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Princeton protesters: Why we need safe spaces, and why honoring Woodrow Wilson is spitting in our faces

Protesters at Princeton University (Photo by Mary Hui)
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At Princeton University last month, student protesters sat in the president’s office and refused to leave until he met their demands to improve race relations on campus.

[Princeton protesters demand ‘racist’ Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from all buildings]

The protest at the Ivy League school was one of many across the country this fall in which students demanded that administrators and others change the way they treat minorities. The protests also sparked backlash in many places  — including violent threats and racist slurs — with some people deriding their complaints as overly sensitive or voicing concern that they were oppressive to the principle of free speech. 

[College shouldn’t be a ‘safe space’: A voice of protest against student protests]

[Can colleges protect free speech while also curbing voices of hate?]

At Princeton — where one of their primary demands was the removal of the name of President Woodrow Wilson, one of the university’s most honored alumni and a former university president, from buildings and schools on campus — protesters responded this week to the controversy their actions sparked.

By the Black Justice League at Princeton University

An Open Letter On Free Speech, Our Demands, and Civil Disruption

We write this in response to campus and nationwide discussions that have emerged from our nonviolent sit-in at Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber’s office on November 18, 2015. This demonstration was a culmination of efforts over the past year by the Black Justice League to induce action to correct institutional failings in creating a safe, inclusive campus for black students.

This letter is intended to address troubling elements of the discourse we have seen at Princeton and to clarify any misconceptions around the demands made: a critical rethinking of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy at Princeton, a diversity distribution requirement for students and compulsory competency training for faculty and staff, and affinity housing and space for Black students.

Watch as Princeton students occupy the university president's office demanding solutions to the racial climate on campus. (Video: The Washington Post)

Detractors have claimed that protests on campus have stifled ‘civil discourse’ and that protesters have unreasonably resorted to ‘extreme’ tactics in a manner that has left others unwilling to openly express their opinions for fear of intimidation.

The actions and demands of the Black Justice League have opened up greater dialogue on a topic around which there was very little speech — and what speech there was, was narrow in scope and fundamentally dishonest.

These critiques should be recognized as what they are: baseless claims made in an attempt to tone-police and silence those whose voices have historically been repressed.

Demanding that marginalized people present their concerns in a way that is most palatable to those who are responsible for addressing their grievances not only reveals a profound lack of historical understanding around the purpose of civil disobedience, but it also maintains the oppressive status quo by placing the burden back on those marginalized to prove themselves worthy of being heard.

That moves attention away from the real and substantive issues raised.

Another important subject concerns free speech. Making appeals to this universally valued principle is a derailment tactic that purposefully steers away from conversations around racism in order to maintain the racist status quo.

Freedom of speech is a mark of civil life and should be vigorously defended. However, if freedom of speech is defined as the ability to vilify, erase, and belittle, this definition does not align itself with the noble ideal of civility.

It is also crucial that we do not intellectualize this discussion to the extent that it becomes wholly divorced from the lived experiences of students who are personally impacted by instances of racial violence. These campuses become our homes.

If Princeton University is the progressive institution it claims to be, it must make clear that racially charged rhetoric and conduct is not only antithetical to its mission, but that it also has no place at any rigorous academic institution, particularly in one that prides itself on producing influential intellectuals.

All this is to say, the Black Justice League does not stand in opposition to the principle of free speech. In fact, we are extremely conscious of the fact that freedom of expression and association made possible the actions of November 18th and will help us propel meaningful change on this campus.

What we challenge is the consistent deployment of free speech as justification for the marginalization of others.

This not only severely distorts the issues, but lacks consideration of how that principle is complicated by this nation’s fraught past and present: racial exclusion from this nation’s institutions and police suppression of current #BlackLivesMatter protests, for instance.

We envision a campus in which mutual respect and understanding are fostered along with principles of free speech. A campus where the humanity of certain segments of the population is not under constant attack and where a re-evaluation of the institutions that produce these hostile experiences are debated.

On Woodrow Wilson, avid defenders insist that not only was Wilson’s racism peripheral to his other endeavors, but also that we must honor these valuable contributions in the present moment, thus overlooking his fundamental flaws.

It is clear that Wilson was virulently racist, even by historical standards.

He institutionalized racism. This was at the core of his policies both here at Princeton and as President of the United States.

Wilson discouraged the admission of black students to Princeton, opposed black suffrage, was an ardent KKK apologist, and re-segregated federal offices that had previously been integrated — costing many black families their jobs.

His racism was not restricted to U.S. borders. That is made clear by the invasion and occupation of Haiti as well as blockage of the passage of a Racial Equality Proposal presented by Japan in 1919 that guaranteed equal treatment as one of the principles of the League of Nations.

It is extremely alarming that nowhere on this campus is this violent history acknowledged.

Instead, the narrative Princeton has constructed around Wilson is entirely celebratory and wholly dishonest.

