Narratives have material impact. They shape what is possible, and even who is possible. Not completely, never permanently, but undeniably.
A June 4 op-ed published by the New York Times started with the header, “campus inquisitions must stop.” An inquisition is an investigation that holds no regard for individual, or purportedly, collective rights. In the column, Frank Bruni commented on student protests at Evergreen University, as well as those earlier this year at UCBerkeley protesting conservative speakers Milo Yiannopoulis and Anne Coulter. “Who’s next?” the header ominously asked. The essay is largely a scolding of students as perpetrators and a defense of higher education faculty and administrators as victims in a two-sided battle over civility and democratic learning.
Bruni wrote, and New York Times editors read and approved this essay, during a stretch of days when a noose was found inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, another one found days later near a Washington D.C. elementary school. This was also a week when protestors, including faculty, engaged in shoving matches at a commencement talk delivered by Linda Sarsour, and a leading Black studies scholar, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor was forced to cancel public speeches after receiving more than 50 violent threats to her and her family. None of these events were apparently considered in what counts as inquisition and what must be stopped. While it is impossible for a short op-ed to contend with a great number of events, it is also worthwhile to note what is included and why, particularly when scolding and fear are the themes.
Bruni’s essay is par excellence in creating a false argument of ‘both sides of the story,’ with a thinly veiled preferred side. He creates two fictive entities, perhaps precisely to empathize with one and scold the other. The summative effect of this bifurcation is to perpetuate the narrative possibility of whiteness and squander a significant platform to consider why and how speech and practices have become so roiled on college campuses during a larger, destabilizing political moment.
Bruni achieves a double-layered argument of false equivalency through what he discusses and how he discusses it. As the adage of linguistics goes, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. Thematically, the pattern in Bruni’s language is unmistakable. The verbs to describe students’ actions include: hurl, aimed, strangled, mesmerizes, converts, fury, interrupted, demanded, chanted, pelted, ordered, and staging. The verbs depicting the actions of two higher education employees are: stated, challenged, saw, wrote, characterized. One group is emotional, irrational, fickle, and violent. The other is considered, literate, and observant. Although Bruni does not mention this, it matters that the students protesting a lack of university response to racism were mostly Black. It matters that all three university faculty and administrators Bruni quotes are white. It matters because through the language and thematic patina Bruni uses, he extends, as Sylvia Wynter theorized in 1994, a narrative condemnation of Blackness whose flip side narrates an innocent, thoroughly human whiteness.
Bruni leverages condemnation and innocentizing in multiple, layered examples in this short op-ed. He plumbs a 2015 protest at Yale University when students cried fowl over an email written by faculty-in-residence, Erika Christakis. Christakis’ email chided the university for having anti-racist norms for Halloween costumes and encouraged students to engage with each other. Bruni quotes a portion of Erika Christakis’ letter published by The Washington Post after the 2015 protest: “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience. Increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all O.K. with this transfer of power?“ Bruni lauds the letter’s “considered, respectful fashion.” Yet, in this letter, a university administrator perpetuates a learned and likely coveted fallacy that American universities were once a safe space for maturation and experimentation.
American universities were established first as places of sequestered socializing and social advancement for the already protected class of white, land-owning men. Elite institutions were built, literally, by stolen labor. Land grant institutions were created from seized Indigenous land and then granted to advance the interests of farming and agriculture, again a domain of land-owning white men. To be certain, regressive and transgressive practices were and are tolerated on college campuses, but only for some. Campuses have long been places of disadvantage of some for the benefit of others. To paint them nostalgically as bygone safe places while scolding students for being too sensitive is to narrate on behalf of whiteness. Particularly ironic is Christakis’ ahistorical lament of a transfer of power. Notably, Bruni quoted only Christakis’ letter and nothing of student and faculty platforms about justice in higher education. When people say that they will not sit down at a table where their humanity is already impossible, this is what they are talking about.
Universities, like other institutions in U.S. society were built by stolen labor on stolen land. They can only be depicted as a historically safe spaces in the imagination of whiteness. Bruni ladles from this imagination and then serves it as an example of civility, anointing Christakis’ argument as “considered” and “respectful.” Perhaps it is the fact that Chistakis wrote an argument using Standardized Academic English that qualifies her writing as ‘considered’ to Bruni, but the argument is decidedly inconsiderate of basic history of power and racial animus. Even with a thin grasp of racist capitalism, its pandering tone is far from innocuous, making any claim of civility dubious.
Bruni also quotes a recent tweet from Christakis’ husband, a Yale faculty member, who said, “My wife spent her whole career working with marginalized populations and has a deep, abiding humanity, and still they came for her.” The mantle of a good-person-who-has-done-nothing-but-fight for marginalized people clanged extra hollow on the same weekend that Larry King and Michael Eric Dyson proclaimed professional provocateur Bill Maher not to have a racist bone in his body even though he casually referred to himself using the n word. Funny how people can boast lacking a single racist bone, but bones are literally been harvested on behalf of racist capitalism.
Bruni’s decontextualized and anemic discussion of campus protest is one of many which decry students as thin-skinned, fickle, snowflakes, entitled, and on. These dismissals are simply inadequate for these times in which racial animus, hate speech, and violent outbursts have come to mark political fora. Not only do they collapse what shapes a generation’s experiences different than previous generations and those yet to come, these characterizations provide little nuance to readers. It is precisely because campuses have been wholesale safe that we must create nuanced understandings of the demands for safety. Those who study and work on college campuses, where stratified well-being and vulnerability is a stark reality, deserve much better than facile two-sides depiction.
It is an incredibly hot and tense time on college campuses. As pointed to time and time again by research and analysis, higher education administrators and faculty are stretched to contend with these complex histories and contemporary conflicts of interest, power, and trauma. Flip and decontextualized commentary in large platforms only further collapse and sully the work that awaits students, faculty, and staff on their campuses. The work awaits when whiteness writes the story.