Professing themselves to be “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” student activists at my alma mater, Princeton University, passionately and powerfully challenged the university in recent days to make certain changes to improve the experience of Black students.
They demanded, in the same vein as students at other colleges and universities, that Princeton offer mandatory sensitivity training for faculty, create a safe space for Black students and change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
In the process, in my opinion, they exposed the quiet, latent racism of Princeton.
Although it was mostly positive, my experience at Princeton was regularly pierced by uncomfortable moments where my status as an African American rendered me “otherized” and, consequently, uncomfortable. My freshman year, a White friend asked me if I straightened my hair to “get the Black out.”
My sophomore year, another White friend told me that I should not worry about what the death of Trayvon Martin meant for the safety of my future African American sons. My friend said they would be “gentlemen,” unlike Trayvon, assuming that the secure socioeconomic status and Ivy League degree of their mother would compensate for the Blackness of their skin.
My senior year, yet another White friend asked me how dark he had to become before he was allowed to say the n-word without retribution.
Like a lot of students of color at Princeton, I saw these uncomfortable moments as the inevitable reality of being a person of color in America.
That reality was reaffirmed for many students in November 2014 when police brutality protests erupted across the country. Saddened and frustrated by the decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, students took to the streets to challenge police brutality and to assert that “Black Lives Matter.”
The next day students, community leaders and Princeton residents gathered at Palmer Square to pray for the victims of police brutality and make a promise to ensure that their lives were not lost in vain. Two weeks later, students protested the decision not to indict the officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
At 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 4, 2014, students walked out of class and marched to Frist Campus Center where they held a period of silence and staged a “die-in” in solidarity with Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the many other victims of police brutality.
Distressed by what Michael Brown and Eric Garner revealed about the pervasiveness of American racism, many students, especially those students of color, began to look inwardly, reflecting on the daily racial marginalization at Princeton.
In April 2015, a tipping point developed that, I would argue, served as the genesis for the recent protests. A video emerged of a university-approved student group, problematically named “Urban Congo,” performing at an event sponsored by Princeton. Students denounced Urban Congo as an offensive parody of African culture, appalled by its members chanting and banging on makeshift instruments while clad in loincloths and body paint.
Other students, many of whom used the anonymity of the social media application Yik Yak, defended the group, dismissing, in the process, the concerns of those offended by the performance. Reasoned one Yik Yak user: “Maybe Congo is supposed to stand for Congo drums, not the country #perpetually offended.”
Opined another user: “Not every culture needs to be defined as rich just out of political correctness. African tribes have contributed close to nothing to modern society.” Capturing the underlying hostility of the moment, another user determined, “If Princeton is so ‘damaging’, ~leave~. It’s one of the most welcome, liberal arts institutions in the nation. Good luck finding somewhere that can accommodate your hypersensitivity and neuroses.”
Personal attacks were launched against those students that had been most consistently and publicly critical of Urban Congo. Joanna Anyanwu, an activist and then a Princeton senior, was labeled as being “just as racist as any,” “aggressive” and “hateful.” Referencing the popular millennial comedy, “Mean Girls,” one Yik Yak user jabbed, “Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by JA’15.”
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Anyanwu reflected, “My identity is called into question every single day that I am on this campus but seeing my initials all over the app was the first time I had ever felt physically unsafe to be on campus.”
Frustrated by the hostile climate left in the wake of the performance, students turned to the administration for understanding and, hopefully, redress. Instead, they found excuses. Urban Congo was, in the words of Princeton University spokesperson Daniel Day, “more dining hall than Carnegie Hall,” as BuzzFeed News reported.
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In order to avoid having its own Urban Congo episode, the Yale University administration circulated an email reminding students to consider the feelings of others in their sartorial choices. Yale’s Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis channeled Daniel Day, responding in an email that is now online, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”
After all, performances mocking African culture are “more dining hall than Carnegie Hall” and not intended to be emotionally damaging. Blackface on Halloween is only “pretend play” and not meant to be hurtful.
Urban Congo, Blackface, nooses on statues of civil rights activists, young women of color being told “white girls only” upon attempting to enter a frat party, pieces of black tape plastered over the faces of African American faculty members are all expressions of youthful buoyancy. In fact, the fundamental issue in these moments of perceived racial insensitivity is free speech. Right?
The reaction to students’ unwillingness to tolerate macro- and micro-institutionalized racism has been more disturbing than productive.
Daniel Day, Erika Christakis and others within and outside of academia have attempted to dismiss the frustrations and, in many cases, trauma experienced by students of color by labeling them as spoiled “idiot children,” who should be grateful for their relative privilege as college students and by reframing their concerns over racial insensitivity as an intolerance of free speech in the age of political correctness.
Christakis best captured the essence of this particular attempt, writing, “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”
If American colleges and universities have become “places of censure and prohibition,” they have become so only to silence students of color, confirming what they have long suspected: That their concerns do not matter.
If the vicious response to the recent explosion of student activism at Princeton is any indication, America’s colleges and universities, in my mind, have become places where it is acceptable to dismiss peaceful protest over racial insensitivity as a “display of childish arrogance.”
They have become places where those who publicize their real experiences with institutionalized racism can be told, as one person said on Facebook, “If you don’t like Princeton, leave.” They have become places where those who demand that their colleges value their input can be told, again on Facebook, that, “Princeton doesn’t owe you anything.”
They have become places where it is appropriate to respond to activism on the part of students of color with bomb threats.
Media coverage has largely ignored the vitriol of the backlash to the student protests, which has increasingly come from fellow students in the form of Yik Yak posts like those referenced above. Instead, it has focused on the opinions of free speech advocates, who have co-opted the students’ narrative.
This is best articulated by Christakis, who in an email that is online, said “there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech.” This is misguided.
What is missing at many of America’s colleges and universities is administrative and public concern over the fact that there are students that feel unwanted, unappreciated and unsafe in the very places meant to do the exact opposite.
What is missing at many of America’s colleges and universities is an awareness that racism is a very real problem. There have been cases at the University of Missouri, Claremont McKenna College, Ithaca College and Georgetown University.
What is missing is a cognizance that the instinctive response to students of color trying to peacefully effect change, should not be to threaten said students with disciplinary action.
What is missing is an understanding of the human element of these student protests. Behind the die-ins, sit-ins and demonstration is genuine pain and fear.
The response should be sympathy, not dismissal.