I heard an interview on Mizzou’s campus wherein a black male student said racism had been brewing there long before its president resigned. The student recalled walking out of class to find cotton balls scattered around the quad and another said he was expected to rap on the spot by a professor who called on him in class despite his major having nothing to do with music. I watched video stills of black students in protest on that campus, locked arm in arm, either in song or in angry protest or both, their faces reminiscent of iconic photos of the civil rights movement, not because they were students on campus, but because they illustrated that same aggrieved determination based in a knowledge and solidarity unique to their experience.
Many students at Mizzou and elsewhere have asked for safe spaces: places where their race, gender and sexual orientation will neither be questioned, nor perpetrated; places they can learn without stereotyping and stigma, on the most pilloried end, and in an environment protected from the threat of sexual and racial violence and the carrying out of same on the other end.
Critics liken the request for safe spaces to coddling and are quick to say political correctness has gone too far. For an entertaining, yet sad, recap, jump on Twitter and check the #NationalOffendACollegeStudentDay. The safe spaces debate echoes the divide across the country, those in either blissful ignorance or purposeful denial that a safe space could ever be anything but indulgence, versus those living in the daily realization that despite the capability of light speed communication, some people are never going to get it.
The revolution is on Twitter: a real time unfolding of cultural upheaval in 140 characters and Vines. To be anything but awestruck is pure cynicism. It is the shock and awe Donald Rumsfeld fed us about Iraq, this time in the culture wars, rather than the theatre of war. Minorities educating us via hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter, #LoveWins, #YesAllWomen #AskHerMore and sadly now #PrayforParis and #NotInMYName, have made it inexcusable for government officials, university presidents, corporate leaders and judges to play dumb to racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia, whether on campus, in the corner office or in court.
There’s a scene in “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” about Ali’s conscientious objector status and his ability to retain his boxing title that premiered here a few years ago set in the Justices’ chambers at SCOTUS. The film was an alleged inside look at the Justices considering whether to grant Ali’s appeal to overturn his conviction as a “draft dodger” and determine if his conversion to Islam and refusal to fight in Vietnam disqualified him from boxing as the Department of Justice argued it did and the federal appeals court agreed. Christopher Plummer, in his role as Justice John Harlan (who wrote the opinion that overturned Ali’s conviction) appears at a chamber window with (if memory serves) Frank Lagella’s Justice Warren Berger to watch war protesters gather on the steps outside SCOTUS. It is in that moment we see the Justices in their natural Ivory Tower habitiat view the protesters with detached bemusement, safe in the knowledge they are entirely insulated from the scene outside the building, but also with absolute failure of empathy or recognition of what the protest means to those gathered or more importantly, with any notion of what it’s like to be powerless.
It’s time for the people born into safe spaces to take the cotton out of their ears and put it in their mouths. Lip service, faux connectedness, “I feel your pain” is no longer adequate. Don’t tell us you’re sorry, you have no idea how this happened and you will convene a task force to make sure it stops. Shut up. Listen. Witness. Then act. Talk is cheap. Unless you can distill it into a 140 character national movement with passion and struggle at its core.
Here’s what Ali, now lauded as a superhero for compassion across the globe, said about refusing to go to Vietnam:
“I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for four or five more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my rights here at home.”
Stand Up Everybody.