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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Get Tough, Big Team, Get Tough: On the Resilience of Student Protesters of Color

In light of the recent student protests at the University of Missouri, at Yale, at Princeton, and at many other colleges and universities, there have been a number of critics who have admonished the mostly black students and their allies who demand that universities as institutions address long-standing problems of racism. The student protesters are often told to "stop whining," "deal with it," "stop being crybabies," and are otherwise exhorted to toughen up and solve the problems of campus racism on their own.

Yes, these critics say, the student protesters need to toughen up. They need to put their shoulders to the wheel, keep their noses to the grindstone, keep their eyes on the prize, take heart, chin up, turn the other cheek, suck it up, develop a thick skin, and just generally perform all the other anatomic metaphors for relentless attention to task and resilience.

It is enough to make one want to tell such critics to perform another anatomic metaphor, one that would be anatomically difficult it not impossible.

These critics do, however, have a point. Resilience, or, as some people like to call it, grit, has its place. Perseverance in the face of adversity is what helps to make many people, including many of the black student protesters seen in recent days, successful.  But if, as I opined in a letter to the Wall Street Journal a few years ago, grit were a major factor in success, more people who start life disadvantaged would succeed more often. What these critics often conveniently ignore about many student protesters is that they are often more resilient than critics could possibly even imagine. Indeed, it is resilience that allows some students with disadvantages to reach elite colleges. I think that the point that the students are often making is that they are tired of expectations that they stoically, unilaterally, and individually address what are in fact longstanding institutional problems and concerns.  Parul Sehgal’s recent article in New York Times Magazine also makes this point.

Some critics of recent student protesters seem to see the students as actors in a play called college life, actors who are there, literally and figuratively, to provide local color. These actors are charged with performing outsized innate traits of gratitude, forgiveness, and yes, resilience. These actors are not permitted to go off script and complain about being surcharged with additional burdens. The role of these actors is akin to that of student athletes on some campuses, for student athletes, particularly those in prominent athletic programs, are also often bodies of color put into motion to perform innate, race-based physical superiority. These student athletes, as I wrote in the NYU Review of Law and Social Change, are “new minstrels” who are prized for their swagger, smiles, and apolitical disconnection from larger campus or societal issues. It is no wonder that the recent action by football players at the University of Missouri to threaten a boycott of football related activities in response to racial tensions on campus was met with so much surprise. Student protesters of color, like student athletes, are supposed to get tough, big team style, even, or perhaps especially, in the face of institutional neglect.

But while “get tough, big team” is a rousing chant for the day of the big game, it is also a reminder of the ways in which some student bodies are viewed as mere performers on a stage. Get tough, big team fails to account for the pervasive inability to imagine people unlike oneself in a way that engenders ongoing respect, equality and morality. It is for this reason, writes scholar Elaine Scarry, that institutions such as colleges and universities must help to foster conditions of recognition that do not rely upon individual action or imagination.

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