Fresh Eyes: Why colleges are not neutral spaces

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Yarboroughby Chelsea Yarborough

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a glut of articles, think pieces and casual Facebook soapbox posts after Mizzou, Yale and other student uprisings. These articles chastise students at elite universities for daring to take issue with racism on their campuses. The core argument of these pieces are that we Millennials are coddled: We are willing to sacrifice academic freedom for our own comfort, will never know how to engage with the “other side” because we refuse to have a conversation with them, and we really have no reason to protest! We are able to attend some of the most elite schools in the world, so what could we possibly have to complain about?

The exact trouble with the line of thinking that says, “You go to a prestigious college, you don’t know real oppression,” is that it’s false. Full stop. Racism is usually painted as the redneck white man with a Confederate flag, but it is also the professor in your department, the admissions counselor, the college administration. Oppression thrives on college campuses partly because people refuse to look past the liberal veneer of college as a great equalizer.

At my own school, I heard this same logic — the logic of “Guilford College is such a loving liberal place where none of the isms could ever happen” time and time again when in fact students like me have experienced those ugly isms invading our perfect little liberal arts bubble. I’ll list a few for you here:

• While reading Celia: A Slave in my US History course, my white male professor with a PhD in African-American history told our class that if this story about rape and murder couldn’t interest us in history, he didn’t know what would. Celia: A Slave details the life of a young slave girl who is bought by an older white slave owner for sex. She not only experiences abuse at his hands, but at the hands of his wife and daughter. She eventually murders him after years of sexual abuse.

• The same professor told me I was “projecting a new analysis onto history” when he asserted that Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson were in a consensual relationship and I attempted to correct him.

• “Justice for Eric Garner” and “Justice for Michael Brown” posters I put up alongside other students were vandalized, and racist and antagonistic comments about posters and protests on campus were posted on Yik Yak.

• Being called “Harriet Tubman” by a student during a midnight fire-alarm scare because I ran outside with my hair still wrapped up in my silk scarf.

• When an older white man attempted to correct me during a practice run of a final presentation for my history capstone course when he had no knowledge of my research, my work or my topic. He also did this in front of the entire class.

• The Confederate flag that hung largely and proudly in the apartment living room across from mine during my junior year.

This is the short list of things that have happened at Guilford College, the perfectly liberal, Quaker bubble. This also does not encompass the rampant queer phobia, xenophobia, cissexism, and violent white supremacy that my school and others display.

All marginalized bodies in spaces not made for them are disruptions.

The bottom line is this — colleges and universities are not neutral spaces. They are products of a racist, white supremacist society, institutions built for white, straight land-owning men by other white straight, land-owning men on stolen indigenous land. My black body in all of its intricacies was not who the university system was designed for.

All marginalized bodies in spaces not made for them are disruptions. And when the flow of the status quo is disrupted, the system works to negate disruptive bodies by pushing us out. To let the discrimination, oppression and injustices that occur (yes, even the ones that happen at Guilford College) fly under the radar of the liberal veneer of the college environment does none of us any good.

The forums that the administration organizes, the tears of white guilt and the “I can’t believe this would happen here” attitude voiced in unison by well-meaning people are Band-Aids that we’ve carelessly laid onto festering, oozing blisters.

Going to a prestigious college or university does not automatically exempt you from institutional isms-and yes, your university or college is complicit in upholding them. Simple discussion and being nice to each other will not cure America of its sickness. People should not be grateful to be accepted into spaces that were not made for them, places that put them into incredible amounts of debt and that prioritize them only when they can be put on the front page of a marketing brochure. If colleges and universities want to treat students as consumers, the customer is always right.

Don’t be so surprised when dissatisfied customers speak up.

Chelsea Yarborough is a recent graduate of Guilford College and concerned alum who now resides in Washington, DC.

  • Dominique Crespo

    I agree with you Chelsea, as Latina that studies intercultural communication in Southern Illinois, I get oppressed for advocating to better our world. My attempts to improve public pedagogy are sometimes denied because of my skin color. This is applied as colorism. If I advocate for my Latino community and for social justice, but I do not appear to look “ethnic”, then “I have nothing to complain about” “I have no struggles”. This is absolute nonsense, we all have the space to educate our community with the correct neutral pedagogy.
    Great job expressing this issue, as we must all act against it.

  • Andrew J. Young

    In my view, powers-that-be — almost inevitably white — believe that the solution to oppression in higher ed (systemic racism, social injustice, unfairness, etc) rests in sitting through lengthy discussions, formation of subcommittees, collection of “data” and of course, a succinct “definition of the problem”. This devotion to process is supposed to indicate how much the institution cares, when really what people of color want, whether they’re students or employees, is for the oppression to stop. “Tears of white guilt” are as about as useful as subcommittees and data collection are when a house is on fire. Brown University just announced it’s going to spend $100 million over ten years to improve race relations, which sounds like a good start to me.