I am thinking a lot these days about conversations on campuses around “free speech,” civil discourse, and the daily challenges of living in a small campus community. Three events have really focused my attention in the past two weeks.

  • Last week I started seeing Facebook posts from alumni groups at my alma mater, Beloit College. Student in the Young America’s Foundation were hosting a visit to campus by former Vice President Dick Cheney. You might have heard about a planned visit to Beloit last year (also hosted and paid for by YAF) by Erik Prince. That visit was shut down shortly before it was scheduled to start once students entered the space and took over the stage.

The visit this time went as planned including a protest outside and an alternative event (a large campus party sponsored by a number of student clubs). Online the debate raged. Some alums publicly announced they would stop donating money to Beloit. Others called for opportunities for challenging conversation during the event (the talk was carefully choreographed and limited audience participation). One alum created a new FB space and offered us an alternative. We could pledge any amount of money per person attending the talk and the collected funds would be donated to RAICES in Dick Cheney’s name. I made my pledge. The alum promises to do this for every speaker that YAF invites (and pays) to talk at Beloit.

  • A few weeks ago, on my campus a student was spotted wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “If you don’t speak English, go back where you came from.” The response was quick and emotional. Debate swirled around issues of free speech and campus climate. Students began to circulate an online petition calling for changes in curriculum, faculty/staff training, and reporting. Over 500 people have signed.

Then the college president and AVP for Diversity & Inclusion called an open meeting for late on Tuesday afternoon. There were about 40 of us in the room including a few faculty members, more staff, and mostly students. What started out as a conversation about free speech quickly became a forum for students reporting out one after the other about incidents of being called racial epithets by other students, of LGBTQ+ students afraid to return to their residence hall rooms at night, of faculty or staff refusing to use students’ chosen names.

I was struck by how many students of color made space for these incidents by acknowledging that many of our majority white students come from very small New England towns and may have not had much, or any, contact with people who don’t look like them. The themes of education and overcoming ignorance came up over and over.

  • Last night I finished reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. It is an important book. Read it. Toward the end of the book he reminds us that racism is grounded in power and self-interest not ignorance and hate (pp. 201, 208) and that activism is about changing power and policy, not changing minds (p. 209).  I needed that reminder that this is about systems and institutions, not really about individuals.

Our students are in the space that Kendi was as an undergraduate. They are just learning about the systems and institutions that are designed to perpetuate gaps in achievement, opportunity, and power. Every day they see individuals in their peers, coaches, professors, RAs. We did, too, before we learned about the structures. On my campus students spoke in compelling ways about the Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies course as the place they first began to be aware of what the patriarchy is and what it does, and of how gender, race, sexuality, and class fit into power structures. The petition demands a required class like this for all students.

Research and writing by people like Tressie McMillan Cottom, Sara Goldrick-Rab, and Ibram X. Kendi have challenged my thinking and increasingly my actions. The challenge of situating my own privilege (I am educated, white, financially stable) with my other identities (female, Jewish, not straight, and to some people not white) is a constant process of learning. Our students’ identities, and how they think about them, are emerging. Their awareness of privilege, or discrimination, and of systems of oppression is also a work in progress.

So, I am thinking a lot these days about the specific actions we should take to address the incidents on campus. All students have a right to feel safe in their living spaces.  What are the best ways to help students of color, the student who wore that t-shirt, and all of us to become antiracists? How do we all learn to focus on dismantling power structures and policies in our families, in our communities, on our campuses, in our states and federal government? If we don’t do that work, we will be listening to stories like the ones our students told for a long time.

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