The Racially Coded Language of the Liberal Bubble

Free speech absolutists are threatening the free speech of people of color and queer folks.

The “liberal bubble.” According to white folks, and especially the white-dominated media, it’s a real big problem nowadays. The media is apparently full of liberal bias, out of touch with the “real Americans” that delivered Donald Trump an Electoral College victory. Conservatism on college campuses is supposedly censored, with liberal students and professors unwilling to accept “other opinions.” “Political correctness” is outright destroying freedom of speech in American society, preventing many individuals from truly expressing their beliefs.

If you believe all of this, it must really seem like liberals are the greatest threat to free speech in the United States.

That’s a crock of shit.

First, let’s decipher what exactly folks mean when they say “liberalism” in these conversations. You might assume it’s about Bernie Sanders-style progressive populism, as these conversations often revolve around college students, many of whom were drawn to Sanders’ calls for tuition-free public college and single-payer healthcare. But while college students may have disproportionately supported Sanders, the problem doesn’t really lie there.

What “free speech” absolutists and critics of the “liberal bubble” are truly worried about, whether they say it explicitly or implicitly, is how marginalized folks are “censoring” our oppressors.

It’s about Middlebury students protesting anti-black race scientist Charles Murray.

It’s about Berkeley students protesting alt-right icon Milo Yiannopoulos for a speech in which he planned to out undocumented students, putting them at risk of deportation. (He had previously outed a transgender student, misgendering her and forcing her to leave the school.)

It’s about “safe spaces” that try to give marginalized folks a place free from discrimination and hatred.

It’s about us simply trying to exist.

American society is unsafe for marginalized folks. No matter where we are, it is inevitable that we will encounter bigotry and ignorance. Therefore, we often try to set a tone of tolerance in our environments and create room for our marginalized siblings so that we can feel safe somewhere, even if it’s just in a tiny room on the third floor of the admissions building. This occurs more frequently at liberal campuses because, despite all of their many issues we’ll examine later, liberals are more likely to believe in the humanity of marginalized folks.

We try to establish basic morals for our community, namely that our marginalized identities should be respected and cherished rather than demeaned and debated. This means calling out racism, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry when they are encountered and discouraging hateful rhetoric and sentiments. These efforts are by no means binding or enforceable, but they are a step in the right direction for solidifying our society as one that accepts marginalized identities and rejects discrimination.

But while some students may find success in fostering a campus environment that is safer for students of color, queer students, and other marginalized students, their efforts to create safety are never safe. At every step, we encounter ignorant backlash. We’re accused of excluding and alienating our allies.

We’re accused of censoring free speech by fighting bigotry. We’re even accused of being bigoted ourselves against white, cisgender, and heterosexual people.

So no, we’re not safe. Not even when we create safe spaces. Not all safe spaces are intersectional. I can be in a LGBTQ space and still experience transphobia. I can be in a trans space and still experience racism. I can be in a PoC space and still experience transphobia. And so on.

But having safe spaces is nonetheless important, as is trying to establish bigotry as unacceptable and dangerous rather than just “an opinion” or “controversial.” It’s a start, and that matters.

Unfortunately, even that is too much for cishet white folks. Safe spaces are turning us into “pussies” and censoring the views of conservatives, apparently. This framing of the issue as left versus right truly gets down to what defines modern American politics. It’s not about a difference of opinion regarding the marginal tax rate or the Second Amendment; it’s all about identity.

In the United States, ever since the 1964 party realignment, political affiliation has been rooted primarily in one’s “feelings” about race. Since then, the roots have expanded to include “feelings” on queer folks and other marginalized groups.

The framing is that the left supports Black Lives Matter, the right does not, the left supports an easy path to citizenship, the right does not, the left supports giving trans folks the right to use the correct bathroom, the right does not, the left supports civil rights of marginalized folks, the right supports the “freedom of speech” of bigots.

And because of the success of this narrative about the clashing “values” of conservatives and liberals, cishet whites on the left — supposedly the “allies” of marginalized folks — have joined the chorus in opposition to safe spaces and campus “liberalism,” aka marginalized folks declaring that we are human and valid. Supposedly, critiquing one’s own side or party and trying to reach across the aisle — an aisle defined primarily by race — is a noble and admirable thing to do. But it’s not.

The implications of defining American politics by identity is grave. By treating race, gender, sexuality, and other marginalized identities as just another political issue, we as a society have validated bigotry. Thinking that black folks are inherently prone to crime or that trans folks are lying about their gender so that they can assault cisgender women is considered an “opinion” rather than a real threat to the very lives of the marginalized folks being “discussed.”

First off, the conservative “opinions” on identity are flat-out wrong, factually and morally. None of their bigoted arguments are backed up by reality. That in and of itself should disqualify these “opinions” from public discourse. Debating lies is pointless and should especially not be encouraged by academic institutions. But what makes these “opinions” more dangerous is that white cishet liberals treat them as “free speech.” In cishet white liberal land, “free speech” is an absolutely intangible idea with no concrete consequences. It must be defended to the literal death, even if it means defending Nazis who call for the extermination of all transgender, Jewish, and black and brown people.

