By Izzy Squier
Art by Kamilla Kocsis
During New Student Orientation, three professors hosted a seminar for first years where they discussed how to approach conversations about controversial topics such as current political and global issues. The professors had their debate, and the general conclusion was that nothing should be banned from campus discourse, but that it is important to consider the circumstances and nuances of every topic and situation. The professors then turned to the audience for their comments. There were two microphones set up in the aisles of the auditorium. A group of students rushed to the microphone. The only voices that were heard were men. One could argue that this was the most efficient way to get student participation; the microphone sat in the center of the auditorium, anyone could theoretically stand up and speak into it. Yet, the demographic of those who spoke was far from representative.
Walking out of the auditorium, I was irked by the lack of variety of voices, along with hearing man after man explain to me what a controversial conversation is and when to have them. Why didn’t I just speak up? Or anyone else?
Why is it that when I open my mouth, there is an unfounded sense that I am taking up space, using people's time that would be better filled by listening to someone else's thoughts? In classrooms, seminars, debates, I am a guest and must not overstay my welcome. I know this feeling isn’t unique to me, but something felt by many women, people of color, LGBTQ people, or anyone that is not a majority in academic spaces. The right to speak is not equal in the classroom, nor the auditorium.
To feel the courage to speak up, there are numerous barriers that marginalized students have to push through, especially in academic institutions where their voices are already underrepresented. Most, if not all, of the controversial or possibly traumatizing topics that could be discussed on campus (e.g. racism, sexism, abortion, military and police, welfare, climate change, abortion) are issues that disproportionately affect marginalzied people, not cis men. These topics don’t only exist within the classroom; they are ever present in many students' lives. It can be distressing to discuss these issues in classrooms as if they are thought experiments, even if done so “respectfully.” It’s not that the conversation shouldn’t be had, but it is ignorant to believe that these conversations are equal playing fields. Every student’s background brings a different set of barriers to how comfortable they feel in collegiate spaces. These barriers can range from being a person of color in a predominantly white institution, or a woman in a field dominated by men, or a person whose high school education didn’t prepare them for the academic rhetoric used in classrooms, or an interplay of factors. It can be hard for someone who doesn’t experience these barriers to recognize the different factors involved that may inhibit someone from participating in a discussion. The more comfortable a person feels in a space, the more likely they will join in on the conversation. During the seminar, it seemed clear that the only members who felt comfortable speaking were those with the least barriers: white men.
Not only can these conversations inflict harm, causing some students to be wary of speaking up, but many students may have a similar feeling of not having an inherent right to the floor. Sometimes people don’t want to debate their livelihoods, or explain why they should be treated equally. Institutions of higher education are built upon the systemic oppression of women, of Black and brown people, of queer people. Expecting these individuals to feel equally comfortable speaking out within these institutions, to walk to the microphone with the hoard of entitled boys, is naive.
To make the seminar all the more awkward to sit through, the professors — two men, one woman — crafted a skit to show an example of mansplaining. The two male professors went back and forth and even interrupted the female professor until she had her moment to speak. Afterwards, the audience cheered when the female professor finally got a chance to say something. Yet minutes after their performance of mansplaining, an all-natural example materialized from the audience. The male students who spoke did not add much to the conversation and reiterated the points made by the professors, even though a broader range of voices would have shown the complexities of having such conversations on campus. If anything, the seminar taught me that even when examples of male entitlement are served on a platter, the fight for an equal right to speak is a continuous and never-ending battle.
The entire discourse on what discussions should be allowed on campus feels catered towards white men. Often, it is seen as the job of marginalized people to educate privileged individuals about their experiences of oppression in order to broaden their world view. This is an exhausting and harmful ideal that constantly puts marginalized people in a position of vulnerability. The seminar’s discussion and the thoughts proposed by student volunteers felt removed from the possible controversial topics themselves, as if these controversies don’t affect real individuals but are only useful to further classroom learning.
I understand the need to encourage discourse around controversial topics, as they do come up on college campuses. It’s important to discuss and learn about them, and the professors brought up valid points about how to approach these situations. They touched on the nuances of handling delicate discussions and the importance of creating safe spaces where these discussions can be had. However, the conversation should not have been about when these conversations should be had, but about who is present, who isn’t, and how these conversations affect the greater community.
The discussion exemplified the underlying dynamics that exist in every academic space. Certain people feel entitled to speak, as if they have an inherent right to take up that space, while others can’t step into those spaces or need to make the space themselves in the first place. In a way, I did learn something valuable in that auditorium. No matter how confident I feel, there is still a long way to go until I feel as comfortable as my cis white male classmates walking up to the microphone.
Why didn’t I speak up? I didn’t feel it was my right.