As a Muslim, I quickly learned that the claims of this being an inclusive campus were not as earnest as I originally anticipated. Every year I find myself expecting instances of hate, and thus far I have never been proven wrong.
For many students with minority identities on campus, issues like the recent racist vandalism in West Quad Residence Hall are simply expected. This is an issue demonstrated over and over at the University of Michigan, as the administration and faculty alike often ignore the recurring acts of hate. It is only a question of when these incidents will occur, rather than if they will occur. Yet the question of who can talk about these issues is one that often halts conversations that could create any real change.
I am lucky that I feel supported in writing about my experiences on campus, but I also know this can be a challenge itself. Although I do receive a lot of support, I also get a lot of concern about attaching my name to such strong opinions and putting a spotlight on myself. I feel, though, that the spotlight is already on me in a way — as everywhere I walk my hijab reveals that I am Muslim — so I might as well use it for something.
As a future educator, I also know publicizing personal opinions can be a problem when searching for, and keeping, jobs. Teachers are generally discouraged from sharing too many of their opinions with their students, unless, of course, most parents share that same opinion. So though many newer teachers have in-depth knowledge on social issues, the discouragement from helping society move forward is one that a lot of teachers have to navigate, when teachers can often be one of the most important catalysts of social change. Similarly, issues of diversity are not always directly spoken about in class and people are often not expected to understand nuances of diversity or appropriate speech until they are in the workplace.
This university only serves as a microcosm of the country as a whole, where the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech begins to blur, and people are taking advantage of the opportunity on all sides. As Americans in 2017 take to the streets with torches in the name of white nationalism and Nazi slogans, the question of where the line is seems to disappear.
The campus debates over how to handle incidents of hatred reflect the greater national debate on how such incidents should be handled. The debates surrounding Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem only intensified after President Donald Trump publicly stated anyone that who kneels for the national anthem in the NFL should be fired. In the aftermath of this statement, the response from NFL players, NBA players and fans alike began to break another barrier — one that often keeps professional athletes silent.
The distinction between “hate speech” and other forms of speech being pushed for by some campus voices is vague and often conentious. There is no concrete definition of “hate speech” in American law that can be restricted through legal means, though such a distinction exists in some European legal systems. And yet, it is only when hate speech is publicly condemned and restricted in various ways that society moves forward as a whole.
In the same way that condemning practices like blackface or Nazi propaganda undoubtedly moves society forward, hate speech should be classified as wrong. But this is often not the case. People often use the guise of free speech to justify verbal harassment and hate speech without realizing that there is a moral logic behind many of the laws that govern society. To claim that there is no underlying morality or to trust that people understand hate speech using their own judgements is unrealistic. The question of why speech is the exception to the rule remains unanswered, and when certain instances of hate speech go from being acceptable to unacceptable only happens over a great deal of time.
Rather than have clear sets of rules defining hate speech, this keeps incidents of hate on campus and in the United States as a whole “debatable.”
Year after year I see the same incidents on campus and across America. I see glimmers of hope as people come together to condemn hate, but the mental barriers have to be broken if there can be any hope to move forward.
When the ideal expectation is for people to correct one another, how is this supposed to happen when so many are asked to be silent? As a minority, Muslim, and future educator, I struggle with this question each time I choose to speak up even when some might find my opinions to create a biased lens. And yet it seems that some issues are worth kneeling for.