Why The Atlantic’s “The New Intolerance of Student Activism” gets it wrong
Across the United States, a resurgence of student power has taken place. Whether at small, private institutions or well-known, public universities, students of color have chosen to speak out and demand an environment of respect, fair treatment, safety and comfort at the institutions they attend on a daily basis.
Schools such as the University of Missouri, Amherst College, Harvard University, the University of California Los Angeles and Ithaca College have seen a rise in protests, teach-ins and walkouts led by students of color in the name of demanding an improvement to their school’s racial climate, with students treated with fairness and respect and given a say in decisions regarding the college they attend.
Many of these student activists have written their own formal list of demands to be addressed immediately by the presidents and administrations of their schools. Some of these demands include an increase in the hiring of faculty of color, more funds allocated to programs and organizations benefiting students of color and even the resignation or firing of the president of the college, which is one of the demands of POC at IC — People of Color at Ithaca College.
At the prestigious Yale University, student activists have also engaged in confrontations over race regarding recent events that have exacerbated the poor racial climate at the university. However, the actions of these students, who are primarily students of color, have faced sharp criticism, the most biting of which came from The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf in his Nov. 9 piece, “The New Intolerance of Student Activism.” Friedersdorf criticized the actions of these students as examples of their new attitude of “intolerance” towards viewpoints that are dissenting from their own.
One event that sparked controversy at Yale was an alleged “white girls only” party hosted by Sigma Alpha Epsilon. But what Friedersdorf chooses to center his argument upon is the student response to an email sent out by Erika Christakis, associate master at Silliman College, a residential area for Yale students. Christakis wrote the email in response to a separate message sent out by Yale officials Oct. 27 that urged students to be mindful of their Halloween attire in the name of racial sensitivity and preventing cultural appropriation.
Some students, however, were frustrated by the email, prompting Christakis to send out her own email arguing against what she saw as the university’s attempt to control the ways its students choose to dress for Halloween.
Many students quickly took offense to Christakis’ email for what they saw as a downplaying of issues that continue to impact students of color. As a result, they demanded the resignation of Christakis and her husband Nicholas, a Yale professor and master at Silliman College, who was quoted in the email suggesting that students who don’t like a costume should either look away or tell the person wearing it that they are offended.
Friedersdorf criticized the Yale activists for taking offense to Christakis’ email. Citing footage showing a confrontation between professor Christakis and students demanding an apology for his wife’s email, Friedersdorf wrote that the position of the students allowed no room for civil disagreement.
“They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable,” he wrote. “In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.”
Friedersdorf went on to write that the students at Yale are illustrating the concept of “catastrophizing,” described in an article in The Atlantic in September 2015 by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” as the idea of “turning common events into nightmarish trials or claiming that easily bearable events are too awful to bear.”
But through accusing these students of catastrophizing, what Friedersdorf severely lacks is basic understanding, empathy and context. First and foremost, it is important to note the safety and comfort of students of color do not materialize once they enter the hallowed gates of higher education. Racism and microaggressions are never checked and left behind at the door, but are rather carried through subtly by well-meaning individuals who claim they are not racist. A university may feel like a comfortable bubble to some students, but to many students of color, it can be another manifestation of the continued prevalence of systemic racism that plagues this country.
Friedersdorf’s argument only looks at what is on the surface, rather than what lies beneath it. The rise in student protests should not be looked at as an immediate reaction to racially charged actions on campus, such as the email from Christakis, but as a boiling-point reaction from students of color who constantly face racially charged comments from professors, administrators and fellow students on a day-to-day basis.
When these students have constantly been kicked down by racist remarks, actions and subsequent inaction by the very people who vow to create a “safe and inclusive” campus environment, it becomes difficult to continue suffering in silence. Their anger does not stem from only one or two incidents, but from years of living in an environment where their own external identity is used as a form of degradation. Perhaps if Friedersdorf took the time to understand the context of their anger, he would not be accusing these Yale students of “catastrophizing.”
Later in the article, Friedersdorf criticized the students’ demand for an apology from Christakis, writing, “Who taught them that it is righteous to pillory faculty for failing to validate their feelings, as if disagreement is tantamount to disrespect?”
