Colleges and universities across the English-speaking world are caught up in the enthusiasm of a Great Awokening. Its dogmas are structural violence, systemic racism, racial stress, white privilege, white fragility, implicit bias and microaggressions. From the University of Missouri to Evergreen State College to Sarah Lawrence College and beyond, faculty and students are ablaze with the fire of social justice.
Lacking programs in fields such as business, medicine, engineering and agriculture, liberal arts colleges by their very nature have a higher than average percentage of students and faculty proclaiming this new faith. So, true to form, this spring the Great Awokening finally came to my home institution, Williams College. Administrators and other campus leaders have encouraged white members of the college community like myself to listen. Over the past two months, I have striven to do exactly that. In fact, I’ve done quite a lot of listening (and reading). I have spent dozens of hours listening at meetings and reading copious documents produced by activist students and faculty. I have also watched videos and read documents resulting from the racial blowups at Yale University in 2015, Evergreen State College in 2017 and Sarah Lawrence College in 2019. Listening to these views from multiple campuses helped me realize that what seems to be a local discourse responding to local issues is actually a local manifestation of an international social, political and ideological phenomenon. All the accents and cadences of critical race theory can be identified. Williams, Sarah Lawrence, Evergreen and Yale could really be Any Residential College in Any Town.
The preachers of the Great Awokening claim to desire racial equality. Is this true? Or are they more interested in casting sinners into the hands of an angry mob? While it is difficult to discern another person’s ends, it is far easier to know her means. These involve a wholesale transformation of language, the academic curriculum, standards of judgment, disciplinary content and boundaries, academic freedom, even the definition of knowledge itself. This is no passing storm or simple outburst of youthful exuberance. The Great Awokening is a truly revolutionary project. Like all revolutions, it promises considerable destruction on the way to its final destination.
The Charge of Racist Violence
The foundational claim leveled by anti-racism protestors is that violence is ubiquitous on campus. This claim dominates discourse at Williams. It is said that students and faculty “suffer from the college’s violent practices” as a matter of routine. Dozens of white tenured professors are supposedly “perpetrators of institutional violence” and “fight for a legacy of violence to be maintained” at the college. Minority professors’ “bodies [are] attacked,” and all people of color suffer “intentional violence that comes with being affiliated with this institution.” At Evergreen, even “white silence is violence.”
Violence is not meant to be taken metaphorically. While reports of racially motivated assault or even property crimes like larceny or burglary almost never surface, protestors and activists claim to suffer physical trauma nonetheless. For example, one Williams professor argues “In an abstract world in which you are not a pariah, collective violence is figurative. For targeted groups, in the real world, it is material (stress in emotional circuitry destabilizes the body).” In 2017, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett expounded this claim in the New York Times, insisting that spending “a lot of time in a harsh environment worrying about your safety … brings on illness and remodels your brain. … A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it.” This is precisely the kind of climate that anti-racist activists say dominates the Anglosphere’s colleges. Hence the insistence that “our very right to speak/breathe” is at stake (Williams) and the cry “You feel stressed? You feel fuckin’ pressure? This is my every day! … I have a fuckin’ right to live!” (Evergreen).
Threats to life are now commonplace accusations. A black faculty member at Evergreen claimed “My ability to speak and my ability to be heard is a matter of my personal survival, and so, for me, this is about my teaching but also my life.” This is not a figure of speech, for the same faculty member also claimed “This shit is literally going to kill me.” Student graffiti at Williams claims “Nos están matando!” [They are killing us!], and two black Williams professors insist “What we have been doing to fit our bodies in these institutions is killing us.” The infamous 2015 incident at Yale University, in which dozens of students argued with Professor Nicholas Christakis on the Silliman College quad in the wake of an unwelcome email from Christakis’s wife regarding Halloween costumes, crystallizes the claim:
Christakis: “So I have a vision of us, as people, as human beings, that actually privileges our common humanity, that is interested not in what is different among us, but what is the same … I believe even though I am not like you in the sense of my superficial appearance, that I can sit down and talk to you and understand your predicament, that I can listen to you. If that’s not true, if you deny that, then what is the reason that you ask to be heard, by me or anyone else?”
Student: “Because we’re dying!”
No surprise then that the language of safety has become ubiquitous among anti-racist protestors: “I feel unsafe” (Williams); “I don’t feel safe here and that’s on you” (Yale); “This school is unsafe for marginalized students and you know it” (Evergreen); only after students “dismantle systematic oppression” will the school “be sustainable or safe for marginalized people” (Sarah Lawrence). Rather than push for greater police presence on campus, however, students instead demand an expansion of mental health services―usually emphasizing cultural competence or, more crudely, racial hiring. This began with the very first protests of the Great Awokening at the University of Missouri in 2014. There, one of seven student demands was “increases [in] funding and resources for the University of Missouri Counseling Center for the purpose of hiring additional mental health professionals; particularly those of color.” Activist students at Sarah Lawrence demand “at least” one new black, Asian and Latino/a therapist, “unlimited therapy sessions” on campus and free transportation for students to attend therapy sessions off campus. Those at Williams demanding the College “hire additional therapists, with a focus on trans therapists and therapists of color” are simply the latest instance of this pattern.
