Months before setting foot in Ann Arbor for the first time, before taking any class about feminist literature or social justice, and before “intersectionality” ever entered my vocabulary, I was sitting on the floor at a friend’s house receiving advice that seemed obvious at the time. My friend’s mother — describing how college campuses were centers of immense debate and discussion — told a group of us that while we were all attending these large institutions, one of the most important things we could do was to stay observant and engaged.

Coming from a rural, small town built upon conservative, old-fashioned values, some form of culture shock was inevitable for us all, whether we were traveling “downstate” or across the country. We were told that on our respective campuses we’d encounter discussions, causes and demonstrations of all kinds: ones some of us were just beginning to champion ourselves, new ones that would align with our beliefs, ones we’d strongly disagree with, ones that were entirely unheard of at the time and ones that may challenge everything we’d known for the past 18 or so years. Regardless of our thoughts on the issue, it was important for us to listen to everything being said and always consider alternative viewpoints. As my college career begins to close, I never would’ve imagined that within these centers of activism and demonstration, voicing concerns about relevant issues, such as racism, oppression and sexism, would be seen as the whining of an over-sensitive population. 

Looking at the news, it’s undeniable that college campuses have been in uproar and shrouded in dialogues of reform recently. The collective feeling among students, particularly minority and marginalized students, is one of frustration and protest. For months, students have denounced the inaction of their universities, vocalizing long-held frustrations. Events at the University of Missouri, Yale University, the University of Michigan and others have indicated unaddressed, underlying racial tensions on college campuses and signaled a dire need to foster better dialogues about the experiences of minority students.

However, by doing so, students are doing exactly what colleges often ask them to do as they learn: question and challenge the status quo.

From first meetings in lecture halls to senior year, colleges ask students to reconsider how they think about and view the world. We’re heavily encouraged by our professors to avoid just being passive observers. Instead, we’re expected to be active, informed, inquisitive and vocal in our studies and in our interactions with others.

With such rhetoric and prompting, it’s no surprise that universities and colleges in the past have served as the foundations of various social movements and are so conducive to fostering activism. Historically, they’ve been environments of debate, controversy and contention. Taking this into consideration, it’s frustrating to see current measures of social questioning and action labeled as the overreactions of a “coddled,” fragile generation of over-liberal, over-sensitive individuals.

A hunger strike shouldn’t be seen as a response that’s “disproportionate to the offense.” A football team refusing to participate in games while issues of racism remain unaddressed shouldn’t be seen as a group of young men being disrespectful and taking their status as student athletes for granted. There should be no conflicting notion between encouraging students to speak their minds about important issues of race and equality and then labeling them as “coddled” or “too liberal” when they do so. Rather, the general population should be asking itself why such strong measures were necessary in the first place.

Those quick to label these activists as a part of a population too sensitive, too obsessed with being politically correct and too out of touch with the world need to stop operating under the presumption these students are blank slates without any prior experience, who were entirely protected beforehand and are just suddenly rejecting the complexity and conflicts of the world. While some students are undoubtedly more privileged than others, and this privilege certainly needs to be addressed, students, to varying degrees, have encountered their own experiences of sexism, racism, homophobia or classism earlier in their lives. These experiences can’t be discounted. As Roxane Gay aptly states in a piece for the New Republic, “College students do, however, understand the real world because they aren’t just students. They do not abandon their class background or sexuality or race or ethnicity when they matriculate, and these issues do not vanish when they register for courses.”

Taking these experiences into account, students are voicing these concerns because they’re aware of the injustice that needs to be remedied. A common critique of these groups is that these demonstrations are suppressing speech. Yet, those concerned about speech must also consider that students are demonstrating in order to draw attention to the suppression of their own voices.

In order for tangible change to occur, debate is absolutely necessary. But nothing will be achieved if one or both sides are dismissing one another. Respect must be shared on both sides. Labeling the outcry and demands of a population of students seeking change as “over-reacting” is, in itself, diminishing and suppressing viewpoints that may not necessarily want to be heard by those who disagree.

Perhaps current attitudes about student activism are merely the result of time. Those critiquing college students now were part of generations that once held their own protests, caused their own uproar, became the focal point of media attention and were critiqued by preceding generations. Perhaps one could just chalk it up to a generation gap and a cyclical nature of youthful idealism and optimism.

One of my classes recently discussed how time can be a privilege to those in power, and we debated the common misleading argument that society — if left only to the overwhelming influence of time — will change on its own without our intervention. However, time also functions as a mirror to illustrate how much or little things may have changed, and recent actions taken by students demonstrate that these issues have been left unhealed by time — or have evolved entirely — and need our attention.

Melissa Scholke can be reached at melikaye@umich.edu.

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