The coddling of white privilege: Defenses used to protect against student activists

To coddle means “to treat in an overprotective way.” You could imagine things or people who might need coddling. They are delicate. Fragile. In need of protection. Of guarding. Of defense, if you will. They are, by implication, incapable of handling circumstances in this moment on their own.

In the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic magazine, an article appeared entitled The Coddling of the American Mind, written by two men, one of whom is a professor of this very institution for which our team works. The first sentences are ones that we would like to spend this post dissecting. We would actually like to target some words that appear to have been intentionally selected to insult and belittle the student activists rising up against the racist climates and the normalized injustice they are subjected to by the very institutions they, in many cases, pay to educate them. That is, after all, what one does in an argument. One tries to protect and defend one’s own stance and in turn belittle and discredit the opposing stance. In this case, though, the attacks are quite personal. More personal than the privileged parties to these experiences could ever possibly know or understand. So, here are the first sentences of the article: “Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015).

Something strange is happening

There is nothing strange about speaking out against injustice. In fact, there was a time when this tenet was highly encouraged in many liberal arts colleges- what has changed? This article cites faculty’s fear that students will use social media to stir “up mobs against them.” When we have seen students use social media, it has been to prompt amazing critical conversations about change like this website that compiles demands from dozens of university protesters across the country or this one created by NYU’s Black and Brown Coalition or this page created to show some of the racist experiences and microaggressions NYU students go through. Most recently the twitter hashtag #StayMadAbby has been used by Black students in response to Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. We posit this use of social media is necessary to counter the effects of racist and bigoted campus traditions or professors who think racist Halloween costumes are just “a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive.” This is how racism is normalized. This is how white supremacy is normalized. This is how Black and Brown bodies are harmed on a daily basis. We see students using social media to share articles and links to videos that document and chronicle injustice live. So if the fear is exposure of white supremacy in action, then, yes that fear is founded. However, the fear of mobs of angry students rising up to overtake the hard-earned reputations and tenure of the faculty who are privileged enough to micro-aggress them everyday without consequence is a tad alarmist. The closest we have seen to a “mob” being incited was the shared distribution of flyers for a rally supporting the #BantheBox movement.

Undirected and driven largely by students

The idea that these student activists are undirected and that the movement against campus racism has no foundation other than the protests is ludicrous. Students are grounded in longstanding research, much of which was offered to the Supreme Court in support of the University of Texas in an amicus brief. “A 2015 study by Jayakumar found that when white students do not interact with students from other racial groups in college, the lack of interaction can reinforce racially stigmatizing views developed prior to college.” (Amicus brief of 823 Social Scientists in Support of Respondents, The University of Texas at Austin). Student activists are speaking out on experiencing the results of this research- when white students do not form meaningful cross-racial and cross-ethnic relationships- or really relationships with anyone who is different from themselves, they rely more heavily on stereotypes and misconceptions they walked onto campus with or that they see portrayed in the media and film. Furthermore, Derald Wing Sue has written extensively on the cumulative harm of repeatedly being subjected to microaggressions and racist bigotry. Although this might be difficult for a white person to imagine, the cumulative harm can take a physical, psychological, emotional, and social toll. Student activists are speaking out against this disparate treatment they are receiving on a campus where they are meant to thrive. Other research, conducted by Shaun Harper on college campuses across the country, shows some of the themes that repeatedly come up when he analyzes campus racial climates by speaking with students. Here are the most prominent themes:

    • overt racism (slurs, racist campus parties)
    • curricular disregard (privileging white actors across disciplines)
    • tokenization (being the one student of color in a setting), involuntary spokesmanship (one person having to speak for his or her entire group), and hypervisibility (i.e. men of color being asked to show i.d. on campus)
    • structural pacification (college will do the bare minimum to pacify with empty promises)
    • secondhand racism
    • microinvalidations
    • microaggressions (Penn Summit Module One: How People of Color Experience Racism on Campus, 2015).

These are real, valid harms. Now, you will see below, this article, and other folks try to make the argument that these are not really harms. That our students are perhaps too sensitive, maybe need to grow thicker skin. We, however, find it pretty hard to argue with the research.

To scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense

The argument here and in other conversations like this clip on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC is that- if we coddle (protect) students too much in college, then they won’t be ready to deal with the real, racist, hateful world out there on their own. Well, our question is why can’t we aim to transform spaces, particularly one where we can capitalize on the energy and optimism of college students to challenge racist norms that have become normalized in our society? Isn’t this an opportunity rather than a reason to deficitize an entire generation?