The Evidence of Racist Violence
Charges of violence are the most serious that can be leveled against an institution and a community. Therefore they should be supported by the most clear and compelling evidence possible. It is precisely here that anti-racist campus activists fall woefully short. Former Evergreen State College biologist Heather Heying observes “we keep on hearing that we are an incredibly racist institution and we have yet to hear any credible evidence for racism here on campus.” This gulf between personal experience and publicly available evidence is at the heart of the disagreements over racism on campus today.
Part of the communication problem is rooted in anti-racist discourse. Activists often speak in emotionally charged generalizations: “we want to dismantle anti-blackness campus-wide” (Evergreen); “injustices [are] imposed on people of color by this institution on a daily basis” (Sarah Lawrence); “We, however, simply ask that our existences not be invalidated on campus” (Yale); “We charge this man with the destruction of black existence on this campus” (Williams). When asked what evidence supports these judgments, an increasingly popular response is to rule such questions out of bounds on the grounds of racism: “To ask marginalized students to throw away their enjoyment of a holiday, in order to expend emotional, mental, and physical energy to explain why something is offensive, is — offensive” (Yale); “We hold the truth of discursive and institutional violence to be self-evident.” (Williams); “accept the grievances of faculty of color without question” (Williams). According to former Evergreen State College biology professor Bret Weinstein, he was told by one of the most radical faculty of color at the college “to ask for evidence of racism is racism with a capital R.” Why? “We must stop asking them because we are inflicting harm on them asking for evidence.” Philosopher Nora Berenstain has invented a name for such evidentiary requests: “epistemic exploitation.” From such a perspective, blind faith is the only acceptable response.
Thankfully, this seems to still be a minority response to requests for evidence. A more common one is that campus racial violence skeptics listen. Both at Yale and Evergreen, white male professors at the center of the campus storm were repeatedly told to listen and repeatedly accused of failing to listen. At Williams, all faculty have been encouraged to “be listeners. Talk less, listen more.” This is an exceedingly reasonable request. Before skeptics, in particular, speak, they should indeed first spend time listening to protesters. But many do listen. Nicholas Christakis spent hours on the Silliman College quad at Yale listening to (and speaking with) student protestors, and many more hours in structured listening sessions. Bret Weinstein attended hours upon hours of meetings of both faculty and students in which he mostly listened―and during which he was openly pilloried as a racist. So what exactly does listen mean in the context of the Great Awokening?
From listening to a great deal of anti-racist discourse, my strong sense is that listen means two rather different things. Its first meaning is eminently fair and consistent with the everyday meaning of the word: to listen means to hear my story. Minority students and faculty are keen for white students and faculty to listen as they describe their experiences. Experiences are not only external and material but also, and even more so, internal and mental, and thus involve both actions and emotional reactions. Both together make up the story being told. To listen also includes doing so attentively with neither defensiveness nor interruption. I submit that every person of goodwill should do as much.
Listen does not end there, however. A second meaning is attached to the first and follows in its wake. One heard this clearly on the Silliman College quad at Yale University in 2015. Students who were upset over Christakis’s defense of the position that students should police their own Halloween costume choices through “self-censure” and “social norming,” rather than submit to “bureaucratic and administrative” control asked for—and received—an apology for hurting their feelings and causing them pain. This was not enough. Students further demanded an admission from Christakis that both his wife’s original email and his own defense of that email were violent and racist. “Let us tell you if you’re being racist,” said one student. Another insisted, “Empathy is not necessary for you to understand that you’re wrong. Even if you don’t feel what I feel ever, even if nobody’s ever been racist to you―’cause they can’t be racist to you―that doesn’t mean that you can just act like you’re not being racist.” If Christakis had truly listened to those students at Yale, he would have accepted their definitions of racist and violent. He would have endorsed their interpretation of the world as socially normative. Because he refused to do so, one student concluded “all I see from you is arrogance and ego … You are not listening! You are disgusting! I don’t think you understand that.”
