Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions pledged to defend free speech on campuses and criticized the idea of creating safe spaces on campus, protected from hate speech. He argued that classrooms should be places of “robust debate.”
To that I say, bring it—bring on honest, fact-based conversations about history, race and White inaction.
It would be a stark contrast with the Advanced Placement government and politics course I took as a 14-year-old in Fayetteville, Arkansas, after spending my childhood in progressive Chicago.
In that class, I didn’t learn much about government but I learned a whole lot about politics: the politics of the Southern Bible Belt, the politics of Republicans and the politics of descendants of those who fought in “The War of Northern Aggression.”
Here’s What Happened
Here’s what happened in my public high school classroom in Arkansas in 1995. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Marsh. She had just finished law school at University of Arkansas at Little Rock and
My teacher disparaged civil rights laws…in 1995.
I remember this day in class like it was yesterday. Mrs. Marsh asked us, “Can anyone name things they hate?”
Students gave answers like broccoli, country music and the sound of nails on a chalkboard. Mrs. Marsh told us things she hated, like spring and peaches, because of the taste of peach fuzz.
Then she asked the question, “Can the government create a law that can make us like the things we hate?”
The whole class said no.
Mrs. Marsh said, “Well that’s what they did with civil rights laws.”
I’m sure I gasped out loud. Everyone else started taking notes.
Mrs. Marsh then proceeded to tell a story about how her family had had the same family working in their home for generations.
“I love my mammy. She is a part of our family.”
I asked myself, “Did this b-tch just call a Black woman a mammy?”
Then she said more things I will never forget.
“But when all these agitators came and started making conflict, it caused tension where there was none before. I love my mammy, but the government can’t make me like her family or people I don’t know.”
My jaw dropped. Literally. My mouth hung wide open.
Mrs. Marsh then went to the blackboard to discuss Black leaders. She drew a line and wrote “GOOD” on one side, “BAD” on the other.
On the “good” side, she listed Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and J.C. Watts. On the “bad” side she listed Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan. Of them, she said, “They are just troublemakers who are trying to force people to do things they don’t want. But can the government make people like things they hate?”
“No,” said the class.
“Exactly,” Mrs. Marsh responded.
After class, I struggled with what to do. Finally, I decided to talk to the principal.
I honestly thought that what Mrs. Marsh had said was so atrociously racist that she would be fired or at least reprimanded. I brought him my notes and told him what she had said.
But this led to my second surprise. Mrs. Marsh was called in. Her defense had nothing to do with her own words or actions. Instead, she chose to challenge my behavior. Specifically, I was chronically tardy (true), I hadn’t turned in some homework assignments (also true), and I even had an unexcused absence (I totally cut class that period).
Instead of her defending herself, I became the target. And the principal sided with her!
He, of course, “was inspired by enthusiasm for the class,” but really thought I should put my energy into “becoming a better student.” He further went on to talk about “my potential, my passion, and how, with a little more discipline, I could be an honor student.”
No More ‘Safe Spaces’ for Racism
So much for “safe spaces.” Safe spaces in schools have always been spaces where it is safe for White people to be racist and safe for Black people to STFU.
All of my academic courses, from elementary and high school to the University of Chicago, were experiences in which I was forced to censor my thoughts, lived realities and even my knowledge of the evil, destructive and imperialist forces in U.S. and Western history that have oppressed poor people and people of color all over the globe.
So, Mr. Sessions, all right, let’s get rid of “trigger warnings.” Let’s create real academic spaces that are open to freedom of thought and expression.