As we have seen over the past week at Mizzou, college and university students have and are becoming involved in grassroots movements toward diversity and ending racism. Are these students’ concerns really something school administrations should address or even can address? Some say no. CNN contributor Alex Castellanos, though he sympathizes with protesters complaints, believes that administrative action will make students unprepared to deal with the “real world.” He fears coddling students and creating unprepared graduates who will have to face these same racist attitudes off campus, and he is not alone in these fears. According to him, students of color need to learn the lesson of acceptance and how to graciously handle racism to be able to make it in the “real world.” Are these the lessons we are teaching, or even want to teach in higher education?
Are we teaching students of color how to handle racism in the real world? What our institutions are teaching is that if you are made to feel less than, inferior, or offended, that is alright. Do not complain, this is just how it is. If you complain, you will not be taken seriously. If you complain, you will be intimidated into compliance, like a black female student at Mizzou who tweeted about her experience of being trapped in a dark parking lot by pickup trucks with white male students hemming her in and yelling racial slurs at her after she participated in the protests. If you complain, you may be made to fear for your physical safety as we have seen from the many death threats and school shooting threats that have been made against Mizzou and Howard University in particular. With few faculty of color, who is there to teach these students how to deal with and understand these events? How are they to learn if no one is there to teach them? Is this the status quo we want students of color to leave school understanding? Is this the lesson we should be teaching the next generation of Americans of color?
Is this the status quo we want to teach white students? You can bully, intimidate, demean, and offend people of color and the worst you will get is a slap on the wrist, and there might not even be an investigation! You do not have to respect people of color. All you have to do is say, “freedom of speech,” your offenses will be forgiven, and any hurt or anger from a person of color will be condemned. You will never be made to acknowledge this uncomfortable truth, you can only benefit from it. We can see in Tim Wolf, the University of Missouri system’s President, who refused to admit his own privilege, even when faced with it and having it explained to him. If we want true racial reconciliation in America, is this the lesson we should be sending to the next generation of white Americans?
Perhaps a more pertinent question for us to ask is what we are teaching students here at Wheaton. Wheaton’s administration has taken steps to support minorities and increase diversity within the past few years. But is it enough? White students still ask me to explain what the problem with the n-word is. Norms here include almost exclusively white history, western philosophy and western literature taught by mostly white professors, and very little diversity in chapel. Many minorities, myself included, feel as if they are outside of and not quite a part of this community. The lack of diversity in the student body and in the faculty means that students of color see very few faces like theirs and even fewer in positions of authority. Micro-aggressions have become part of daily life here for myself and other minorities. As one student told me, “If you didn’t know you were a minority before, you’ll know when you get to Wheaton.”
I believe the lesson that should be taught is that this society will no longer tolerate racism in any form: from micro aggressions to structural racism to racial violence to racial slurs. Higher education should never uphold the status quo without questioning it. Higher education should not reinforce the status quo, it should change it. Administrations and administrators can no longer afford to ignore these issues as Tim Wolf learned last week. The lesson that is taught can be a radically different one than older generations grew up with. We can change the “real world.” The student protestors at Mizzou have learned that lesson of how to “handle it in the real world.” They have been learning it all their lives. A quick look through the hashtag #blackoncampus can assure you of that. They have decided that they are tired of this lesson and want a new lesson to be taught. They understand education can change the course of history. We are at a crucial point in American race relations. Academia has long been a bastion of structural racism, keeping minorities out and giving the majority a leg up. Now, higher education can change and bend to help lead our society toward a more inclusive and tolerant era, or it can remain rigid and unchanged. However, time usually breaks things too rigid to bend.