Speaking with anti-racists and engaging terms such as racism and violence involves entering an interpretative thicket. When the boundaries of racism expand to include the statements Make America Great Again (Skidmore College) and It’s OK to be white (Bates College, the latest of dozens of examples of this form of trolling) and the dictates of cultural appropriation forbid white people from teaching yoga (University of Ottawa) and performing Indian dance (American University), one despairs of ever extricating oneself from the entanglements of meaning. Hate crimes, one hopes, are the most likely site of broad agreement. In 2016, the US Department of Education reported 458 on-campus or residence hall hate crimes on the basis of race among some 12.8 million students at the country’s 4945 public and private non-profit, four-year degree-granting college and university campuses. 95% of these campuses reported no racially motivated hate crimes at all, which suggests that claims of widespread racial violence have been considerably exaggerated. Just 1% of campuses reported racially motivated hate crimes involving physical harm against persons or property—larceny, assault, burglary, robbery, etc. The remaining 4% reported only acts of destruction/damage/vandalism (e.g. graffiti exhibiting bias) and/or intimidation (e.g. threatening posters or speech). Even if we include intimidation in the category of physical harm, just 3% of campuses had even one such incident in 2016. Consider further that, according to political scientist Wilfred Reilly, 15–50% of all hate crimes in the United States are hoaxes or false reports, with campus hate crimes at the higher end of that range. Thus, even the 3% of four-year degree campuses reporting even one racially motivated violent hate crime is almost surely an overestimate. This is not to say that the 400 genuine racial hate crimes each year are irrelevant or simply the price black students, in particular, must pay to be educated. However, such rare and almost always anonymous occurrences, vigorously investigated by campus authorities, cannot stand as evidence of an institutional culture of anti-blackness.
To anti-racist activists, however, reported hate crimes are only the visible tip of the racial violence iceberg. Beneath officially reported hate crimes are the more pervasive bias incidents. In 2016, over 230 US colleges and universities operated bias reporting systems. While few maintain much transparency, the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor publishes a bias incident report log online. In July–December 2017 alone, 60 racial bias incidents involving students were reported on campus or online. During all of 2017, the campus reported just three racially-motivated hate crimes to the Department of Education. This is clearly a tremendous difference. Unfortunately, the University of Michigan’s relatively open reporting system gives little if any information on the content of biased speech or action and usually no information at all on the race of bias targets. Prior to being sued in 2018 for violating students’ free speech rights, the university’s Bias Response Team claimed “the most important indication of bias is your own feelings,” making agreement on the definition of bias likely impossible. Thus, even from this rich data source, it is difficult to draw any reliable conclusions. Interestingly, a 2016 campus climate survey conducted by the university found that self-reported discrimination on the basis of political orientation was more prevalent than on the basis of either race or sex. The university does not even collect incident data on experiences of political bias.
Racist violence on campus is said to go deeper still. Anti-racist activists claim its foundation is the very curriculum and pedagogy of the university: “the question of what counts as ‘good literature’ or ‘good art’ is not easily separable from feelings of exclusion from a majority culture of privilege and ‘value’” (Williams); white privilege is manifested in “white canons of fine art, literature, theory, and scientific thinking” (Evergreen); “research and academia have often emphasized and valued quantitative data, statistical information, and documentation through the written word. Our goals through our research are to push back on this systematic oppression through valuing our personal experiences, oral and creative histories, and the celebration of collaboration and community” (Brown University). From this perspective, all knowledge and all ways of knowing are racialized. Rather than speak of skepticism or empiricism or pragmatism, anti-racists would have us instead speak of white (or Eurocentric) epistemology, black (or Afrocentric) epistemology, Asian epistemology, etc. If different races have different ways of knowing, then in order to adequately learn, students require instructors of the same race. This is stated explicitly at Sarah Lawrence College where activists recently demanded that
Students of color should not be forced to resort to racist white professors in order to have access to their own history. It is crucial that the College offer courses taught about people of color by people of color [emphasis in the original] so that students may engage in and produce meaningful work that represents them authentically … The aforementioned classes must be taught by professors who are a part of the culture they are teaching about.
While such demands are most often seen in the humanities and social sciences, the sciences, too, are increasingly coming under fire for propagating racist violence through their pedagogy and epistemology. These arguments are brought together under the umbrella concept of decolonization, a broad project that first gathered steam in South Africa in 2015 and now spans the English-speaking world. Some of its advocates simply want to highlight the accomplishments of non-white scholars or revise teaching methods in order to reach different kinds of students. Others want a radical racialization of the institutional structure, curriculum and values of the university.
Whiteness and the Violence of Critical Race Theory
Decolonization intends to uproot Western academia’s supposed foundational characteristic: whiteness. According to critical race theory, whiteness is the social construction of white culture as socially normative. White supremacy, an unequal race-based distribution of power and resources, naturally follows. In the words of well-known activist-scholar of Whiteness Studies Robin DiAngelo, whiteness is a “racist worldview” into which all white people are socialized and effects “an unequal distribution of basically everything between people of color as a whole and white people as a whole.” The evil of whiteness animates the views of anti-racist student activists: “Whiteness is the most violent fuckin’ system to ever breathe!” (Evergreen); “I charge the white man with being the greatest murderer on earth” (Williams); “We demand that the College offer classes that embody intersectionality, as defined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and address the racial diversity of the LGBTQ+ community instead of centering whiteness” (Sarah Lawrence). Never mind the superior performance of Asian students on white standardized tests, the strong overrepresentation of Asians in white supremacist higher education, that fact that Indians are the United States’ highest income ethnic group or that Nigerians are one of the most successful new immigrant groups in the country.
