This week, two different conversations about racial sensitivity on two very different college campuses quickly turned into a national debate on free speech and its limits.
But the breakneck speed of how one subject turned into another reveals more about people’s discomfort revisiting racial history than about 1st Amendment technicalities.
Critics of the protesters at Yale and the University of Missouri say that in fighting for their own rights, they’re restricting those of others. But this interpretation misses centuries of historical context, many students and scholars of color are saying.
Talking about cultural appropriation as a free speech issue rather than one in the context of centuries of oppression misses the point, said Daphne Brooks, a Yale African American studies and theater studies professor.
Take blackface, for example: That was established as a form of entertainment in which white people performed stereotypes of black Americans who were not able to vote, buy property or even play the roles that were mocking them. These characterizations still affect the stereotypes that infiltrate perceptions of black Americans today: as hypersexualized, as animalistic, and intellectually deficient, she said.
Instead of allowing students to don offensive costumes in a vacuum with the protection of free speech, Brooks said, students and faculty should be able to talk about why they’re offensive and how they reinforce racist stereotypes.
“It just seems that free speech in this case is being used as a diversion from the issue that students are trying to bring up a conversation about, and that’s how race affects [the campus],” said Ryan Wilson, a student at Yale.
A similar switch happened at the University of Missouri, when protesters and at least one professor barricaded journalists from the protest space in the University of Missouri’s public quad. (By Tuesday morning, media were allowed in again.)
Missouri succeeded in ousting two administrators. The students celebrated on the quad. But what happened next was more complicated. A video showed that as student photojournalist Tim Tai sought to document the action, protesters surrounded him and pushed him, telling him that he could not photograph them.
Many didn’t understand why protesters would want to bar journalists from their site. On Tuesday, a piece in the Atlantic criticized the protesters and the faculty member who kept media out, accusing the protesters of weaponizing “safe spaces.” Missouri’s journalism school dean said in a statement that he is “proud” of Tai for doing his job, and a professor has apologized, saying that she “regrets the language and strategy” she used, and apologizing for drawing attention away from protesters.
The historical context is key — legally, the 1st Amendment does protect journalists. But journalists do not have a great track record of covering civil unrest fairly. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned a report to examine media coverage of race riots, which found that “media had sensationalized the disturbances, consistently overplaying violence and giving disproportionate amounts of time to emotional events and ‘militant’ leaders.” The Times had trouble covering the Watts riots. In covering protests in Baltimore earlier this year, many outlets gravitated first toward images of violence and fire.
“We were having some difficult dialogues there, talking about race,” said Jonathan Butler, the graduate student who went on a hunger strike. “That’s a very sensitive space to be in and be vulnerable in. It was necessary to keep that space very healthy, a very open space for dialogue, versus it being a space where people are going to cover a story, exoticize people who are going through pain and struggle.”
At Yale, before emails about Halloween became a national news story, Wilson was relieved to see an email from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Commission encouraging students to avoid “culturally unaware or insensitive” costumes. A black student in a school where 47% of undergraduates are white, he was used to seeing racist costumes and hearing racist comments.
Like other students, Wilson was shocked when he saw another email from his residential college’s associate master, Erika Christakis. Her email questioned whether faculty had the right to “exercise implied control over college students” and went on to question which level of cultural appropriation is ok. She encouraged students to either ignore or talk about these issues when they arise, and lamented a change in colleges:
“Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” she wrote. “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”
It’s also dangerous when people shine a nostalgic light on academia of the past, Brooks said. Colleges may have been “safe spaces” for regressive behavior because they were much more monochromatic: Students now are more diverse, and that diversity brings up social issues that Ivy students in the past have not had to contend with, Brooks said.
White students accounted for 84.3% of U.S. residents enrolled in postsecondary institutions in fall 1976, compared with 59.3% in 2013.
Yale students of color are angry about the email, and a viral video has made the rounds that shows a student confronting the master of Yale’s Silliman College, whose wife sent the email. Hundreds have signed an open letter that Wilson wrote to the school decrying the email, and more than a thousand students marched on Monday.
Students wanted to create a safe space from not only the racism they encounter on campus, but the insensitivity they encounter in the news media.
Video of a confrontation between a news photographer and protesters at the University of Missouri on Monday led to a dispute between journalists and the activists’ sympathizers beyond the campus walls. In response to a series of racial issues at the university, a circle of arm-linked students sought to designate a “safe space” around an encampment on the campus quad. When they blocked journalist Tim Tai from photographing the encampment, reporters complained that media were denied access to a public space.
