(CNN)Let me tell you what self-censorship on an elite college campus looks like — what it feels like, how it sounds, the way it smells.
It looks like an 18-year-old Black boy quietly folding his first college exam and hurriedly stuffing it into his bookbag — afraid one of his classmates, each of whom is White, might see that it was he who had earned a 48 on a test whose average score was 88 and the highest a 98.
This boy graduated near the top of his class in an underfunded, segregated public high school that was more than 90% percent Black. He grew up in an environment where outsiders routinely deemed students like him potentially violent and not smart enough to compete with the White students at a school eight miles down the road.
Self-censorship in college looks like this boy, sitting in an academic building constructed with the help of slave labor on a campus in which Robert E. Lee’s birthday was celebrated annually by a fraternity, where Confederate flags could sometimes be spotted in dorm room windows in a state that seceded in a failed attempt to establish a country founded on the false belief that God had ordained that Black people would be forever enslaved by White people.
A boy who would utter his oldest brother’s name not once during his four years on campus because of wondering how his wealthier classmates would react to that brother being in prison for murder. A boy who would come across essays by Black conservatives urging Black parents to not allow their kids to go to elite colleges where their children’s SAT score was more than 100 points lower than the school average, a boy who knew his was nearly 300 points off that mark. Essays you knew your mom wouldn’t read because she was forced to drop out of school as a little girl and wouldn’t get her GED until years later and your father wouldn’t because he was always too tired after 12-hour shifts at the local Georgia Pacific paper plant to read anything other than operator’s manuals.
It feels like your heart trying to launch itself through your chest it’s beating so fast, so hard, feels as though you’ve let down everyone wearing skin the color of yours.
It sounds like silence because though you can see the smiles and rapidly moving lips on the White students in the classroom, you can’t hear anything, as though time decided to stand still to ensure you’d have to endure that humiliation for what feels like forever.
It sounds like silence because you speak with such a severe stutter that you had convinced yourself it was best not to participate in classroom discussions or study groups in the weeks leading up to the test.
And it smells. Like shame. Unmitigated shame that clings to you like sweat after a long run on a hot summer Southern day. A thoroughgoing shame you know you’d have to carry alone because it would be too big a risk to let others in on your secret, that you had begun doubting your worth, doubting whether you belonged in a place so many had argued for so long that you didn’t.
All of this is why talk of self-censorship being a significant and growing problem on elite college campuses — a conversation that has swelled anew in many circles after the New York Times recently published an opinion essay, “I Came to College Eager to Debate. I Found Self-Censorship Instead,” by a student at the University of Virginia — tends to leave me cold. My issue isn’t with this writer or her individual experiences or what she said in her essay. My concern resides with the bigger picture, with how critics and observers (and lawmakers) frame the debate. Because for them, it’s often about “protecting” White students from feeling discomforted by talk of systemic racism and White people’s role or complicity in decades-long racial inequalities or the existence of White fragility.
Because it’s often about more conservative students feeling outnumbered on supposedly “woke” campuses full of liberals who make it difficult for them to talk openly about their support for Donald Trump, their angst with diversity and inclusion efforts, their need to debate white people’s use — or mention — of the n-word while reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or rapping along to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.” Because it so often feels so damn shallow, as though safe spaces for those feeling mild discomfort for the first time must be constructed, either by dent of law or an endless drumbeat of complaint in top newspapers and cable TV news shows.
Maybe that’s why, according to the Knight Foundation, while nearly 90% of White students and 82% of Hispanics feel as though the First Amendment protects them, on
Opinion: I was the kid who stayed silent in college
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