Zachary Wood, a political science major and president of Uncomfortable Learning at Williams College, recently penned a column documenting the name-calling and other verbal assaults he has faced for defending free speech and academic inquiry on campus.
You see, Wood is black, which means he either toes the line or he’s called an Uncle Tom. But Wood is frustrated by the shortsightedness of the label.
“Some black student activists quietly resent me, others revile me with pleasure. But what bothers me most is knowing that many of the same students who elected me communications director of the Black Student Union my freshman year now view me as ‘colonized,’ ‘self-hating,’ and ‘anti-black,’ as an impediment to the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream,” Wood writes in The Weekly Standard.
To most of the black student activists I know, this approach [a willingness to study and debate controversial ideas] is infuriating because it’s incongruous with firmly held expectations of how African Americans should think and act based on the color of their skin. When I challenged this way of thinking, a black student commented on Facebook, “We need the oil and the switch to deal with him.”
The recent treatment of nonconformists like Condoleezza Rice, Jason Riley, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali highlights how this strict brand of conformity represses the liberty essential to living in a free and open society.
To black student activists who have derisively called me “Ben Carson,” my defense of free speech is antithetical to being a black American. I find this problematic.
Beyond stifling debate on campus, being made to feel that I have a certain racial obligation to serve my people and represent them in a particular fashion undermines the agency and individuality we all value. It rejects the kind of critical thinking that draws insight and wisdom from unfamiliar and unsettling perspectives. The message these ad hominem attacks send to black students like myself is that racial pride and black authenticity hinge on uncritically supporting safe spaces, trigger warnings, and Black Lives Matter protests. I’ve been told, “If you can’t see what’s wrong with you for inviting a white supremacist to campus, then you’ll keep empowering white men who think that black people are stupid, ugly, and low. That has no place here and neither do you.”
Statements like that needlessly alienate people who might otherwise be allies.