Lu: Considerate Correctness

by Jessica Lu | 4/20/16 5:43pm

Recently, I’ve been undergoing a crisis of identity. I consider myself liberal, progressive, woke — all those buzzwords that The Dartmouth’s frequent commenters love to decry as a disease of foolish millennials. I’ve spent most of my opinion-writing career on issues of intersectionality, on bringing light to problematic behaviors that are overlooked despite the profound impact they have on those they target. I’ve used this space to contribute to a discourse that may be one of the defining conversations of this generation. This time, and I think perhaps for the first time, I’ve finally figured out where I stand and where I think we all should stand.

Students on college campuses across the United States are currently having an important conversation about what is wrong and what is right, a conversation rooted in the language of “PC culture” and “safe spaces.” My gut feeling is to support the liberal cause, to stand by political correctness, to defend the importance of safe spaces. But for a while now, I haven’t been able to truly define what those ideas mean.

Earlier this month, University of California, Berkeley student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight for no greater crime than speaking Arabic on the phone to his uncle. What struck me most as I read about his story was not the casual Islamaphobia or the unapologetic racism, all of which are unfortunately a given in the age of Donald Trump and American racist hysteria. What struck me was what an Arabic airline employee said to him after he was forced to leave the plane: “Why would you speak in Arabic on the airplane?” the employee asked him. “It’s dangerous. You know the environment around the airport. You understand what’s going on in this country.”

For anyone who is non-white and dares to speak Arabic or any language that could be mistaken for Arabic, America isn’t the land of the free. It’s a landscape of landmines where you’re not sure what’s safe and what isn’t, and the only thing you can be sure of is that you’re constantly in danger. The story is the same for black and Latinx Americans, who stare down the possibility of police brutality, of unfair deportation, of life as a second-class citizen because of the color of their skin. For these Americans, life is a constant battle to avoid danger. Parents tell their brown children to speak English in public or else they’ll be labelled terrorists. Parents tell their black children to never wear their hoods up and to keep their hands in plain sight at all times or else their life might end with a white man saying, “Well, I was just standing my ground.”

For Americans of color, for Americans who are “other” in obvious ways, safe spaces are few and far between. A safe space is somewhere you can be who you are without coming under attack for any aspect of your identity, be it the color of your skin or who you love. America is not a safe space for a young black man when someone who looks like him is killed every 28 hours, when he is more than twice as likely be suspended than his white classmates, when a racist criminal justice system will give him a sentence 20 percent longer than his white peer for the same crime.

At the core of all this is the idea that because of who you are, you are unwelcome and unsafe. That’s how a lot of students, particularly students of color, feel on our campus. They are surrounded by reminders that this isn’t their place, that they don’t belong here, that they aren’t wanted here. And these reminders can take many forms­ — a word that dehumanizes them, a Greek system that excludes them, a silent majority that refuses to stand with them because having a party is more important than making sure they feel safe. These reminders may be comparatively small to the things that people of color face outside of the campus bubble, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t create a campus that makes people of color feel unsafe.

This conversation about safe spaces and political correctness was recently reignited by Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority’s decision to change its annual spring party theme from Derby to Woodstock. As a member of KDE, it was a no-brainer for me — changing the theme would not cost us anything and would make hundreds of my peers feel safer and happier on the campus we all want to call home. Whether or not the theme of Derby is racist is an important question to ask, but it is not the most important issue at play here. What matters is that our peers felt the theme was problematic. Derby contributed to making students of color on this campus feel like they were unwanted and unsafe. I do believe Dartmouth does a better job than most colleges at creating a welcoming and diverse culture, but that certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can and should change. Is Woodstock a perfect theme? No. Does it make people on this campus feel unsafe? Not that I know of. If it does make people on this campus feel unsafe, should we have a conversation about it and then change it? Yes.

An important part of college is disagreeing with each other, building and maintaining dialogues and having important conversations about tough topics. So-called “PC culture” isn’t meant to stifle those conversations, and it shouldn’t. Instead, a culture of political correctness helps us create a space that is safe for everyone anywhere along the ideological spectrum. People on both sides should be vocal and unafraid to share their opinions. Does political correctness sometimes go too far and prevent people on the ideological right from speaking out for fear of backlash? Unfortunately, yes, and that’s something that shouldn’t happen. But it’s also too rash to dismiss political correctness altogether as people being too sensitive or trying to stifle speech they don’t agree with. What political correctness should do is to ensure that vulnerable groups feel safe. By spurring the change from Derby to Woodstock, the culture of political correctness did just that.