Who’s telling who to STFU at American universities? Observations on teaching at a HWCU.

cupofSTFUAh, yes: freedom of speech. What some really mean when they evoke it is, “my right to have my say and not have you talk back,” like all of those crybabies who have cancelled their appearances at commencement ceremonies in the last few years because not every student and faculty member greeted their future appearance on campus with hugs and cocoa and slankets.

If you really believe in liberty of speech, then stop telling others to STFU.  In my view, the people who are being criticized most vigorously for speaking up lately at Yale and the University of Missouri are all too often quiet about their experiences, silent on campus, and eager not to draw attention to themselves, and it’s these students whose voices we need to listen to the most.

Too many people have zero imagination about what it is to be African American or Latin@ on a historically white college or university (HWCU) campus. But everyone who has ever attended or taught or worked at a HWCU knows that African Americans on HWCUs are viewed with suspicion just for being there, let alone when they try to unlock their own damn bikes or organize a protest about their marginalization.

I teach at a HWCU in Northern Colorado, a place that is increasingly Latin@ but has very few African American residents.  In my classes, my experience with non-white students in general, and African American students in particular, over the past fourteen years is that they go out of their way to be polite, inoffensive, unobtrusive, and try not to call attention to themselves in any way.  Their efforts to try to fly under the radar and evade notice grieve me, even as I think I understand their interest in remaining quiet and unobtrusive.  I work to offer a non-white perspective on history constantly, but I don’t know if I’m making it better or worse for my non-white students (or if they even care.) That’s the reality of attending a HWCU for the majority of black students in the United States:  working hard to get your degree, trying not be noticed, not taking up much space or speaking up in class.

So imagine my surprise that Alex Beam, a writer whose work I have admired for decades, unfortunately went down the Clueless White Guy path this week in The Boston Globe.  Note:  this is not the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal or of The Weekly Standard.

A Yale eminento asked me recently, What did you do in college, Alex? He meant what cool secret society did I belong to, did I play a varsity sport, or did I write for the newspaper. An embarrassing silence ensued.

In fact, I hung around the libraries and studied, because there was an excellent education laid out in front of me. So if Black Lives Matter chatterers came through the library chanting slogans and berating me for my skin color, as they recently did at Dartmouth — it wouldn’t have warmed me to their cause. Not then and not now.

I think we can call that a preemptive STFU.

How nice that the young Alex Beam found the library a warm and welcoming place for him to further his education!  How admirable he was to take advantage of it!  But how much easier was it for young Beam to study in the Yale library because he wasn’t eyed suspiciously by security guards when he walked in or arrested by a campus “police” officer at gunpoint when he walked out?  That happened this year, friends, at Yale, to another young man who was using the library on an early Saturday evening!  But he is black, and if his father wasn’t a prominent columnist for The New York Times, I’m sure we never would have heard about this unjust arrest.  Dog bites man, and all that.

Whiteness has its privileges, among which is the privilege to be taken seriously as an intellectual, to be seen as the model patron of a library, the rightful inhabitant of a university campus, never to be viewed as a security risk to other students for his mere presence there.  And according to Beam, it appears to include the right never to have his studies interrupted by “Black Lives Matter chatterers” or any other interlopers into the pristine university environment of his imagination.

Why shouldn’t student groups interrupt studies in the library for a few minutes, or ask for universities to rename schools and buildings after people who weren’t known for their active support for segregation, terrorism, or Civil War treason?  (Example:  Woodrow Wilson was racist and segregationist for his time, so why shouldn’t Princeton consider dumping some or all of his honors?)

Read that article on Wilson by Dylan Matthews :  Beam’s comment about Black Lives Matter echoes Woodrow Wilson’s tone policing letter to an African American Harvard alum protesting his introduction of segregation in the federal bureaucracy:  “‘If this organization is ever to have another hearing before me it must have another spokesman. Your manner offends me … Your tone, with its background of passion.'”  Sound familiar?

Oddly, throughout his article, Beam invokes his own father’s disgust (Princeton class of 1929) at the sex integration of Princeton.  As the kids say these days, that happened, and would anyone really make an argument that coeducation should be dropped?  Beam doesn’t, noting how much money Meg Whitman (Princeton class of 1977) has donated to her alma mater.  Beam is a smart guy:  why doesn’t he get that his complaints will be similarly regarded as the complaints against coeducation, back in the day?