Another fraudulent critique is that the removal of his name would amount to erasure of the past.

We would counter that the university’s account of Wilson — an egregious display of historical revisionism and the disacknowledgement of this racist legacy — is erasure itself.

We believe an honest understanding of our past allows us to better scope our future and thus we do not want Wilson’s history erased.

We have demanded that the university not just remove his name but also take responsibility for its history by formally recognizing Wilson’s racist legacy, either with a plaque or with a web page.

To continue to honor such a man in the present manner is to spit in the face of students whose presence on this campus Wilson would have abhorred.

It belies the university’s purported commitment to inclusion and progress and reveals the university’s priorities to be that of maintaining the racist status quo over the safety of its students.

The struggle against emblems of racism and white supremacy is global; students at universities nationwide, such as Georgetown, Yale, Brown, and Duke have expressed similar concerns.

In South Africa and at Oxford, students have organized under the banner of #RhodesMustFall to demand the removal of monuments honoring John Cecil Rhodes, an unapologetic racist.

This is an opportunity for Princeton to act not only in accordance with institutions who are already taking corrective action, but to take the lead in a momentous and unprecedented way.

Many will suggest that University action on this demand will ultimately lead us down a slippery slope.

This misunderstands our demands and underestimates the centrality of Wilson to life at Princeton.

We are not simply demanding the removal of the name of a ‘flawed’ individual. Wilson was much more than that.

We are demanding that the university seriously contend with its troubled racial history — which includes a period in which Wilson stated, “The whole temper and tradition of the place [Princeton] is such that no Negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems unlikely that the question will ever assume practical form,” — and make amends.

There are other ways to commemorate Wilson’s legacy — both the good and the bad, which the University has failed to do — without naming a dining hall, a residential college, and a public policy school after him.

Opponents claim that our proposal to change undergraduate education requirements would politicize the university. But such requirements exist at other institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California system. Our demands do not require that students take one particular course, nor do they specify, beyond broad thematic areas, what the content of those courses should be.

The proposal contains a wide range of classes and seeks to develop students’ ability to critically examine issues of diversity. Students are already required to take two social analysis classes; this would amend that to ensure that one of those classes teaches how to critically examine issues of diversity and marginalization.

This will not stifle academic exploration any more than the other distribution requirements. In a rapidly diversifying and globalizing society, part of a university’s charge is equipping students for life in a multicultural world.

In a similar vein, requiring cultural competency training for faculty is not imposing a particular  doctrine onto Princeton’s faculty. Instead, it opens the door for a multitude of perspectives and ideas.

Cultural competence requires a recognition of one’s own cultural identity and approach to difference as well as the capacity to learn about and integrate the cultural backgrounds of one’s students in one’s teaching.

Members of the student body have expressed feelings of emotional and psychological harm and  feelings of unsafety with interactions that they have had with professors and administrators, as a result of offensive and racist behavior often stemming from ignorance.

The university must work towards substantial initiatives that would affect the entire faculty.

The Black Justice League also believes that it is of the utmost importance to provide spaces dedicated solely to marginalized groups.

It is not simply about students being “safe” from having their values challenged, as attending a liberal arts institution should encourage every student to question their deepest convictions.

It is about having a refuge from a campus — and a society — that is at best, apathetic, and at worst, hostile to the issues that black students face.

It is about having a place where black students can have dignity and comfort and engage in self-healing with those who have had similar experiences and who care just as deeply about issues that plague their community.

Those who denounce the notion of safe spaces are often those for whom safety is a fact of life by virtue of the privileges they have.

In contrast nowhere in the world is truly safe for black bodies. But offering these spaces could provide some respite, albeit fleeting, from the harsh realities of living in an anti-black world.

The Black Justice League didn’t start this advocacy with a sit-in in the president’s office. The group formed in 2014 and has met multiple times with administrators and student government leaders to discuss concerns.

While we have accomplished quite a few major feats over the past year, the University has remained stagnant or recalcitrant on a number of significant concerns raised by the BJL. At an institution designed to resist change, when certain strategies no longer proved fruitful, it was imperative that we apply additional pressure on the University.

Hence, the actions of November 18th.

In an article in The Progressive, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said of the 1960s civil rights sit-ins initiated by black college students, “An electrifying movement of Negro students has shattered the placid surface of campuses and communities…” The same can be said of the present moment.

Across the nation, black college students are organizing and holding their institutions accountable, forcing them to reckon with their racially fraught past and present and demanding that they do better and be better for their black students.

Like the movements of the past, the actions of black students today have been met with mixed reactions. Ultimately, however, time and justice put those students on the right side of history, and we too, believe, that we will be vindicated by history and justice.

We hope that the Princeton community will join us and truly work towards a more inclusive and equitable campus.

Read more:

Princeton president reaches agreement with protesters over demands

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