College administrators, too, have taken up the task of decentering whiteness, helping their white faculty and staff in “processing whiteness” (Williams), “unpacking whiteness” (University of New Hampshire), conducting “conversations in whiteness” (University of Michigan), “understanding your whiteness” (University of Iowa) and “understanding and unlearning whiteness” (Evergreen). In a 2017 article in Harvard Educational Review, DiAngelo and her co-author Özlem Sensoy (both PhDs in Multicultural Education from the University of Washington) lay out what in their view whiteness is and how it operates in US and Canadian academia. The focus of their article is how whiteness is supposedly reproduced through faculty hiring and how that process may be interrupted. Thanks to its anti-racist frame, this article has, not surprisingly, become quite popular among American college administrators. In fact, it came to my attention because my own Dean of Faculty distributed it for my edification when I recently served as chair of a departmental hiring committee.
Sensoy and DiAngelo identify whiteness as the primary barrier to hiring non-white faculty in North American higher education. They use the term whiteness as a label for “a range of unnamed and exclusionary institutional practices” that are “intrinsically linked to dynamic relations of white racial domination.” Never mind that whites make up the same percentage of US college and university professors as they are a percentage of the general population, while persons of Asian descent make up 11% of all professors, despite being only 5% of the country’s population. Sensoy and DiAngelo are nonetheless intent to “unsettle whiteness” and disturb, not only in order to promote the hiring of job candidates of color but to radically transform the university itself. Practices of whiteness they seek to unsettle include:
- “research in the form of peer-reviewed journal publications and the acquisition of grant monies … [as] barometers of the most-valued work driving salary and career progression”;
- “White European enlightenment epistemology … the privileging of particular forms of knowledge over others (e.g. written over oral, history over memory, rationalism over wisdom)”;
- “a call for a general position in any field … [this] reinforces the idea that some aspects of the job are core, foundational, and thus presumed neutral, while other aspects are additional, extra, and specialized”;
- “counting only candidates’ output (the number of publications) and not input (the time it takes to build the relationships that grant access) … such as relationships with communities and activism/advocacy work”;
- “the discourse of merit”;
- “bas[ing] quality solely on factors such as the tier of publication … Might we instead consider research that does not further the cause of racial justice to be, in fact, lesser quality research?”
In the view of Sensoy and DiAngelo, none of these practices seek out academic quality on fair and objective, if debatable, grounds. They are instead the socially constructed racist values of white culture and, for that reason, must at minimum be unsettled and at maximum abolished. Sensoy and DiAngelo want “traditional fields” with their “old classifications” to be swept up into “forward thinking” through “an interrogation of … disciplinary fields and their borders.” As they “decolonize predominantly white university campuses”―aka “white/settler–colonial institutions”―and pursue the “decolonization of the academy,” Sensoy and DiAngelo call for a transvaluation of all academic values. Their aim is to eradicate the traditional mission of academia and the nature of the academic life. Their goal is to turn the decolonized university into a radical fundamentalist sect.
In ages past, administrators and academics believed the mission of higher education to be the pursuit of knowledge (University of Chicago: “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched”; University of Cambridge: “Hinc lucem et pocula sacra”) or even truth (Harvard University: “Veritas”; Yale University: “Lux et Veritas”). Today, they pursue Social Justice. Under that banner, anti-racist activists hope to do to higher education what Soviet communism did to fine art, literature and music. Under officially approved socialist realism, art was judged first and foremost by how well it depicted Soviet ideals, parroted Communist Party doctrine, and cultivated loyalty to the Soviet system. Not even science was exempted from serving a primarily ideological purpose during the thirty-year reign of Lysenkoism over Soviet biology and agronomy. Substitute critical race theory for Marxism–Leninism, whiteness for capitalism, and racial justice for dictatorship of the proletariat, and you will understand much of what the Great Awokening truly offers.
Just as critical race theory can destroy knowledge, it can likewise destroy institutions premised upon the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Thanks in large part to the influence of critical race theory, Evergreen State College melted down in Spring 2017. The concrete results of that meltdown included numerous faculty resignations, a catastrophic collapse in enrollments, layoffs, budget cuts and worldwide humiliation. Every institution of higher education should learn the lessons of Evergreen, for history is wont to repeat itself―the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.