Zach Wood, a student at Williams College, has felt backlash as one of the members of a student group seeking to encourage debate by inviting speakers with provocative views to campus.

But when the group, which is independent from the college, invited author John Derbyshire to speak about immigration and national identity, the opposition intensified. Derbyshire has written about various topics but was fired from the National Review after writing an article for a blog that was widely viewed as racist.

Williams president Adam Falk canceled the talk. He said at the time that he strongly believes in free speech but that the college does not have to give a platform to someone whose writing he characterized as “simply racist ranting, with no redeeming intellectual value whatsoever. … a self-proclaimed white supremacist who was going to come and tell students … that they should avoid the African American students, was over a line.”

The “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series has gotten criticism from many on campus not only for giving a forum to unpopular views, but because it is funded by anonymous donors — some students have asked for more transparency.

For others, at a time when it’s not uncommon for students to demand safe spaces to protect them from offensive ideas, the series symbolizes an important push to challenge the consensus.

Wood writes about the increasingly personal response to the series, and why he still believes in it.

— Susan Svrluga

By Zach Wood  
Zach Wood (Photo by James Miotto)

Zach Wood (Photo by James Miotto)

Here’s what happened when I tried to confront the issue of racism head-on: People called me a sellout. I lost respect. I lost friends. My mentor told me I’m just like a long list of black conservatives who turned their backs on their own race.
“Zach,” I was told, “You’re consorting with demons.”
I’m an African-American student at Williams College. I grew up in Anacostia, a part of Washington, D.C., where poverty and violence are realities for many people. I know racism is real. But I also think it’s complex, and something we need to understand.
My love of learning is a big part of my life. No matter how busy I am, I read for three hours a day. Every week, I make a list of topics I want to explore — right now, it’s legislative redistricting — and every month I ask for book recommendations from peers and professors. For me, trying to understand how brilliant people can see the world so differently than I do helps me gain a deeper understanding of humanity.
That’s why I enjoy playing devil’s advocate. I see it as a way to get inside the mind of someone who thinks and argues very differently than I would.
In the last year, I’ve challenged myself to develop a better understanding of offensive views so that I can learn how to combat them more effectively. I want myself and other students at Williams to feel prepared to engage sensitive issues and defend their opinions in the real world. That’s why I joined Uncomfortable Learning, a student-run organization that brings controversial speakers to campus.
I expected people to criticize me for my involvement, but I never thought that my desire to gain a deeper understanding of controversial ideas would be viewed by some of my friends and mentors as a personal betrayal.
To them, there is simply no way a black liberal Democrat from a disadvantaged background can support the idea of a speaker who questions feminism, or the number of campus sexual assaults. But when the topic turned to race and someone who seems to be a white supremacist, the reaction went beyond uncomfortable.
In the last few weeks, I’ve received messages on Facebook and in person, calling me an Uncle Tom, comparing me to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, saying that I’m just like a long list of black conservatives who have sought the approval and acceptance of whites so that they’ll “fawn over me.”
In response, I’ve said that my goal has always been to muster the courage to think critically for myself, even if that means going against the grain. For me, arguing with a racist and exposing the flaws in their argument is about gaining a better understanding of views that offend you; it’s about improving your ability to argue and defend your opinion.
But for many at Williams, there is no acceptable explanation or reason to listen to such contrary views. To them, I’m a traitor, deserving of scorn.
Emotions are always involved in discussions of sensitive issues like race, but learning is not just about how we feel. It’s about thinking and trying to understand complicated issues that affect our lives. Thinking about racism from multiple perspectives – separated from the emotion of it — has enhanced my understanding of race and of humanity.
Humanity includes not just what we like and admire about people, but also aspects of thought and character that we strongly dislike. I think that any intellectual effort to better understand human thought and character is worthwhile.
This has been a painful learning process for me, as I lost the respect and support of people with whom I was close.
I do not support the idea of bringing a racist or anti-feminist to campus because I am unsympathetic to the grievances of minorities. I have grievances myself. But there’s something important at stake here: Free speech, and academic freedom.
How can we prepare ourselves to engage the most difficult problems facing our society, how can we hope to understand them and solve them, if we shut off opposing viewpoints?