In the past few months, student protests have swept across college campuses in the U.S.
Focused on issues of race and marginalization, these student protests have highlighted questions that have been at the forefront for a while: Should communities be sensitive to the experiences and cultures that different people represent? What should be the role of an administration, and what is the larger role of an institution as a ‘safe space?’
At the University of Missouri, tensions culminated in multiple demonstrations, a hunger strike and a boycott from the football team. Students were protesting a lack of administrative response to incidents of racial slurs and discrimination.
At Yale University, female students were allegedly turned away from a fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s party one night, saying that the party was for “white girls only.”
That same day, students received an email from the administration and campus diversity groups advising students to “actively avoid Halloween costumes” that disrespect and appropriate different groups. Shortly after, Yale Lecturer and wife of Associate Dean Erika Christakis responded with another email saying that the administration was bringing free speech into question. “American universities were once a safe space; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition,” Christakis wrote.
Social Justice Council co-president Julia Leland (’16) believes that the role of an administration is to guide its students, and argues that in this case, Yale did the right thing in sending out the email. She points out that the letter was not a strict demand and nor did it have consequences if breached. “They were just saying, ‘think about your costume, is it respectful?’ Leland said. “They were making a suggestion, which is no different than the Middle School dress code: ‘do you feel comfortable in your clothes? Will it offend someone else?’”
On the other hand, Spencer Swanson (’16) believes that all administrations should stay out of matters of behavior and sensitivity due to the subjectivity of the issue. “There’s a huge gray area with things where the administration shouldn’t have a role, that area where one person may find it offensive but another person may not,” he said. “In those cases, we should leave the individuals of a community to sort it out for themselves.”
Leland worries that if students are left to deal with these issues themselves, it poses a risk that students will offend others. “College is a place where you should be exploring and making mistakes, but it isn’t the place where you should be allowed to be disrespectful,” Leland said. “Just because you are a college kid doesn’t make it okay.”
Social Studies Teacher Mike McGowan recognizes the activism on college campuses as part of a debate of the role of political correctness in communities. “With political correctness, there’s always tension between the community and the individual, between what the individual would like to say versus community norms,” he said.
Caroline Tisdale (’13), currently a sophomore at Yale, sees the larger movement at her school and beyond as more than just political correctness and freedom of speech. “People have the freedom to say what they like and freedom of speech protects one against the law but it doesn’t protect one against the consequences of one’s words,” she said. “This is about respect and understanding and especially from the Christakis’ position within the university, creating a safe inclusive space for all students.”
Swanson, though, sees the issue as more indicative of a “hypersensitive” culture than a culture of inclusitivity. “Often at ASL, people are working really hard to get offended at things,” he said. “They hear something and they think, ‘oh, I want to get offended’ or they twist something on purpose. This is a theme with political correctness – trying to not offend somebody in 2015 is nearly impossible.”
This issue of “hypersensitivity” manifested itself at school last year. Social Justice Council Member and Unity in Diversity leader Milo Kremer (’16) remembers that in a student gender equity group discussion, mildly offensive comments inflamed others to the point that these people were excluded from the group. “And now, when I go ask them to go to Unity meetings, they’re like ‘why should I come to a place where my views aren’t even welcome?’” Kremer said.
Kremer believes this mentality has led to only a certain group of students being involved in social issues at school. “We need to have everyone involved in this, it can’t just be a niche in the school. There needs to be a more welcoming attitude and a more inclusive attitude with these clubs [from both the members and club leaders].”
Upon graduating ASL, Tisdale felt that the lack of social justice activism at school meant that she was not prepared to go on to university. She is vehement that these discussions must happen.”I think going into college I thought I was very tolerant,aware,unbiased because I’ve lived abroad and have then perhaps had a more global experience than most other students,” she said. “However, I soon realized that I was very unequipped to have conversations on social issues.”
McGowan agrees with Tisdale and believes that students are not aware specifically about issues relating to race. “[Students] are entering a world where there is a heightened sensitivity to issues involving race,” McGowan said. “I’m not sure [the school] always really makes [students] are of that.
These discussions could be facilitated if they were integrated in the school curriculum. “On some level, activism should be part of the experience. If activism means getting involved in important issues and trying to change things, we should embrace [it],” he said.
From the Yale Movement:
Yale University freshman Myles Cameron has been an active participant in the student movement at Yale. He describes the marches and demonstrations as unlike anything he’s ever felt.
“Being there, marching with all these people, all the love and camaraderie in the air – it was such a powerful environment,” he said.
To him, the movement, more than anything, is about making sure all students, regardless of race or culture, feel welcome at Yale. “[The demonstrations] were more of a solidarity kind of thing, everyone wanted to support the girls of color who were genuinely hurting after the [fraternity] incident and people who felt offended by the email. To be there for support, and to say ‘we belong here at Yale,’” he said.
The media, though, hasn’t fully portrayed this message properly. “The craziest thing for me is seeing how the media can twist things different ways,” Cameron said. He cites that the liberal outlets have “supported” the movement by showing how the marches are about inclusivity and a call for improvement of the institution. More conservative outlets have interpreted the message differently. “[These] media outlets are like ‘students march about free speech’ and it’s like ‘what, what are you talking about?’” he said.
Yale sophomore and ASL alum Caroline Tisdale (’13) agrees with Cameron in that the discussion is about respect and cultural sensitivity. She believes that in making the debate about freedom of speech, people do not recognize the real issue of sensitivity and the nuances the issue contains. “This is an extremely nuanced issue that affects black students differently than it affects native or Asian students,” she said.“It’s very easy to sidestep that discussion by making it about free speech and totally ignore that there might have been something culturally insensitive said when you make it about if you can say whatever you want. I was angry how it got twisted in that way,” he said.
Cameron points to activism as an important way to spark change in college and beyond. “The world obviously doesn’t represent everyone’s point of view and by starting in your university, and finding your voice there, you can make your college bubble better. And by affecting the people around you, they will carry that with them moving on,” he said.
One opinion is that the activism at Yale, however, is out of hand. Some believe that by protesting, students are “making noise” and disrupting college life unnecessarily.
Cameron, though, emphasizes that this couldn’t be farther from what they are doing. “A lot of the activism on Yale’s campus is out of love for Yale and the student body, we want make this place better for people like us, ” he said. “We do not want to go around and stir arguments, we want to go out and make this university the best it can be.”