What is most important to say about microaggressions and racist statements is that your intent is irrelevant. It really is. What matters is the impact. What someone feels and experiences. That is the thing about microaggressions- they can sometimes seem like innocuous statements- like “You are so articulate.” But they have racist, insidious assumptions and implications when said to folks of color- in this case the assumption that it is somewhat shocking or surprising that a person of color would be so articulate or smart. The idea though that those who are privileged in our society, the very same who are inflicting these harms, can also decide that folks of color are just overreacting and should stop being so sensitive to discomfort, is very twisted. It disregards entirely the systemic nature of racism as a toxin that plagues all of our institutions and that is experienced by people of color everywhere not just on college campuses. It also disregards pain. The pain our young people of color are feeling.

It would actually seem that the only scrubbing clean being done here is being done by white folks who are refusing to acknowledge their complicit role in causing students of color harm. That acknowledgement can surely be painful, but necessary.

The image accompanying the article

The image accompanying the article, too has a profound message, depicting a young toddler in a desk too large for him. He is out of place. Out of his league. With a befuddled look on his face. Perhaps ready to voice a complaint with a cry. Symbolizing yet another insult at student activists, belittling them as complainers, out of place, out of their league. Misunderstanding the difference between the harm they allege and the mere intellectual challenges that colleges are offering them.

On numerous college campuses, including our own, we have seen administrators host “listening sessions” or forums for students to speak out and share some of the racist and bigoted treatment they have experienced on campus at the hands of administrators, professors, classmates, and the curriculum. Our question is, are white administrators listening and actually hearing students? What are they actually hearing? If the closed door reflective conversations post-listening session follow an outline anything like this article, and ultimately just deficitize the students of color who shared their pain, then no one has actually been heard. If the immediate reaction is defensiveness about the misunderstood intentions of the “good people” who “mistakenly” said some “hurtful” things, then the students were not really heard. We come back to this Malcolm X quote often: “I’m not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner unless you eat some of what’s on that plate.” You see if the plan was to have a listening session, followed by some kind of a dialogue, then we need to have a conversation about who set the table. This table was set centuries ago by one gender and one skin color. The legacy set the menu, the norms for how to eat your food, when to speak at the table, and what were acceptable reactions to your dining companions. For hundreds of years these norms have become expectations, embedded practices taught in our schools, learned in our homes, and the ones to which we have compared our children, no matter the color of their skin. The walls of our institutions have also been built upon this legacy, and have set and hosted many a meal at these tables. Now when we purport to host “forums” or “dialogues” on our campuses that introduce or “invite” Black and Brown voices to sit at this table, the invitation becomes nuanced because of the clear power dynamic. Voices who did not have any say in how the table was set, the food that was provided, voices who cannot be fully themselves in expressing their ideas or concerns for fear of living up to some stereotype of who they are…they are somehow supposed to feel safe. Safe in the company of those of who have created the very environment that provides the conditions of their oppression. This is not safe. It is not an invitation. And it is not a seat at the table. And so when student activists seek to challenge how the table was set and are told that they are just being too sensitive and that the world has become too politically correct, well we think that argument falls flat.

We think this entire argument is a ruse. A defense of white privilege in itself— Turn on the activists. Make this more about them. Less about us.– We see that as the strategy employed by white administrators, white faculty, white students and anyone else threatened by students of color (and students protesting in solidarity with students of color) to defend their privilege. If they can defend their privilege by shifting the theme of the conversation, then they never actually have to confront their own complicit behavior in perpetuating the racist climate on their campus. They don’t need to own their role. Control the narrative and drive the conversation.

Where do we go if everyone is protecting different interests?

We believe we have to find some shared ground in terms of what our hopes are for our society. Do we want to live in a society where seeing a Black male automatically triggers fear in our minds faster than we can even intellectually realize what is happening? Do we want our young people to pay to attend institutions of learning where they are subjected to harm on a daily basis because of the color of their skin? Do we want to knowingly ignore the harm? Do we want to prioritize reputations and tenure over necessary complex, nuanced conversations about racism, white supremacy, and bigotry on college campuses? Do we want to live in a society where it matters when someone tells us they feel harmed? Do we want to hear each other?
Do we want transformation? We have to want it for it to be a possibility.

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