I return to my prescription from earlier this semester:  don’t worry or bitch about imaginary “political correctness.”  Engage instead.  You just might learn something.

19 thoughts on “Who’s telling who to STFU at American universities? Observations on teaching at a HWCU.

  1. One of my classmates at Princeton posted something on fb that he had posted in response to a column in the campus paper. And he, and all these guys (and as I recall, it was all guys) were like, oh, yes, freedom of speech, yah boo, why are kids so fragile these days kind of stuff. So I just said that recommending that people don’t do offensive things is not affecting your freedom of speech; in fact it’s what we teach our children. It’s called politeness. And I reminded them that it was very different laughing at the powerful and the powerless, which was why we teach children not to laugh at disabled (in any way) kids. And I commented that women and other marginalized people were often criticized for not being willing to take a joke, but that hid the difference between laughing at the powerful and the powerless. Oddly enough, that shut them all up. No one responded, but no one said another word.


    • It’s too bad no one responded, but maybe their silence indicates deeper thought?

      I never thought the original Yale email warning people about costumes that may offend others was at all threatening anyone’s liberty of speech or expression. It merely said “Yale is a community that values free expression as well as inclusivity. And while students, undergraduate and graduate, definitely have a right to express themselves, we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.” (See the full email here on the FIRE website.)

      Yes, politeness and awareness that not everyone on campus is white, non-Native American, non-African American, non-Asian, non-trans. . . Seems like writing emails like this are what being on the Intercultural Awareness Committee is all about, especially before Halloween.


  2. One key difference between coeducation and racial integration is that many men have daughters (and some have only daughters), while considerably fewer white men have nonwhite children. So sentimental alums of once all-male, all-white institutions who would like to see their children attend their alma maters may be somewhat more inclined toward coeducation than racial integration. This does not necessarily lead to said daughters being fully comfortable at the institution in question (at least in the late ’80s, one could watch the P-rade go by for a very long time before women finally started appearing), but it does offer a foot in the door, and, thanks to things like having the PAW in the home, a general feeling of familiarity/belonging, that is not as available to students whose parents and/or grandparents could not, thanks to the color of their skin, attend the institution. That comfort is presumably even more available to white sons of white alumni, and being able to mildly rebel against the orange and black cult by going to another Ivy League school represents yet another level of privilege (though I probably shouldn’t throw stones on that particular account). Similarly, cultural (and gender) appropriation is a luxury that is most easily available to those who feel they can return to their usual privileged status after brief experimentation with other, less-privileged identities.

    I’m not really fond of the phrase “check your privilege,” but Mr. Beam. . .


    • Great point about white daughters vs. nonwhite children, CC.

      I think there’s definitely resentment in the criticism of African American student activism: “What are YOU complaining about? We LET YOU IN. You’re privileged! If you don’t like it LEAVE, but we don’t think our campus should change.” As though white alums are the only rightful gatekeepers who insist that admitting nonwhite students doesn’t mean the campus needs to change at all.


    • You could track the letters in PAW (the Princeton Alumni Weekly, which at one time really was weekly) to track the slow realization of the older grads that their daughters/grand-daughters etc. could benefit from this. I was rowing my first year (early 70s), and my great-uncle (NOT known for his progressive credentials) wrote this weird letter that was half “Why women?” and then “Where can we get the results for women’s crew.


      • Indeed. My father was a relatively recent alum at the time — and a first-generation one who’d gone on to earn a Ph.D. at an institution that did admit women to the grad school, so he had less investment in tradition than some, and knew this co-education thing could work — but/and his main reaction was to reflect that I (as well as my brother) could now go to Princeton, and to be excited when the daughter of a family at church did become a member of the first class that admitted women.

        I don’t remember much discussion of integration, though I’m pretty sure it occurred sometime after he graduated, and he would have been in favor of it (though perhaps quietly so, since his mother would have had doubts), but it was all more theoretical; no one he knew with any degree of intimacy became eligible to apply with that decision.


  3. Pingback: Mixed Race Studies » Scholarly Perspectives on Mixed-Race » Who’s telling who to STFU at American universities? Observations on teaching at a HWCU.