In the case of these Yale students, as is the case with the experiences of many minority students in college, the constant questioning of the experiences of students of color is already a form of invalidation in of itself. Why should students of color have to explain themselves time and time again when critics like Friedersdorf can sit comfortably in their criticism, without even attempting to question their own privilege that allows them to criticize without firsthand experience of what it’s like to be a person of color.
Another important contextual fact Friedersdorf conveniently leaves out of his article is the demographic makeup of Yale. Minority students only make up 28 percent of the campus community, while the number of white students amounts to 72 percent. This classifies Yale as a PWI: a predominantly white institution. Funny how Friedersdorf seems to ignore this fact altogether, given that attending an overwhelmingly white university drastically impacts the experiences of the minority students at Yale.
Because students of color are in a place where they are not well-represented, they can often feel ostracized: a black or brown face attempting to survive within a sea of white. As if being the only student of color in a classroom isn’t jarring enough, they are often called upon to speak as the representative for their entire race, religion or ethnic group.
Furthermore, Friedersdorf fails to mention the racial makeup of Yale’s faculty. In the 2014–15 academic year, minority faculty only comprised 22.5 percent of Yale’s faculty population. In the university’s School of Fine Arts and Sciences, minority faculty numbered just 17 percent.
Last month Yale student activists displayed a poster illustrating Yale’s diversity gaps. The poster read: “A 1% increase in black faculty per century! The students are waiting. Your move, Yale.” In a school with a majority white student population, the need to find a safe space or a familiar face to connect with coexists with the need to increase the diversity in faculty to provide a more comfortable environment for students.
Friedersdorf mentions the action that hundreds of Yale students have taken in signing an open letter to Christakis detailing the grievances and frustrations with her email, only to criticize the students’ reasoning and rationale even further.
“Yale students told to talk to each other if they find a peer’s costume offensive helplessly declare that they’re unable to do so without an authority figure specifying ‘any modes or means to facilitate these discussions,’ as if they’re Martians unfamiliar with a concept as rudimentary as disagreeing in conversation, even as they publish an open letter that is, itself, a mode of facilitating discussion,” he wrote in his article.
However, Friedersdorf fails to understand the ways in which Christakis’ letter infantilized the student body by trivializing the problems of cultural appropriation instead of sparking meaningful dialogue. Oftentimes, students are left to explain the wrongness of cultural appropriation for themselves, and are met with opposition from the other side, who claim it’s just a costume.
Having high-level administrators stand on the side against appropriation, with the student activists themselves, illustrates an attempt to understand and listen to the perspectives of the student body, instead of leaving it up to them to fend for themselves, as Christakis suggested.
In another attempt to criticize Yale student activists, Friedersdorf said they need to be taught “how empowered they are by virtue of their mere enrollment.” While it is undeniable there is a privilege in being able to attend an Ivy League college, it is unfair to imply that these students of color hold a tantamount amount of privilege that cancels out any oppression they may face in a zero-sum game.
Even in an Ivy League institution, skin color and race can determine how students are treated by their peers. Already their minority status strips away privileges that are held by white students and impacts the way they experience Yale in relation to their white colleagues. Friedersdorf, however, ignored this in his article.
The piece ends with this sentence: “In their muddled ideology, the Yale activists had to destroy the safe space to save it.” But what Friedersdorf fails to realize is why the safe space must exist in the first place. They are not methods of exclusion, as he believes, but of inclusion, meant to create a safe and comfortable environment for students who are part of marginalized groups in society.
Instead of purporting that safe spaces are becoming “weaponized,” perhaps Friedersdorf should be questioning the ridiculousness of safe spaces in the first place — that students of color must go out of their way to create their own safe space within an environment where they feel excluded and uncomfortable.
At a time when student activism seems to be at its peak, those questioning these activists’ concerns, experiences, actions and emotions must first understand the underlying context behind the movement. While opposing viewpoints like Friedersdorf’s will always exist within political movements, the character and bravery of the activists should not be invalidated in the process. Their mobilization and their activism stems from their rightful anger and frustration at the institutions that have continued to fail them time and time again.
Celisa Calacal is a sophomore journalism major with a concentration in rhetorically painting people into corners. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.