But as Professor Charles R. Lawrence, III wrote in his brilliant article on regulating racist speech:

By framing the debate as we have-as one in which the liberty of free speech is in conflict with the elimination of racism, we have advanced the cause of racial oppression and have placed the bigot on the moral high ground, fanning the rising flames of racism.
Above all, I am troubled that we have not listened to the real victims, that we have shown so little empathy or understanding for their injury, and that we have abandoned those individuals whose race, gender, or sexual orientation provokes others to regard them as second class citizens. These individuals’ civil liberties are most directly at stake in the debate.

The civil liberties of bigots are not truly at stake here. In reality, the free speech of marginalized folks is being threatened simply by the abhorrent acceptance of this ridiculous “discussion.” It’s already scary when one of the two major political ideologies in the country believes that your humanity is invalid and that you don’t deserve basic rights. But it’s absolutely terrifying to see your “allies” outright defending your oppressors’ “right” to use violent rhetoric that eventually leads to physical violence against black and brown bodies.

While cishet white bigots might experience some social stigma for openly voicing their hatred, marginalized folks face death for simply existing. Just this year, fourteen transgender people — Mesha Caldwell, Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, JoJo Striker, Tiara Richmond/Keke Collier, Chyna Gibson, Ciara McElveen, Jaquarrius Holland, Alphonza Watson, Symone Marie Jones, Chayviss Reed, ​Kenneth Bostick, Sherrell Faulkner, Kenne McFadden, and Josie Berrios — were murdered. Almost all of them were trans women of color. Again, that’s fourteen, and we’re not even halfway through the year. Yet as a trans women of color, I’m censoring bigots by writing online that Milo Yiannopoulos doesn’t deserve to speak at college campuses?

I don’t feel safe speaking up. No matter where I am. No matter how strong I feel. When I am around cishet white people, even self-identified progressives, I always watch my words, carefully preparing each sentence so as not to offend or alienate them. If I slip up even once, I become the “angry minority” who doesn’t want to hear other opinions. So most of the time, I don’t speak up to defend my own identities. I don’t share my opinions. And I’m not alone in this.

When we are told that our identities are something to have an opinion about, when we hear cishet white people brag about how they have Republican friends, when we hear white liberals bemoan the “liberal bubble,” when we are told that we must listen to bigots and allow them to speak wherever and whenever they want without consequences, that actually threatens our freedom of speech.

Bigoted speech inherently threatens free speech.

And the nonstop defenses of unfettered bigoted speech further the problem by showing marginalized folks that cishet white Americans value their ability to discriminate more than they value our powers. If they use their time and energy to defend Nazis, but have nothing to say about the epidemic of trans women of color being murdered and can’t even agree that black lives matter, how do you think that affects our ability to freely speak our mind? As Professor Charles R. Lawrence wrote:

Racism makes the words and ideas of blacks and other despised minorities less saleable, regardless of their intrinsic value, in the marketplace of ideas. It also decreases the total amount of speech that enters the market by coercively silencing members of those groups who are its targets.
Racist speech decreases the total amount of speech that reaches the market… Racist speech is inextricably linked with racist conduct. The primary purpose and effect of the speech/conduct that constitutes white supremacy is the exclusion of non-whites from full participation in the body politic. Sometimes the speech/conduct of racism is direct and obvious. When the Klan burns a cross on the lawn of a black person who joined the NAACP or exercised his right to move to a formerly all-white neighborhood, the effect of this speech does not result from the persuasive power of an idea operating freely in the market. It is a threat, a threat made in the context of a history of lynchings, beatings, and economic reprisals that made good on earlier threats, a threat that silences a potential speaker. The black student who is subjected to racial epithets is likewise threatened and silenced. Certainly she, like the victim of a cross-burning, may be uncommonly brave or foolhardy and ignore the system of violence in which this abusive speech is only a bit player. But it is more likely that we, as a community, will be denied the benefit of many of her thoughts and ideas.
Whenever we decide that racist hate speech must be tolerated because of the importance of tolerating unpopular speech we ask blacks and other subordinated groups to bear a burden for the good of society to pay the price for the societal benefit of creating more room for speech. And we assign this burden to them without seeking their advice, or consent. This amounts to white domination, pure and simple. It is taxation without representation.

Ultimately, this is why so many marginalized folks simply can no longer put our faith in cishet white people. Sure, “allies” are willing to Pride react to our posts on Facebook and retweet a few prominent activists of color on Twitter, but when it comes down to fighting the oppressive narratives used to justify bigotry, “allies” are all too happy to join in on our oppression. They may claim that they care about “free speech,” but they actively participate in the systemic silencing of marginalized folks.

Some cishet whites may have a liberal bubble. But I sure don’t. There is no space where I’m safe from misgendering. No space where I’m safe from racism. No space where I’m safe from hearing liberals defend bigots at my own expense.

When white supremacist Jeremy Joseph Christian entered the courtroom facing charges of murder, he yelled: “You got no safe place. This is America. Get out if you don’t like free speech!”

The vast majority of critics of the “liberal bubble,” “political correctness,” and “safe spaces” are not murderers. But they do defend violent rhetoric that can eventually lead to murder. Christian is right that we have no safe place in America. I hope, however, that we won’t have to “get out” for demanding more from our society.

But all I have right now is hope. Because at the moment, it seems that “free speech” is more important to cishet whites than our lives.