Members of Concerned Student 1950 speak following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign in November 2015. (Sarah Bell/Missourian via AP)

Zachary Wood is a 21-year-old college student from one of D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods. Though he has been presented with  significant life challenges, he believed that education was his way to a successful life. He attended the private Bullis School for most of high school, traveling two hours by bus and Metro to get to the Maryland campus, and finished at an online high school. To attend a summer college program at Stanford University, he raised money online and was helped financially by arts patron Peggy Cooper Cafritz.

Wood was accepted via early decision to Williams College, a highly prestigious liberal arts college in Massachusetts from which he will graduate in 2018 as a political science major. He is doing his junior year on a “domestic study away program” at Columbia University.

At Williams, Wood became president of Uncomfortable Learning, a speakers program that gives a forum to people espousing highly controversial views, and he has written and spoken about the experience of facing some backlash over the choice of some speakers, in a post titled, “I tried to confront racism head-on. People called me a sellout.” (You can read about that here.) He wrote in that piece:

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.

Now Wood is writing again about how racism affects minority students and why some college activists who are criticized for being hypersensitive and intolerant came to embrace the views that they have. Here’s his newest post.

Zachary Wood (Provided by Wood) Zachary Wood (Courtesy of Wood)

By Zachary Wood

When I hear the words “police brutality,” I don’t just picture the footage on the news. I think of the time I saw a police officer slam an elderly man on the pavement and press his boot into the side of his face for asking people to donate money for his medical operation.

I recall the time my father told me that on his way home he was cornered by several police officers with their guns aimed, all because he was a black man who resembled the burglar they were looking for.

For many minority students like myself, racism is not an abstraction. It is a keenly felt experience. We often see examples of racism in videos of police brutality and connect those examples to personal experiences with police and the microaggressions and bias that happens on campus. Knowing how to deal with all of that as a college student can be difficult, and activism can often come out as indignation.

Some activists — particularly people of color — have been described as intolerant, hypersensitive, excessively politically correct and less resilient than activists of previous generations.

I agree with some of these criticisms. As president of Uncomfortable Learning at Williams College, a series that brings controversial speakers to campus, I have been fiercely outspoken against those who would silence people with whom they disagree.

Yet I understand the underlying reasons why some student activists respond poorly to controversial speakers, perceived incidents of racism on campus, and, worst of all, graphic footage of black victims being killed at the hands of police officers.

When I go home for winter break, I go back to Anacostia, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. In the last three years, five people have been shot or stabbed within a block of my house.

I often see young black men being detained and frisked by cops on my way to the bus stop. One morning in mid-July, I had just gotten on the bus and as it was circling around the cul-de-sac two blocks from my house, it came to a sudden halt as a cadre of police officers in riot gear climbed out of an armored truck and marched across the street with a battering ram to knock down someone’s door.

Later that evening, I learned that the incident I’d witnessed was a drug bust.

When I got off the bus at the Anacostia Metro station, several police officers were conducting random checks. I’ve seen this before. Occasionally, they’re dressed in tactical gear with handguns in their holsters and submachine guns in their hands. The few times I’ve been stopped, it was intimidating. The officers weren’t approachable; they said nothing about why they’d stopped me. Their commands were firm and swift: “Put your hands up. Spread your legs. Unzip your bag. Where are you headed?”

I’m a college student, but I was treated like a criminal. How can I not incorporate that into my world view?

College campuses are far more inclusive now than they were in the ’60s, but most of the student activists I know are not content to settle for things as they are. They agitate and create tension on campus with the hope of making their environment even more just and inclusive.

In pursuit of their goals, they sometimes make mistakes. Like each of us, they too can benefit from constructive criticism. I hope that as we reinforce vital democratic principles of pluralism and free speech, we can also encourage empathy and understanding.

 

(Correction: A sentence in the introduction said Williams instead of Wood. It is now correct.)