Jalin Jackson ’19: Should Free Speech or Davidson Whiteness Be Our Focus?

Jalin Jackson ’19

(Response to Lizzie Kane ’22)

Photo courtesy of Jalin Jackson

Should free speech or Davidson whiteness be our focus? Is free speech an issue at Davidson? Some white people often respond to this with predictable perspectives. 

One person may agree that free speech at Davidson College is indeed under attack, citing student unwillingness to tolerate a guest speaker with discriminatory beliefs as evidence. 

Another might advocate for allowing a speaker to come regardless of their beliefs: as long as someone from the College invited them, then the Davidson community should yield. 

Yet another person might initially take a vague middle stance, pointing out the flaws of the former two perspectives, only to conjure up a supposedly objective notion of respectability. This third person concedes that perspectives like pro-Nazism do not deserve respect, but also denounces those who protest such malicious rhetoric in a manner that does not meet his definition of respectful disagreement. 

These three perspectives I mention have arisen many times in The Davidsonian, and elsewhere, over the past few years alone. And in short, these common responses are a contemporary symptom of the ignorance, privilege, and comfortability that plague our campus.

It is an illusion that the Davidson community thinks homogeneously. Davidson students claim otherwise when some people express offense at the idea of inviting to campus a speaker whose views discriminate against aspects of their identity. It is ludicrous, though, to believe that turning away a guest speaker or being more selective in choosing speakers fosters homogenous thinking on campus. 

If the college doesn’t already promote a plurality of ideas and productive conversation, it’s because we’re a predominantly white institution from tip to toe. 

Even if I would like white Davidson students to think like me in some regards, I cannot even say I know what white people here think about topics of oppression, given how many are silent in learning spaces, absent from dialogues about discrimination, MIA from guest speaker events not required for class or about marginalized identities, and yet ever-present for random political conversations at on-campus parties most nights of the week.

In her recent op-ed “Buckle Up, It’s College,” President Quillen promoted asking tough questions about the world and oneself throughout the college learning experience. She beautifully concludes the piece: “When our well-intentioned efforts to create safe classrooms preclude the risk-taking that free inquiry requires, we shackle our children in a world of shadows.” 

But what constitutes academic “safety” and what role does one’s identity play in defining it? At Davidson, a safe classroom is one where students have the privilege to remain comfortable via engagement with or disengagement from course materials because of their identity. 

For example, a biology class that mentions Charles Darwin without discussing eugenics would constitute a safe learning space for everyone. 

I, as a black male, am familiar with the vestiges of scientific racism, as white faculty directly questioned my intelligence and behavior throughout grade school. A white student would not have experienced racial discrimination in the U.S., and thus could remain comfortable avoiding a discussion about racist science. 

At a place like Davidson, safe classrooms are both readily available and always full of comfortable white students. While all faculty have a responsibility to teach about identity discrimination in some form, we students need to also hold ourselves accountable for letting professors get away with coddling us in classrooms.

In the past, when Davidson community members invited speakers with distasteful viewpoints related to marginalized identities, handfuls of students have protested or caused disruption during or near the event. After these protests is when student discomfort rears its head. 

Comments like “The students could have just ignored the speaker instead,” or “They should have done it in a more respectable manner” are some common signs of said discomfort. 

Nevertheless, those who want to discuss the idea of respectability should not forget the power dynamics behind it. Respectability has long been a tool for the afraid—those afraid of losing a privilege, those afraid of too radical change, those afraid of challenge. 

There was a time when the FBI classified Black Lives Matter as a “black identity extremist” organization. Colin Kaepernick gives NFL fans aneurysms at the sight of him taking a knee during the national anthem. Before criticizing the protestor, one should at least fully educate himself on where the protestor’s grievances originate. 

No matter how nonviolent the protests are here, there will always be those members of the community who are afraid that things have gone too far. I, for one, don’t think the community has gone far enough.

College campuses are places where young adults learn to think, argue, and act more efficiently as social beings in a diverse world. 

Still, I am perpetually disappointed with how homogenous (i.e. white) Davidson is in every way possible. I am exhausted asking myself why I don’t see white Davidson men in my classes about black women, or black Davidson men at talks about feminism. I am disinterested in course content that seems oblivious to my existence. 

Davidson does not have a free speech problem. Davidson has an identity problem. Not only are we failing here to learn about each other’s identities and how others’ experiences might change our worldviews, but so too are we failing by remaining content with Davidson at times when members of our community feel excluded from it because of who they are. 

If we are all not educating ourselves on race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, ability, health, and so on, then how much damage to our community can a middle finger toward a largely unwelcome presence really do? 

When free speech at Davidson is the hottest issue on any of our minds regarding problems on campus, the damage is clearly done.

Jalin Jackson ’19 is an Africana Studies and Latin American Studies double major from Camden, New Jersey. Contact him at jnjackson@davidson.edu.

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