Since I started at Allegheny College last semester one thing has become clear to me about this community; we care more about keeping conversations ‘civil’ than ending oppression.
Many of us prioritize how someone looks and sounds when they present their opinion over the actual content of what is being said. We focus on making sure that conversations stay nice and respectful rather than on challenging sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, and other forms of oppression and prejudice that are alive on this campus.
I want to ask students, professors, and administrators to think about how fixating on someone’s tone (rather than their point) is hurtful and oppressive.
To explain further, many students of difference deal with discrimination on a daily basis. Having others constantly make assumptions about us, share and perpetuate views that dehumanize us, and express openly bigoted statements is tiring, saddening, and infuriating.
Sometimes we have the emotional resources to stay calm, cool and collected during these interactions. However, on some days the stress of navigating a campus that makes us feel unsafe is overwhelming, and we get angry or sad. We might yell, curse, or cry.
Bottom line: It is oppressive to say that a person who is experiencing oppression must present him/her/there-self in an ‘appropriately civil’ fashion in order to be heard.
Doing so means that students who have had their deeply held identity disrespected and disparaged must bottle up their feelings so they can explain to their oppressors why what was said or done was hurtful.
It means we must constantly shoulder the burden of comments and actions that make us question who we are and why we’re at this school, all the while presenting to the world smiling faces and perfectly articulated words.
I’m not saying that we should encourage students to get into shouting matches over which football team deserved to win the Super Bowl.
What I’m saying is that our expectation that students of color remain calm and collected while discussing Ferguson is a form of violence. I’m saying that we should respect the feelings of students who are fed up with professors using the wrong pronouns. I’m saying that it is unfair to expect students of difference to make you feel comfortable while explaining why something you did caused them pain.
So what should we do?
We need to create an environment where students will be safe to speak their minds and share their experiences, without having to worry about tone policing and other silencing tactics. If someone calls you out, try to hear what their telling you instead of reacting defensively.
We all live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, classist world and it rubs off on even the best of us.
We all say screwed up things now and again. What matters is that we try to educate ourselves. Most importantly, we must listen to others when they share why something we’ve said was upsetting or oppressive.
Going forward, lets focus less on civility and more on respect and compassion.
Respect the students of difference who have the courage to talk about their experiences and call out oppression. Respect the feelings of these students, even when they aren’t cheery.
Most of all, lets strive to understand each other compassionately.