“The Kids Are Out of Control!”

Anti-Racist College Protests and Liberal Pearl-Clutching Run Amok

As protests against racism erupt on college campuses across the country, they are followed by a tidal surge of take pieces reviving the debates around trigger warnings, safe spaces, and academic freedom from within and without academia. “The kids are too coddled!” they cry. And when student activism on the Mizzou campus actually, surprisingly led to the resignation of the President and Chancellor, “They’re at the castle gates!”

Right along with moral panic about selfies and Snapchat, we have been handed a tidily-constructed narrative of Millennial fragility that is in deep tension with this generation’s ability to self-organize and the serious social issues they are rallying around. It is surprising to me, then, to see my goodhearted ‘urbane lefty’ friends bemoaning the death of free speech at the hands of young anti-racist protesters.

Maybe the problem is that it hits a few common chords: lashing out at Yale students appeals to my own admittedly anti-elitist bent, and protection of all-speech-of-all-types-come-hell-or-high-water is a shibboleth of the civil libertarian left. But maybe, sometimes, if we find ourselves agreeing with people who do things like put the term feminist in scare quotes, we should stop for a moment and ask where we are getting our narrative and whom it benefits.

Case in point: a good, thoughtful friend I respect immensely posted the following video, accompanied by a note about how hypocritical it is that students asking for a POC safe space would silence and ridicule someone sharing their experience of racism and that the ‘safe space’ should be a place of intellectual inquiry with “evidence over emotion” (never mind that people of color’s evidence gets dismissed or written off as emotion…) and that no one race has a monopoly on hurting others (well…)

So I watch the video…

… and you know what? The kids are alright.

A few observations:

  1. They don’t shut her down. The tenor of the conversation around this video had me worried that the speaker was going to be booed and bullied. Not so. The woman who is speaking is interrupted by the woman with the sign, which is probably unkind and poorly-timed, but not racist. The whole time, most of the onlookers are telling the interruptor to “let her speak.” Understandably, the speaker then loses her train of thought and then…
  2. She goes on a tangent that misses the entire analysis. What the speaker experienced was awful and her story is valid. But after being thrown off, she retreats into a quasi color-blind “we need to look at people’s hearts, not their race” corner that is not only out of left field, but is actually contrary to the idea of POC safe spaces. It’s not a difference of opinion, it’s a backpedal after being approached by a Black woman that sets her in a tailspin, to which a voice or two shouts “racism is power plus privilege.” As she gets flustered and people get uncomfortable with where this is going, someone gently takes the megaphone from her and back to the organizers. And in spite all this…
  3. The crowd applauds her. As the organizers awkwardly, rightly try to redirect and move on, people insistently applaud for her. It’s not until someone else off-camera pipes up “Black people can be racist!” that the organizers and participants become annoyed. They acknowledge that anyone can hurt others, but that that’s not the point of this gathering, which is about demanding accountability from the institution.

So much for that frenzied mob.

My friend’s concern, as I take it, was with the dismissal of a woman’s valid experience of a racist incident, and this is not illegitimate. But it’s also not equivalent. Someone interrupting a speaker (if I could guess, probably to tell her she has some learning to do about racism, which raises its own questions about calling in vs. out) is not the same thing as campuses turning a blind eye to racist threats or having entire departments with no faculty members of color, or admissions practices that perpetuate marginalization. I have no doubt that there have been other instances in which crowds shout down well-intended people, but this isn’t one of them.

After some years of vacillation, I am skeptical of the “racism = power + privilege” formulation. It’s close, but doesn’t quite get the full picture of the many layers of the internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and structural racism in our society. We must value individuals’ direct experience of racism, and at the same time understand that the fact that white people can experience race-based offense doesn’t negate the existence of racism in our institutions and society. Even in the aggregate (i.e., “many white people have been called by an epithet”), we risk missing the forest for the trees.

And even more perniciously, if we take the easy path of hand-wringing about unruly mobs of coddled kids and indulge the false equivalence between institutions shutting down discussion and protesters interrupting a speaker, we risk missing the harder truth at the heart of the protests. Democracy can be messy, and calls for justice aren’t always polite, but what is at stake is more than hurt feelings or campus safe spaces — it is the actual safety and lives of students of color on and off campus.