Recent student protests against campus racism have been met with hysterical cries that our generation is destroying intellectual freedom in the name of comfort. As Zareena Grewal astutely points out in her coverage of the Yale protests for the Washington Post, these narratives fit too neatly within standing stereotypes – the entitled millennial, the angry black woman. What they fail to capture is the rawness and human pain that is felt by students of color on the campuses built by white privilege, and what it means to give this pain a place in intellectual discourse.
Students of color are hurt. They are tired. They are telling us this. Faced with institutions that have not protected them from alienation, exclusion, and outright acts of aggression, students have nothing left to do but share their pain. Last year, just as national attention on police brutality and extrajudicial killings of black people hit its peak, a series of events were organized by the Black Students Union under the banner #BlackLivesMatter. The events included a silent vigil for victims of police brutality, along with open mics, and disruptions of campus spaces such as the dining hall.
This peaceful, poignant movement was co-opted by two students who decided it was their place to distribute anti-abortion fliers throughout campus with the message #AllLivesMatter. This is privilege. It is unacceptable to superimpose your own abstract ideology over your classmates’ expressions of lived oppression. I will never forget how it felt, during the silent vigil, when one of my classmates shared that she felt scared every day for her younger brother, whose dark skin and height means he could be some police officer or armed vigilante’s next “tragic but reasonable” victim. To ignore your classmates’ pain and use their movement as a platform to anonymously protest abortion is not free speech, but an extremely entitled declaration of ignorance. The resulting “Day of Dialogue,” the Amherst administration’s well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless response, was seen by many students as a form of fabricated togetherness, nothing more than a “teachable moment” for white students that, once again, forced students of color to justify their pain to a community that refuses to listen.
The Day of Dialogue was a shallow attempt to create a culture of compassion on campus. Yet it was organized directly in response to a community-wide refusal to engage directly with the pain of Amherst’s students of color. Students were forced to participate, as classes were cancelled and the dining hall closed for breakfast and lunch. Predictably, the event had little impact on the general climate of Amherst College.
This is because real compassion requires active engagement. It takes more initiative to read an Upworthy article than it did for many students to sit through the Day of Dialogue. But no one forced students to sit in Frost library yesterday for more than six intensely emotionally charged hours, as their peers cried, screamed, and demanded change. The incredible response to this impromptu event is a testament to the weight of the pain felt by Amherst’s students of color, but more importantly, it is a testament to the strength of our community.
Frost Library was not a “safe space” yesterday, at least not for many white and otherwise privileged students who had never personally felt the impact of systemic oppression. It is not easy to listen to stories, for example, of how a first-year student was told this year that she has “three-fifths” of an opinion because she is black. And still, hundreds of students stayed in the library to listen, some for over eight hours. This is radical compassion, an active, deeply unsettling engagement with one another’s pain that has the power to catalyze real change.
It is radical compassion we are calling for, not political correctness or a curtailing of “free speech.” We are asking that our communities engage with the pain and harm caused by a legacy of institutional racism, sexism, homophobia, and myriad other oppressions. We are asking that this pain be recognized as the undeniable reality of being a student of color at a privileged institution and not some ideological position that can be abstracted and debated. And we are demanding institutional changes that will alleviate some of this pain.
November 14, 2015: This post incorrectly stated Zareena Grewal’s appeared in the Wall Street Journal.