It should not have to be said that every student deserves to feel safe on their campus. Nor should it have to be said that racism, systematic or otherwise, is alive in modern-day America.
These truths are comforting, insomuch as we can all agree on them. Little else in the current national debate affords such luxury. The recent protests at Yale and Mizzou blend a complicated history of injustice, recent social trends, freedom of speech, and education, all set against the ugly backdrop of discrimination.
At Yale, it all began with an email from the school’s Intercultural Affairs Council that requested students not wear offensive or “culturally appropriative” Halloween costumes. Erika Christakis, a professor and Associate Master (akin to an Area Director), responded to this email among her living area, pushing back: “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
“Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?” she asks.
This email led to widespread protests, clashes with the media, and calls for resignation. “We simply ask that our existences not be invalidated on campus,” Yale students stated in an open letter signed by over one thousand students, alumni, and others.
And yet, as Conor Friedersdorf responds expertly in The Atlantic: “This notion that one’s existence can be invalidated by a fellow 18-year-old donning an offensive costume is perhaps the most disempowering notion aired at Yale.”
No matter your views on the events at Yale, contrast them with Mizzou, where a Yik Yak post stated, “I’m going to stand my ground and shoot every black person I see,” where an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism wrote that she “[has] been called the n-word too many times to count,” and where students woke up one morning to cotton balls scattered with odious intent across the Black Culture Center’s lawn.
This is all to say that to conflate Yale with Mizzou is wildly unjust. On one hand, we have an overblown reaction to an email—a textbook example of what The Atlantic calls “catastrophizing.” There are surely racial problems at Yale, but addressing a polite, well-intentioned email with such a display is nothing short of shameful.
The Mizzou protesters, although not perfect in the own right, are at the very least easier to sympathize with. The details of the school’s racism are horrific; one can understand why these students feel unsafe on their campus.
Still, “not perfect” bears investigation. It would be dishonest to ignore the behavior of protestors on both sides. At Mizzou, they shoved a student photographer. Separately, a communications professor called for “muscle” to remove another student journalist. At Yale, activists screamed profanities at professors and spit on conference attendees.
It is difficult to see what students had to gain from treating the media so poorly, or how the media might tell an authentic story—as the protesters accuse them of failing to do—if they are blocked from access.
Clearly, the issue is far from one-sided. An email from the Student Government Association, signed “#InSolidaritywithMizzou, Your SGA,” may have obscured the variety of opinions among the Babson student body.
Certainly, many stand steadfastly with the protesters. 94 members of the Babson community dressed in black and posed for a photo in show of support; countless others posted a viral message on social media: “To the students of color at Mizzou. We, student allies at Babson College, stand with you in solidarity. To those who would threaten their sense of safety, the world is watching.”
But others feel differently. “Orwellian” is the way one student described the protesters’ censorship of any dissenting viewpoint. “It just seems disingenuous,” said another, to pretend like posting on social media, which requires little effort, equates to true support.
In the end, progress cannot come without calm, reasoned discussion. Protesters are right and wrong; administrators are right and wrong; the media is right and wrong. Babson, with its wonderful diversity, is rich with opportunity for debate and understanding.
“We have a right to be offensive,” Princeton student Beni Snow declared in the Daily Princetonian. And we do.
“Systematic injustice…is very much a reality for a lot of students of color,” Babson student Victoria Bills (’16) said. And it is.
“Talk to each other,” Christakis’ email urged. And we must.