  4. As you say, when he can observe how dated and laughable his father’s generation’s discomfort with co-education was, how can he not see that we’re still living with a boatload of racism that’s affecting students, staff and faculty today in universities everywhere?

    I remember a classmate talking about how he loved the 24/7 library hours at our undergrad university and several of the women like myself commenting that we only took advantage of those hours if we were studying with others. He was shocked. Why wouldn’t we feel safe or welcome? Walking out of the EE building at 3 in the morning after a late night session of HACK with my friends made me screamingly aware of how scary and unwelcoming a dark campus felt. And this was as a white faculty brat who’d lived all my life in the town! How much harder it is for people who’re regularly surveilled for, I don’t know, getting into THEIR OWN CARS on campus because they’re an ethnic minority that appears out of place to authorities who code college student as “white” and probably “male”.


    • Janice, it’s so true: white women’s claim to space on campus is severely restricted, although few people question whether we belong there now, because women in the U.S. (and probably Canada too) women are the new majority student. And yet: our right to move through space unmolested, although a majority, is still not guaranteed.

      HWCUs and historically male colleges and universities must wake up and serve their students equally. And that means, quite frankly, holding white men to the same standards that the rest of us are held to –of sobriety, of politeness, of questioning your positions on issues, of wondering if you’re calling attention to yourself with your behavior. And yes, it means more commuications from uni administrators asking students to consider the effects of their behavior on others, whether in a choice of Halloween costume, or in one’s behavior in class or at a party.

      Maybe we need to bring back parietal rules. Many students, especially those at HWCUs and HMCUs need to be guided with a heavier hand on the path to adulthood.


  5. I have long since concluded, based largely on observed changes in the increasingly student-centered neighborhood near campus where I live, that something like at least a modified version of in loco parentis needs to be at least considered on an as-needed basis. When I was in college, if you weren’t in college you were out-of-the-house anyway. Now, it would appear, if you are not off on campus somewhere, you are likely to be still at home. And no matter how domestically indulgent the current parents in question may be in comparison to their own parents, I’m pretty sure they would not put up with seven or eight kids (some of them possibly their own) gathered at the back door at 1 a.m. smoking and talking noisily under the bedroom windows and going in and out slamming doors. Or impromptu 2-on-2 basketball games breaking out at 2 a.m in the same spaces. Or waking up at seven to discover the whole household just getting started on five hours of sleep, with multiple cars parked at bizarre angles so close to the house that emergency vehicles wouldn’t have a chance of getting anywhere near it if that became necessary.

    Maybe it should be denominated something more like “re-loco parentis” than in loco parentis. I realize the danger, indeed the inevitability, of invidious stereotyping and anecdotal evidence here. To say nothing of selective and conveniently self-serving memory on my part. For every individual majoring in nocturnal slacking, five more are at work raising the tuition money that my parents’ generation mostly provided, or indeed, seven more in the library studying , as the author of the above article remembers himself to have done. My immediate contemporaries cut it both ways; loud and disorderly for about thirty six hours a week, around two day weekends, and reasonably applied for most of the rest. Subject to the heavy hand when it appeared to be needed on behalf of collective and community well-being. Because de-tention, more than re-tention was the watchword over at the administerium..


  6. I am having a lot of trouble understanding how it is some kind of existential threat to free speech for university authorities to simply ask students not to be grossly racist assholes on Halloween. It’s not like they demanded compliance with requests for non-doucheiosity backed up with threats of punishment. All they did was *ask* students to not be gross assholes to one another. When did the notion of free speech transform into the freedom to be a fucken asshole without having to ever even hear anyone else suggest that you not be a fucken asshole, nor to ever hear anyone tell you what an asshole you are after you be one?


    • I agree entirely. I also think it was OK for the masters of that college at Yale to write their email too, but I think they should have thought about how some members of their community would read it in light of the very mild email that–as you write–asked students to THINK and perhaps reconsider before they donned “grossly racist asshole” costumes.

      Call it the Trumpification of American politics: if you suggest politely that white people avoid assholery, you’re accused of trampling free speech and of being “politically correct.” (Eugene Robinson has a good column on the ways in which accusations of “PC” are being used to deflect attention from obvs. lies and misinformation.)


  7. Pingback: P.C. culture run amok on campus! NOT. | Historiann

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