Depending on whether or not you’re Facebook friends with college students, you may or may not have seen the following status floating around your newsfeed in recent days, one copied and pasted in support of student activists at college campuses rocked in recent days by unrest and bitter debate.
It reads: “To students of color at Mizzou, Yale and all colleges across the nation that experience racism, anti-Blackness, prejudice, cultural appropriation — we, students of color and allies at ‘X’ University, stand with you in solidarity. To those who would threaten your sense of safety, we are watching. #ConcernedStudent1950 #InSolidarityWithMizzou”
From what I’ve read, the atmosphere at the University of Missouri, or Mizzou, was deplorably and undeniably racist prior to the student and faculty protests that forced the resignation of the school’s president.
A professor claimed she was referred to as an N-word multiple times, not only by students but also by fellow professors, too. White students scattered cotton balls on the lawn in front of the campus’s Black Culture Center. Black students and professors recounted specific incidents of being slurred at and spat on.
Something needed to be done; what was needed was a radical restructuring of administrative policy, starting with the dismissal of its head, President Tim Wolfe.
What disturbs me, though, is my generation’s inability to differentiate between the situation at Mizzou and the situation at Yale, exemplified in the lumping together of both incidents in the aforementioned Facebook status.
Students at Mizzou were subjected to vicious, unadulterated racism, and had been for some time. But the situation at Yale is nothing like the one in Missouri.
Prior to Halloween weekend, Yale’s administration had circulated an email, one that invariably accompanies the party-conducive holiday on college campuses today, imploring its students to avoid culturally insensitive costumes.
It specifically cautioned against the wearing of blackface, turbans and Native American-inspired headdresses.
The spouse of one of Yale’s “masters,” faculty members who live among students in the school’s residential colleges, wrote an email rebutting, or rather qualifying, the administration’s email, in which she questioned the school’s attempt to micromanage students’ decisions in their personal lives.
The author of the rebuttal was Erika Christakis, a lecturer and expert on child development. She posed the following question: “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity — in your capacity — to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”
Chistakis was not urging students to apply blackface or don headdresses and turbans. Instead, she was urging students to exercise their own sense of cultural sensitivity rather than a school-issued guidebook itemizing acceptable and unacceptable costumes.
In my opinion, she made a valid point. But the fact that she voiced any sort of dissent toward an appeal for cultural inclusiveness and sensitivity made it appear, to many students at Yale, as if she were in direct opposition with the email’s original message, which simply isn’t true.
The backlash to Christakis’s comment was shocking.
Her husband, Nicholas Christakis, a professor and master of Yale’s Silliman College, was accosted by students a few days later in the college’s courtyard.
The encounter was captured on video, and it amassed nearly 1 million views on YouTube in two days. In the video, Christakis calmly explains that he does not agree with students’ claims that his wife’s email sent a hostile and discriminatory message to students of color in Silliman.
A student then explodes into a profanity-riddled tirade, screaming that Christakis’s job is “not to create an intellectual space — it’s to create a home.” The student finishes by telling Christakis that he “should not sleep at night.” “You are disgusting,” she tells him, before storming off camera.
In a now-deleted editorial published by the Yale Daily Herald, a student wrote, “I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives.
I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals and who are having breakdowns.”
Now, let me get something straight — I’ve had to defend my peers and my school from older family members who liken today’s college students to infants and today’s colleges to glorified daycare centers, and I bristle at the media’s dismissal of student activism as mere temper tantrums.
But when I read this student’s editorial, I groaned.
To the editors at “Fox News” and the Weekly Standard, this is their equivalent of buying a can of Coke from a vending machine and having two fall out. Or 200. I could only imagine how gleeful they must have been, especially when they arrived at the line that reads, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”
Much has been made in recent months of the concept of a “safe space,” a space on college campuses where students feel comfortable being themselves, whoever that self might be — female or male, white or black, Asian or Latino, gay, straight or trans.
Many students of a racial or sexual minority feel that they lack this “safe space,” that many universities are safe spaces for straight white male students alone.
But is this mythical “safe space” a real place? Does it exist anywhere in the world — even for, yes, those who are white, straight and male?
Certainly students of color have a far more difficult experience in college than their Caucasian classmates; certainly students of any minority are exposed to incidents of harassment and discrimination that their white peers are spared from. But isn’t this increasingly vocal demand for a “safe space” a Holy Grail quest of sorts?
Isn’t the idea of a “safe space,” a place where we can be ourselves without pretense or fear of being found out, something we all hope to find in our lives, regardless of our ethnicity, gender or sexuality?
How many white college kids, or white people in general, actually feel that they can be entirely and exclusively themselves, all the time? I think everyone wants to find his or her own “safe space,” but I’m not sure if anyone ever does.
I think that the Yale incident illustrates a desire common amongst my generation to legislate sensitivity. We see this in appeals for “trigger warnings” — disclaimers given by professors before addressing potentially upsetting issues or material — and we see this in the uproar following Christakis’s email.
Christakis urged Yalies to discuss cultural appropriation and prejudices amongst themselves, rather than hoisting up and hiding behind edicts handed down from above.
In an open letter published in response to Christakis’s comments, students wrote, “We were told to meet the offensive parties head on, without suggesting any modes or means to facilitate these discussions to promote understanding.”
Do these students, at or above the legal age of adulthood, really need a grown-up from the school’s administration to bring the offending and the offended parties together to “facilitate” a discussion about why a particular costume is insensitive?
Dialogue is an essential aspect of the university experience — through dialogue, we come into contact with viewpoints we would otherwise have never considered, and our intellectual horizons are broadened. Dialogue allows us to teach our classmates as well as learn from them.
What the protesters at Yale want is a lack of dialogue, because they’ve confused a disagreement of opinion with a personal attack.
In the video of the encounter at Silliman College, Nicholas Christakis tells protestors, “I am sorry for causing you pain. That’s different than the statement that I’m sorry for what I said. There’s a fundamental difference between the two, guys.”
When a student tells Christakis he should be sorry for what he said because his wife’s email was offensive to him, Christakis asks him, “Who gets to decide when it’s offensive?” Another student replies, “Me — when it hurts me.”
Some people might be tempted to write off the whole incident as a big temper tantrum gone viral. But I think it’s emblematic of the distorting prism of narcissism through which many of my classmates see the world.
When somebody says something I don’t agree with, they should be censored. They should be labeled as a bigot; they should be cursed at and called disgusting. My comfort and emotional well-being is the single most important item on my school’s agenda, even at the expense of intellectual stagnancy.
Don’t you remember? The job of university faculty is not to create an intellectual space. It’s to create a home. It’s to create a safe space, a space safe from meanness, safe from criticism and discourse and, ultimately, a space safe from learning.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.