In defense of civility on campus

Peace2A recent altercation on the Bellevue College between two African-American students and one White student has received a lot of attention after a video of it was leaked on YouTube. There has been a lot of controversy regarding the incident. Multiple sources state that the incident was filled with bias and racial micro-aggressions. According to a later account by one of the African American students, he was walking with his friend down one of the overpasses when a White gentleman walked into his friend, who was at the time looking down at the ground. As he recalls, the verbal exchange started when the White man said, “Are you American? I walk on the right side of the road. Are you going to get out of my way or do I need to make you?” The exchanges went on from there. After this point, the interaction was recorded by a passerby.

When I spoke to a few people about writing an opinion piece about this incident, I got a lot of people telling me what I needed to write. Some points conflicted with what I was told happened, and what I believed happened. I struggled to find my own stance on the issue, and trying not to be biased based on my own experiences, my beliefs and what people were saying. Personally, I feel that the White student’s actions were completely out of line. But I don’t want to persuade you to agree with me. I simply want to ask you a question.

There are individuals on campus who believe that the right to free speech should and does allow them to say whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want and we, as a campus community should back that right. Okay, fine. You have the Constitution on your side on that point. However, there are individuals who would also argue that we, as a community, should follow that up by essentially telling anyone who is offended, hurt, or afraid based on those free speech comments to not worry about it, to ignore it, or that they should not seek out any sort of reparations because, “That’s how free speech works, so get over it.”

This leads to my question: In which situations is it appropriate for people to decide how other people should interpret comments and actions when it comes to diversity related issues? Whether it be micro aggressions, or full-on racist remarks/actions, should there be a point where people are allowed, socially or otherwise, to tell someone who perceives themselves as a victim how to feel or think about the altercation? Or perhaps, should we stop treating something as abstract as diversity as if it is concrete, with one universal answer to how everyone must perceive injustice?

On the video recording, there are a few things that are clear. An African American staff member intervened to try and diffuse the situation. Voices were raised, frustration was shown and the video ended with what seemed like the White man forcing his way through the two Black men, followed by the on-lookers that had accumulated after trying to express their frustrations with the situation and one of the African American students holding them back and convincing them not to start anything. The image of that student looking into the passerby’s camera and saying, “Stand up for what you believe in; that’s it” is forever burned into my mind. . While there has been some discrepancy on what some will believe the white male “actually” said versus what he claim to of said on the video, the problem still lies that there are two African American students on BC campus who feel as though they were discriminated against.

The promotion of diversity is an issue that has been a major element of equality for years in the United States, whether it is racial, ethnic, sexuality-based, gender-related, class-based, political, religious or any other characteristic you can think of. As most readers know, BC prides itself on having a diverse population, from faculty members to students to the curriculum topics. However, there has been a question lingering on the minds of students and faculty for a few years that not too many have had the courage to talk about: how to create a climate that supports that population. Now, in certain parts of campus, this discussion is boiling up and being talked about more, until it literally began overflowing into the hallways of BC. From the letter that El Centro wrote to the college questioning their diversity pertaining to the Hispanic/Latino culture to staff members beginning to come together once a month for a program called “Critical Conversations”, to the recent conflict that happen in one of the overpasses on campus between two African-American students and a White student, these issues are coming up everywhere for students and faculty alike. The question is, are these events surrounding diversity a cry for change, help, or something else entirely.