Certainly, Tai – like any journalist – had a legal right to enter the space, given that it was in a public area. But that shouldn’t be the end of this story. We in the media have something important to learn from this unfortunate exchange. The protesters had a legitimate gripe: The black community distrusts the news media because it has failed to cover black pain fairly.
As a journalist, I understand how frustrating it is to be denied access to a person or place that’s essential to my story. I appeared with other journalistson local media in New York City to discuss our frustration over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s sometimes standoffish attitude towards the press. He is a public figure whose salary is paid with tax dollars. He is obligated to be accessible to us.
That was not the dynamic Tai encountered on Monday. These student protesters were not a government entity stonewalling access to public information or a public official hiding from media questions. They were young people trying to create a safe space from not only the racism they encounter on campus, but the insensitivity they encounter in the news media. In the outsized conversation that erupted about First-Amendment rights, journalists drowned out the very message of the students Tai was covering.
As journalists, we should strive to understand the motivations of the people we cover. In this case, black students at the University of Missouri have had a string of racist encounters on campus: The president of the students’ association has been called the N-word and other black students have been racially harassed while participating in campus activities. A Missouri journalism professor wrote in the Huffington Post that she has been called the n-word “too many times to count” during her 18 years at the university. In February 2010, black students woke up to cotton balls strewn over on the campus yard. The crime, carried out by white students, was designed to invoke the image of plantation slavery. University president Tim Wolfe resigned Monday after graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike to protest the very public racism he and many black students believe the school did little to address.
Establishing a “safe space” was about much more than denying the media access; it was about securing a rare space where their blackness could not be violated. Yes, the hunger strike, the safe space and other student demonstrations were protests, and protests should be covered. But what was fueling those protests was black pain. In most circumstances, when covering people who are in pain, journalists offer extra space and empathy. But that didn’t happen in this case; these young people weren’t treated as hurting victims.
To be clear, my objective is not to impugn Tai’s character or journalistic integrity. I agree that Tai was doing his job and his past outstanding work speaks for itself. But in this conversation over “public space,” we’ve overlooked the protesters’ message — that conditions on campus make it an unbearable environment for black students to live and learn. Their approach to creating a safe space probably could have been better thought out, but the media should feel a responsibility to understand their motivations and respect their pain.
Further, as reporters, we have to drop our sense of entitlement and understand that not everyone wants to be subjects of our journalism. Our press passes don’t give us the license to bully ourselves into any and all spaces where our presence is not appreciated.
In many communities that historically have been marginalized and unfairly portrayed by the media, there’s good reason why people do not trust journalists. There’s a tendency in news media to criminalize black people’s pain and resistance to racial oppression. We saw it in coverage of Ferguson and Baltimore, when news stations provided more coverage of broken windows in their communities than of black pain.
The unfair portrayal of black people in the news media is well documented. In one study analyzing news coverage by 26 local television stations, black people were rarely portrayed unless they had committed a crime. A 2015 University of Houston study found that this imbalanced coverage may lead viewers to develop racial bias against black people because it often over-represents them in crime rates. Recognizing this kind of bias in news media, black Twitter users started the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag to call out news images of Mike Brown that many felt criminalized him in his death.
That black students would be skeptical of media is understandable. We’ve already seen the kind of headlines they undoubtedly feared. In an Atlantic piece headlined “Campus Activists Weaponize ‘Safe Space’,” Conor Friedersdorf calls the protesters a mob and insists they are “twisting the concept of ‘safe space.’” Again, a journalist criminalizes black people for expressing their pain. It was another piece centering the reporter’s privilege over the students’ trauma. Friederdorf’s piece completely ignores the intolerable racial climate that forced the students to establish a safe space in the first place.
There were other ways to cover these students’ protest without breaching their safe space and without criminalizing them.The human chain students formed provided ample b-roll and still photos. Students could have been interviewed outside of that space. I would have pitched a story to my editors with the headline, “Why Black Students Were Forced To Secure A Safe Space On A Public Campus.” But to do that requires self-reflection and not a condescending, self-absorbed soliloquy about the First Amendment.
For journalists, the Missouri protests are a big news story. For the black students we’re covering, however, it’s a fight for their humanity and liberation. Tai is correct: he was doing his job. But in that stressful moment he may have failed to realize that the space he wanted to enter was a healing one that black people had worked to secure.
Black pain is not an easy subject to cover, but the lesson we can take from this encounter at Missouri is that our presence as journalists, with the long legacy of criminalizing blackness that comes with it, may trigger the same harmful emotions that led to the students’ protests in the first place.