Colleges and Universities Should Not Support Discriminatory Student Groups

socratesA story emanating from Toronto’s massive Ryerson University has been making the social media rounds.  According to the Daily Ryersonian, on March 11, the university-funded “Racialized Students Collective” refused to permit two white journalism students to attend a meeting on campus for the purpose of reporting on it because the two admitted that they had never been “racialized”.  To be racialized means to be judged or defined by one’s race.

Brown University changed the format of a presentation on campus sexual assaults held November 19.  Originally, Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti, who blames “rape culture” for giving “rapists a social license to operate”, and libertarian Wendy McElroy, who denies that such a culture exists in the United States, were slated to engage in what promised to be a spirited debate.

Reportedly because some feared that Brown rape victims might not be able to hear McElroy without having their experiences invalidated, the University directed that the guests speak sequentially.  After McElroy spoke, and the room was presumably safe, fragile Brownies were able to enter the lecture hall to hear Valenti validate their experiences.

Both Ryerson and Brown have repurposed public areas as “safe spaces” where members of oppressed groups can go without fear that: A) their world view will be challenged or B) they may encounter people who don’t share the same formative experiences.

There are three significant problems with this.  First, the public should not be funding student-led groups that segregate based on gender (with the possible exception of club sports teams) or race as Ryerson’s Students Collective apparently does.  Second, protecting some students from A) other students with different experiences and B) legitimate objections to their cherished notions directly contravenes the ideal of open-minded inquiry that should characterize higher education.  Third, such protection makes it less likely that people with similar class interests will work together for economic justice.

[Ryerson University’s] Racialized Students’ Collective [RSC] is part of the Ryerson Students’ Union. Its website states that the group “oppose(s) all forms of racism and work towards community wellness for students,” that they focus on “building an anti-racist network” and “fostering an anti-racist environment through campus-wide services, campaigns and events.”  It would seem beyond peradventure that the RSC violated its mandate when it barred two whites from its March 11 meeting.  RSC could argue that the two students could not attend because they acknowledged never having been “racialized” not because they’re white.  This would seem to be pure semantics.  In a majority white country like Canada, individuals judged or stereotyped based on race would almost certainly be non-whites.

In barring two white students from a meeting, the RSC  worked against “community wellness” for students as it divided the community based on race.  It also mocked its stated goal of “building an anti-racist network” since it refused to network with people who couldn’t claim victim status.  Finally, the RSC assumed a static “racist environment”.  When it rejected two non-racialized student journalists, it rejected the idea that such students, either personally or through the newspaper, could help the RSC foster the anti-racist environment it claims to seek.

Is any of this okay?  It’s hard to see how Canadians who support Ryerson would want the university to fund groups that self-segregate.  The goal of educating Canada’s future leaders is clearly undermined if students can’t even discuss with each other their unique struggles.  Moreover, each of the various racial and ethnic groups that comprise the Great White North probably would object to their tax payments being earmarked for the exclusive use of another.

Another problem with the actions of both Ryerson and Brown is they certainly seem to contravene generally accepted principles of higher academia.

The mission of Brown University is to serve the community, the nation, and the world by discovering, communicating, and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry, and by educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation. We do this through a partnership of students and teachers in a unified community known as a university-college.  In preventing Wendy McElroy and Jessica Valenti from appearing together and dialoguing with each other, Brown made it impossible for each to challenge the other directly and to learn from the other.  Brown also failed in its mission to help prepare “students to discharge the offices of life” given that it explicitly permitted them both to avoid hearing a speaker whose opinions they might find discomfiting and to reinforce preconceived notions by hearing a speaker with whom they were pretty sure they’d agree.

Even students who saw both speakers didn’t necessarily do so “in a spirit of free inquiry”.  Freshman Kate Ferguson explained to the Brown Daily Herald why she attended McElroy’s presentation:  “I don’t think that you can just shy away with something you disagree with —you need to understand it better so you can refute it better”.  Clearly, the possibility that McElroy, an admitted rape survivor, might have something of value to add to a discussion on rape culture never entered Ferguson’s head.  Perhaps, if she had heard Valenti’s more congenial views challenged directly Ferguson would have been more open-minded.

For me the biggest reason to oppose cosseting students from groups of people and ideas they may not like is that such actions further factionalize an already fractured society.  Rather than perceiving fellow students as potential allies willing to learn about and educate others about the pain of being racialized, the RSC considers whites trauma-inducers whose presence alone renders a safe space dangerous.  Somewhat like Brown’s Kate Ferguson, the RSC also could not conceive of the possibility that those with a different background could provide help and insight.

Likewise, Brown’s feminist community seems so entrenched in its language and culture of victimization that a more nuanced perspective becomes undesirable if not impossible.  For both the RSC and Brown feminists, there is no purpose in interacting with anybody who is not a 100% ally and little likelihood of working with those who share their broad view of justice but not their narrow view of why we do not have it.

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