I don’t think any quote encapsulates the madness at the University of Missouri and Yale better than the following written by Arundhati Roy in her first novel, The God of Small Things: “On their shoulders they carried a keg of ancient anger, lit with a recent fuse.”
Tired of being silenced by those in charge at their institutions, students at Mizzou, Yale, and colleges across the country have protested, marched, and changed their school histories. After Wesleyan faced debate after debate on the topic of free speech regarding the school’s paper, college students at various institutions have been very vocal about freedom of speech and press, especially as they pertain to racial and cultural discomfort. The protesting students at Wesleyan and beyond have been met with criticism from faculty, from the media, and from classmates, their lives have been threatened, and their voices have been silenced – all so that the rest of the student body could enjoy their right to free speech. Black students at other schools could feel the tension from their own campuses. As I read the nasty emails and reports of racism at other institutions, I could not help but feel empathy, for the experiences of Mizzou and Yale students of color are not unique. We notice the microaggressions and the perpetual silencing at our own schools. We read the opinion pieces in our school papers attacking us, our methods, and our motives for demanding change. We feel a similar hurt.
Yes, everyone has the right to have and voice their opinions, but others have the right to be offended by and respond to those opinions. In this case, the response has been through action instead of words. While the preservation of human rights is important, it should never be prioritized over the humans. Protocol needs to be set in place for when free speech interferes with the students’ right to feel safe and supported on their campuses, particularly black students, who are constantly being made aware that nothing on those campuses was created with them in mind. It seems almost weekly now that I read an column or an anonymous comment made by a fellow university student that is either subtly or overtly racist. A friend of mine, a black man, posted a piece in response to a white student’s column, which condemned black students for stifling free speech. In the comment section of my friend’s article, an anonymous person responded that thoughts like his are “why affirmative action needs to end.” Imagine that. Some anonymous (likely white) student gets angry that the blacks are speaking too loudly to hear his privileged opinions and immediately wants to kick those darn colored folks off of his campus.
Where did all of the tension come from? One could easily argue that racial tension on college campuses began with slavery and educational discrimination, but more recently, specific events have been triggering major responses from marginalized students. At Yale, a faculty member sent an email to the entire school defending students’ rights to offensive Halloween costumes. Over Halloween weekend, black people’s favorite frat, SAE, was accused of turning away women of color because they were “only letting in white girls.” At the University of Missouri, many incidents of microaggressions and racial insensitivity built up over the school year, resulting in a massive push for the resignation of the school’s president, Tim Wolfe. The resignation came only two days after over 30 members of the school’s football team resolved not to play until Wolfe resigned.
And that is the power of protest. Students demanded to be heard and made serious changes at their institution. They protested so powerfully and efficiently that the president stepped down. Think about that. Students took on the president and won, due to their overwhelming solidarity and determination. I find that concept inspirational; once again, we proved that there is power in togetherness, in solidarity.
Speaking of solidarity, social media is one of the greatest tools for activists today. What used to be fairly limited to local groups, or at least severely slowed down due to lack of communication, has accelerated and connected groups across the country and across the globe. Shared statuses garner exposure for individual incidents of racism and micro-agression. Hashtags like #BlackOnCampus, #WeAreMizzou, and #WeAreYale have allowed thousands of black students to share similar stories and support each other remotely. Twitter and Facebook events allowed groups to organize marches and protests quickly. As activists, social media has become one of our greatest weapons.
The relationship between black people and education has always been strained in this country. From 19th century anti-literacy laws to “Separate-but-Equal” to affirmative action (which has mostly helped white women, but I’ll leave that alone this time), black students have struggled and suffered for every piece of education we have received. Black students today have made it further than our ancestors could have dreamed, and further than the founders of these predominantly white institutions would have wanted.
This anger that we feel is deep-seated. It is generations old. We are simply running into more and more incendiary issues. For our experiences and our needs to be consistently undermined and ignored is a familiar kind of pain, but a pain nonetheless.