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Not a Take on Free Speech

From the Editor-in-Chief: This article may contain language is offensive, and material that is emotionally evocative for the reader. 

There has lately been an uptick of debates surrounding free speech across college campuses all over the country amidst the election of Trump and the rise of the alt-right. This is especially true of the recent wave of articles posted in The Clerk articles.

This is not a response to the most recent piece on free speech, or any piece for that matter, but such pieces have made me feel compelled to articulate to the best of my ability my perspective concerning free speech as a woman of color, and a black woman of color at that. Do not think I’m speaking on behalf of other black women and other people of color; I’m doing so on behalf of myself. However, I do hope others including black women are able to relate to what I’m saying. And let me just say, I can’t digest these opinion pieces that seem to lack an understanding of this country’s history beyond the surface.

First off, I think in order to go into any discussion concerning free speech, there must be a level of awareness that freedom of speech, like most if not all rights sanctioned in the American Constitution, never was and still isn’t equally distributed among people in this country. If it were, then we wouldn’t have (mostly black and brown) people arrested for expressing free speech via protest and occupation. Multiple arrests have been made in various Black Lives Matter protests over the years and the Standing Rock protests, marches concerned with people of color’s rights, whereas zero arrests were made in the Women’s March on Washington, a mostly white march. A twelve-year-old child can get killed with no justice or due process for playing in a park, whereas a White supremacist gets a bulletproof vest and Burger King after killing nine black people in their house of worship. Let me remind you, a bunch of white middle/upper-class men gathered in a room to create a document that foregrounded the development of this country declaring universal equality. During this process, they prevented their wives from participating in it, and owned enslaved black people that they abused and/or murdered on a day to day basis. This all occurred on land that they forced Indigenous people out of, through forced removals and murder. So believe it or not, this country is founded in the unequal distribution and deprivation of rights and entitlements, so any argument about free speech, in my opinion, is already considerably void without an understanding of this history.

Additionally, this need to protect all kinds of speech happens under the false assumption that words do not have power, and will lack power when ignored. Do you know how Trump won? Words. Do you know how violent colonization and slavery began? Words. You know how the Holocaust got its start? Words. All these milestones of violence in history got their start with words that people identified and agreed with, even when other people ignored them. For instance, I can ignore someone who says, “I would love to see you and your people for dead n*****,” if I so choose, but that does not guarantee that people that genuinely want me for dead won’t listen and take heed to those words and cause me, and others like me, some kind of harm. To contextualize it in the historical, enslaved black people could not just ignore their slave status and their master’s commands and walk off the plantation they were forced to be on just because they felt like it; that would’ve, and did, get them killed.

Lastly…why is free speech the primary concern here? Especially in emphasizing people’s right to vocalize violent rhetoric? Are you more concerned with that than the pain and fear that such rhetoric causes for members of marginalized groups? Because that pain directly and indirectly affects a lot of people in this country, including members of this here community. It’s a pain and fear that I feel in the back of my mind and gut every day. This pain and fear are felt as a result of hateful and violent rhetoric being acted upon via the empowerment of Trump’s election, and it is only continuing to gain traction and support. And I don’t mean to speak for other people of color, but if you went to We Speak, you must know that a majority, if not all, students of color feel at least a sense of unease at this current moment. Why do you care more about the suppression of speech ridden with these violent ideologies than the real and visceral pain, fear, and anger that they cause for your peers? Are you that incapable of empathy? Do you lack concern? Have you talked to anybody feeling this pain and fear? Maybe you did, but based on what has been written thus far for The Clerk, I’m getting the sense that you haven’t, and I really hope it is a false sense.

And just so we’re clear, Republicans/Trump supporters do not count. Their fear of social exclusion is not comparable to marginalized people’s fears of dying and/or losing family members.

If that was TL;DR, what I am saying here is that prioritizing people’s right to vocalize and support violent ideologies, especially without an historical understanding of how civil rights have been applied to citizens and noncitizens alike, over the pain and fear of the people that such ideologies affect is not just insensitive, it is immoral. And to whoever does that, it is very hypocritical of you to do so when you intentionally came here signing up to uphold Haverford’s community values of trust, concern, and respect.

I have no offer of a solution, nor am I trying to make a specific stance on free speech. Like I said, that’s not why I wrote this. I’m just here feeling frustrated and disappointed that in this time that calls for urgent action, this is what people would rather talk about and focus on. But I wish I were surprised.