Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina who writes for McClatchy and the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.” His latest book is “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on 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, only 51% of Black students feel the same. I did not feel protected while draped in shame and silence and 400 years of racist stereotypes slumping my shoulders in a class full of White students.
Those long, hard days didn’t end when I walked across the stage during graduation. In my professional life, I’ve been targeted by right-wing groups who deem Black professors who deal with the issues I do as the “radical left.” I’ve had death threats, veiled and not-so-veiled, left in voicemail messages.
I’ve been called the n-word numerous times recently, years ago had to have extra police patrols around my house and had a group of angry White conservative readers try to oust me from a columnist job at a newspaper in a red state. I know what it feels like to be targeted for cancellation. That’s why it disturbs me to watch how superficially this topic is often treated.
It’s not as though I believe only people with backgrounds like mine should have a say on this issue. I don’t. It’s just that when those who have traditional or purist views about free speech and free expression lead the discussion, they often drown out or ignore voices of those who’ve mostly known discomfort, who’ve self-silenced and self-censored routinely as a survival mechanism (as opposed to a comfort mechanism).
This is why I’ve spent the past several months helping my alma mater, Davidson College, where I now teach, craft a Statement of Freedom of Expression, design surveys to examine the free expression environment on campus and convene events grappling with why sometimes even harmful speech must be protected by laws and customs to ensure free speech is available for us all.
I’ve run into a significant amount of skepticism, but not from anyone who opposes the principle of free speech. It’s been from those who have seen the term co-opted in bad faith as a weapon for rolling back racial progress. They see high-profile figures scream “cancel culture” to defend odious and even evil acts, see high-paid speakers parlay any dissent to their presence on campus to even larger paydays. They watch Republicans in numerous states try to ban books, get Black principals fired and pass state laws suppressing speech to ensure White students are never made uncomfortable in class.
They see essays and public statements about a supposed coddling of the American mind and White conservatives being under attack – but much less about the self-silencing among young people that can lead to self-harm or suicide because they feel they have no place to turn while trying to come to grips with their sexuality or their own body.
They don’t get to hear as much from little Black boys and little Black girls – those still young, those fully grown – explaining what it feels like to be forced to revere (not just understand but revere) the White men who raped and robbed and murdered and enslaved their ancestors. The voices of those grappling with the self-silencing of people with disabilities in environments where tradition is adhered to no matter the struggles of those who need accommodations aren’t often given as large a platform as those who just want to debate for the sake of debate.
When I was hiding the evidence of that 48 in my bookbag, I didn’t need a refresher course on the finer points of the First Amendment. I needed a safer space to better explore what I was facing, to realize I wasn’t alone.
I needed an environment safe enough for me to feel I could open up about my fears – knowing I was more likely to find an understanding voice who would help guide me through that mental wilderness than to engage in a back-and-forth about whether students like me belonged at a place as elite as Davidson College.
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I needed to be able to cry on someone’s shoulder until my tear ducts went dry and have that person usher me towards the help I needed, to assure me that I actually was worth a damn but had to put in the work – which meant opening my mouth even when it was hard, especially when it was hard.
That’s the kind of environment we need and are trying to create on campus. It’s not about having students, faculty and staff who can recite chapter and verse about the importance of free speech law – but have little understanding about who on campus feels most compelled to self-silence and why. It’s about knowing what’s really at stake: not one student’s fear of a bad grade but many students’ very identities and souls.