and egotistical when they dare to dispute racist stereotypes.
None of the comments that students find offensive, belittling, and disruptive have any actual educational content. They are gratuitous, mean-spirited, and stupid. They add nothing to the conversation and instead get in the way of moving it forward. But it's not a matter of one or two comments that might be heard in the course of one day. Slurs, casual insults, and moments of disrespect pile up over a student’s time at university so that they end up receiving a qualitatively different education than the one they came to college for.
Much of the talk about safe spaces amounts to justifiable demands for true, unhampered, access to education. Here, “safe” means you do not have to negotiate racist slurs, denigrating behavior, and administrations that give lip service to both diversity and antiracism. And this kind of safety is promised to students by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is enforced by the Department of Education and bans racial discrimination at institutions that receive federal financial assistance.
In a 2013 letter to the University of California, Berkeley, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights explained that universities must provide students a "nondiscriminatory educational environment,” as “harassment of a student based on race, color or national origin can result in denial or limitation of the student’s ability to participate in or receive education benefits, services, or opportunities.” The Office of Civil Rights does not judge the offensiveness of any one Halloween costume, instance of racist graffiti, or insensitive email. Rather, it determines whether an environment is hostile: “conduct must be sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive as to limit or deny the student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the educational program.”
And, seen in this light, the issue of safe space cannot be so easily written off as subjective, vague, and unattainable. What students at Mizzou, at Yale, at Ithaca College, in Kansas, and elsewhere are arguing is that “severe, persistent or pervasive” behaviors — sanctioned via silence — “limit or deny” their educations, even while the university uses their bodies, minds, and sheer presence on campus to enhance that very educational program. No wonder they are striking.
Instead of seriously addressing these concerns, the tendency is to either displace the discussion on to political correctness, or to claim equal or greater harm for oneself. What is an article like the mega-viral “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me” if not a plea for a “safe space” from student criticism? Why is this a legitimate request for safety, but complaints from students not so?
What’s at stake when we talk about emotional safety could be seen equally in economic terms. After all, students of color and others are arguing for an equitable quid pro quo. Universities and colleges routinely trot students of color (and women, for that matter) out for publicity and public relations campaigns. They depict themselves as champions of diversity and inclusion. For students actually living on those campuses, this portrayal seems false and misleading, as well as immoral and unethical. Not only do students of color lack access to the educations depicted on brochures (because of daily battles against racism), but their real and symbolic labor is what allows the campus to thrive.
By “real and symbolic labor,” I mean black athletes who put their bodies on the line for their schools’ popular and lucrative athletic departments. No promise of an NFL contract in the future can make up for that. The players at Missouri knew precisely how much money they were earning for their school. How did that break down in terms of their individual compensation? How many other students, and faculty members and administrators, benefitted from their labor?
Less dramatic, perhaps, but just as important, students of color are eagerly recruited to campus. It's not just for glossy brochures. Having students of different backgrounds in the classroom benefits everyone. Everyone learns more. The Supreme Court defends affirmative action on the grounds that diversity is an essential element in college education.
But the result is that students of color and others are asked to act as unpaid instructors of their race or identity. If they object to a particular point, professors often say, “Well, then, tell us what the real truth is, educate us.” (Yes, my colleagues actually say this.)
Students tell me that they don’t necessarily mind educating others, although they get irritated when it happens in nearly every class. They just wish they received a stipend for it. They are asked to be expert informants, and yet when they offer information, often it is ignored, questioned, or criticized. Imagine having to constantly enter a classroom and wonder when you will be quizzed as to your background, feelings, identity. And then to be told your contributions are "terrifying,” or uncivil.
When students point out how racism appears in their lives in ways that name the perpetrators, they are often told they are merely acting on hypersensitive, subjective feelings and being accusatory. When they hold demonstrations and disrupt the ordinary business of the campus in nonviolent civil disobedience, they are told they are being divisive and selfish. How ironic that this very diversity of experience is being censored and muted because others are uncomfortable hearing about the effects of racism outside of a textbook, on their very campus and in their dorms, and in ways not sanctioned by the protocols of civility.
For students and faculty of color, the newfound volume and strength of the campus antiracism movement comes as no surprise. As poet June Jordan wrote in 1980, "If you make and keep my life horrible then, when I can tell the truth, it will be a horrible truth; it will not sound good or look good or, God willing, feel good for you, either.”
David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He blogs for BuzzFeed, "Salon," "The Nation," "Al Jazeera," and other venues.
Contact David Palumbo-Liu at email@example.com.
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