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'We're just trying to challenge you': White responses to anti-racism on campus

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Marcus Gee, The Globe and Mail

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During my final years at Ryerson, I was part of a coalition that grew out of the ashes of an attempt of white supremacists to organize a student club. The Anti-Racism Coalition convinced the university to study racism on campus and the resulting Task Force produced a document that identified systemic and structural locations of racism.

In response to the Task Force's final report, Marcus Gee wrote this for The Globe and Mail: a dismissive LOL at the notion that racism could exist at Ryerson. Ignore the instances of overt racism (white supremacist literature dropped in the library, race-based vandalism on student election posters, racist graffiti at the Muslim student prayer space etc.). For Gee, racism at Ryerson was impossible: 'possibly the most diverse school in the entire world" could not be racist.

Journalism student at the time Robyn Urback parroted Gee's column and went a step further: folks who cry "racism" need to grow up. "University isn't about making you feel good. It's about confronting challenges," was the sub-heading of her article.

Gee and Urback are white, in case that wasn't obvious.

That was 2010. Today, racism is still a thing at Ryerson and students are still agitating to identify and dismantle racism.

Perhaps Urback's rhetoric was visionary. The conflation of "comfort" and "coddled millennials" with students who are fighting systemic oppression has exploded in 2015. Mainstream outlets are repeating this line uncritically, ad nauseam.  

Conflating these issues has become the norm at the same time as Black students are in the national spotlight in the United States, struggling against institutional racism that persists on college campuses.

There are two things happening here, and time-tested systemic racism is allowing mainstream journalists and commentators to mix the two phenomena together. The effect is whitewashing the voices of Black students by arguing they're coddled millennials who simply need to be pulled out of their comfort zones.

On one hand, it is probably true that young people are more emotionally fragile than ever before. University students today are the first generation who grew up under unbridled neoliberalism: where every aspect of society is broken down into individual pieces. In absence of communities that used to provide support and some defense from the exposure of the real world, young people are more vulnerable now than ever before.

The corporatization of universities has not helped. Crushing student debt has raised the stakes. Failing a course isn't simply a matter of bruised ego any more. It's also a waste of a couple hundred, or a thousand dollars.

When I worked with students who had failed several courses in one semester at Ryerson, the pressure that every single one of these students was under was enormous. Every person was balancing too many things: pressure from parents, pressure to succeed, personal crises like losing homes or parents dying, poverty, balancing school with work or trying to also raise a family.

Far from coddled, students were taking enormous risks to try and finish their degrees.  

For the administrators who support the privatization of higher education, it's much easier to dismiss students for being coddled, whiney losers than deal with the issues that have created such an atmosphere.

But none of this directly relates to the second issue: racism on campus. Universities were set up to educate white men. Despite the changes that have taken place over the decades, many elements of the old, stuffy academy still remain. At the same time, student enrolment among racialized students has steadily grown. The result is a culture clash that has never before been seen, mostly because the participation of racialized students never hit such a critical mass.

This presents itself like this: older white male professor teaches the same philosophy course year-over-year. Students grow tired of not seeing the philosophical traditions of non-Western philosophers (or seeing non-Western traditions debased or mocked), and speak out. Far from saying: don't challenge me, these movements are challenging professors and administrators to stop operating on such a narrow plain.

Conflating these phenomena allows universities to more easily dismiss activists as needy, aided by the likes of Urback on campuses and Gee in the mainstream press. Nothing changes. Systemic racism continues, unchallenged.

CBC's The Current recently jumped into this, featuring Everett Piper the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University. He wrote a letter to a student who confronted him for something he said. In it, he says: "if you want to arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn; if you don't want to feel guilt in your soul when you are guilty of sin; if you want to be enabled rather than confronted, there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isn't one of them." The Current set him up with a nine-minute interview.

(The slogan of his university is: "Impacting Culture with the Lordship of Jesus Christ." No wonder he was chosen to discuss such an important topic!)

There is danger in glossing over what is really happening by instead focusing on distortions or minor dust-ups where a Christian man challenges his university's president for potentially misinterpreting 1 Corinthians 13 (yes, that was what he was challenging. No idea how Dr. Piper would respond to the challenge that Jesus was not in fact, Lord of all creation. Maybe The Current could follow up).

When marginalized students talk about safe space, they're using coded language to say: space where, for once in a while on campus, they don't have to challenge racist assumptions, or sexual harassment, or ableism or other forms of oppression. Because it's damn tiring to do this all the time and it impact students’ ability to do what they’re there to do: go to class, learn, be challenged and to challenge.

It's long past time for professors and administrators to reject the narrative of "coddled students" when they're responding to students who are fighting systemic racism. These students are charging into a better future. Journalists, commentators and conservative professors would do well to follow their lead.

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