On White Academic Spaces, Racism, and Crying Censorship

Editor's note: a paragraph of this post has been edited after publication to better reflect my experiences here at Oxford.

I’ve been watching some events in the states unfold over the past week, from the faux-outrage over red Starbucks cups to the brave stand the black football players at Mizzou took after the lack of response to racial tension on campus. Most prevelant on my timeline – because of my social networks and my particular friend circle – has been the discussion about racism at Yale, sparked by an email sent by the wife of a Master of one of Yale’s residential colleges.

The email – an unsolicited response to the administration’s reminders about appropriate – was a long winded intellectual treatise about the question of treating Yale students like adults who can make their own decisions and engage in discourse about cultural appreciation and appropriation, about honor and offense. The email – reproduced here in full – makes noises about being self-aware about the power dynamic between administrators and students and references, repeatedly, the woman’s work as a child development specialist in emphasizing the importance of offense and tension in developing and creating socially normative beliefs and actions.

Controversy has since exploded, in part related to the email but not solely because of it. Yale students of color are using the email controversy – which they say erases the experience of people of color and papers over issues of systemic violence and oppression present in the Yale system – to launch a deeper and more meaningful battle about the presence and exclusion of people of color in white-coded academic spaces. Much of the commentary from neoliberal journalists and op-ed writers has extended from the point of view that the entire protest is an overreaction, even encouraging a respectability politics approach to the behavior of the protestors. Conor Friedersdorf even subtly codes a female protestor’s behavior as irrational and anti-intellectual, keying in to centuries-old stereotypes of angry women.

Friedersdorf’s essay is one worth particular examination, as his positioning of the issue is a fascinating case study in how systemic violence is erased and ignored throughout the reporting on these controversies at college campuses. He is, from the start, quite clearly sympathetic to the experience of the woman who wrote the initial email, and aims to cast the student protestors as ideologues of intolerance, unable to engage with and understand disagreeing sides of the debate. While he does make some good points about the prioritization of “pain” – a problematic discursive concept that should be studied more in depth – such points are obfuscated by the obvious desire to cast the protestors as irrational, hysterical demagogues.

The narrative of the situation, as reported by a white press and perpetuated in misinformation campaigns, is actually a form of quelling discourse about the topic at hand – which is not, as many have said, about the email itself. The email itself has become a symbolically violent and oppressive act and the protest is no longer about giving this white lady the benefit of the doubt or whether conservatively minded discourse is being censured by intolerant liberal ideologues. The question is, instead, about the long history of white, academic, ivory tower institutions and their consistent ignorance of oppression and systemic violence. White academic institutions (though I repeat myself) like Yale have been built and developed out of a white supremacist society. Black Americans could not be educated at these institutions to begin with, and that legacy is still felt on campus, where students of color feel as though they are entering yet another white space that ignores their identities or treats them as debatable issues.

Let me use an example from my own time at another ivory tower institution – Oxford. Oxford is white. It is whitey-mcwhiterson-with-white-ancestry. Upper class white people are everywhere here. It’s one of the most expensive cities in the UK. Class and status symbols are everywhere, going down even to the rainboots one chooses to wear. And even in the progressive space of my women’s studies program, we have three students of color out of sixteen students, and most of our professors are white women.

One of the people I met during my first week at Oxford and have had several conversations with is a white male DPhil student in Philosophy from Canada. In a recent essay for his course, he compared Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner, arguing in the end that Dolezal’s actions were morally permissible and that her “identity” as a white woman wearing blackface is valid and acceptable.

It seems to me that such a topic is only permissible as a philosophical inquiry in a discipline and an institution that is built upon the construction of whiteness and spaces for developed for white people. In a space that is actually diverse and openly discursive about problems and issues of systemic violence, stances that treat topics of racial oppression and oppressive acts as "debatable" should be roundly and routinely shut down as unwelcoming. If the people at the table for discussion are consistently being treated as less than human, then it makes it really hard to continue to sit at the table.

And this, ultimately, is where the discursive divide between the protesting “ideologues” and the “censored victims of an overblown controversy” exists. The problem is not as Friedersdorf proposes, an issue of one incident in which students are refusing to engage in an intellectual discussion about coddling and appropriation, but an entire lengthy history of discourse that falls on the shoulders of students of color at ivy league institutions. Yes, students at such institutions are privileged, but only insofar as they have access to this education and the resources and prestige that entails. This academic and potential class privilege does not and cannot erase the unique forms of oppression that face students of color within our ivory towers.

A quest to stop debate on the issue of appropriation is not demagoguery and intolerance gone rogue, but rather an attempt to reset the game that students of color are forced to play. It’s a refusal to engage with the topic, yes, but it’s also a disagreement with the very rules of the discourse to begin with. Just because a white person condescendingly wants to have an open “dialogue” about issues affecting mainly POC does not mean the POC then have to comply with the desire for that dialogue. Part of revolution, part of protestation, is understanding the right to refuse the terms of white supremacy to begin with. White supremacy demands “debate,” demands “intellectual discourse,” and assumes that intellectual discussion is a level playing field for all involved. But to request students of color to engage in discourse – particularly, as the original email did, with the very people enacting forms of oppression and appropriation – is to ask far more of them than is necessarily reasonable.

Is it censure for me to refuse to debate my bisexuality in a conservative church setting?

Is it intolerant for me to argue that such debates should not happen in the first place because they place a person’s humanity at the center of an “objective” intellectualism, rather than acknowledging personhood?

Is it demagoguery or ideology for me to state that the game is rigged from the get-go and that students can and should instead set their own rules for discursive space?

I suppose, to the white academic for whom anything and everything is fair game, such response to insensitive attempts at discourse does read as censorship. The idea that one’s commentary is possibly not needed or even unwelcome is one white academics have yet to struggle with on a deep, structural, internal level. We white people are so accustomed to having every space open to us, to every topic being something that can be debated to death, that to have such discourse refused immediately and emphatically can be distressing. It can especially be distressing when such rejections come in the form of a protest on the steps of your comfortably ensconced Ivy League campus.

The issue here is not one email, though the protests and responses to the people involved have perhaps made this unclear. It is no more about the email than the Rhodes Must Fall movement here in Oxford is literally about a statue of Cecil Rhodes. The symbols of colonialist, white-focused, insensitive education must fall just as the structural violence of the system itself must also fall.