Campus Free Speech

A Student Felt 'Traumatized' Because His Professors Did Not Silence Everyone He Disagreed With

Students got extensions on their paper because Trump was elected. It still wasn't enough.


Bryan YW Shin

A recent op-ed in the University of Pennsylvania's student paper, written by an unhappy student of color, paints a frustratingly bleak portrait of the emotional state of the modern campus liberal.

That student, James Fisher, claims that the recent semester was the worst he's had at college so far, and for one reason: Several of his white professors caused him to feel marginalized and traumatized.

Why? It's not entirely clear. Nor is it obvious what should be done about it, or even what Fisher would like done about it.

"Imagine being a black student on Penn's campus with even one of these types of professors," wrote Fisher. "I had three. And each one of those professors either did not care to learn about their white privilege, or lied to me and said that they did."

What cause does Fisher have to presume his professors were lying about their disinterest in issues of privilege? He does not say.

Perhaps the professors made offensive statements or used racially charged language? Nope.

"They think that by not saying racist comments in class, they are doing good," wrote Fisher. "Not knowing that that half-hearted attempt further contributes to the oppression that I experience in my predominantly white classrooms."

It seems like Fisher has constructed a lose-lose scenario for his professors. If they make racist comments, they would no doubt be marginalizing him. But if they refrain from making racist comments, they are also contributing to his oppression.

Fisher went on to accuse one of his professors of "perpetuating these systems of oppression in class." Why? The professor showed images of plantation slaves, and also permitted other students to "say ignorant comments."

Fisher evidently told the professor that this wasn't OK—the professor had an obligation to silence other students in order to protect Fisher from mental anguish. The professor tried to console Fisher, but to no avail. As a result, Fisher stopped going to class.

"I stopped going to his class for a month," he wrote. "With different emotions going through my head from not only this class but from the Trump election, I did not want to step foot into another white space until I made sure that my mental health was restored."

Readers might find it incredible that a college student could remain a college student even after he stopped attending class for a month because he was offended by some of his peers. But the professor's flexibility wasn't sufficient for Fisher.

"It is not enough that you gave your black students extensions on their papers because Trump got elected," he wrote.

Nothing is enough, it seems:

It is not enough to be aware of your privilege. It is also not enough to be a nice person. Your niceness does not mean that you are not capable of contributing to racial systems of oppression.

It is not enough that you are sorry for the injustices caused by your people. It is not enough that you read one article on the Black Lives Matter movement because your black friend recommended it to you. It is not enough that you gave your black students extensions on their papers because Trump got elected.

The truth is, you as a single person cannot make up for the horrific things that white people have done to us throughout human history. But that does not mean that you do not have the power to stop yourself from oppressing the students that you teach every day.

You have to be invested in stopping racism and oppression every day, not just on your free time.

I think even a reader whose sole goal was to please Fisher would be frustrated by this column. That's because the student utterly fails to explain what he wants out of his college experience. What could his professors do to assuage his feelings of trauma? He never says. Being aware of privilege, reading about the Black Lives Matter movement, granting extensions to students of color in the wake of Trump's election, and being nice are all insufficient tactics, according to Fisher.

I don't mean to come down too harshly on a single student who's having a rough time. It could be the case that the university is doing a particularly bad job of providing him with the resources he needs to succeed. But this column doesn't do an adequate job of making the problem relatable to readers.

The College Fix reached out to Fisher for comment, asking him to elaborate on how he felt. Fisher evidently bristled at the suggestion that the answer wasn't obvious.

"I get that you're always searching for us [minority students] to get the answer," he told The College Fix, "when all you have to really do is just shut up and listen."

That's a frustrating non-answer: The College Fix was listening. People like me who read Fisher's column were listening. But no useful answer came. This of course makes it harder to take complaints bout marginalization and emotional trauma seriously. When students claim victim status, it often comes across like this is the goal in and of itself, rather than the means to some end.

College classes are supposed to consist of dialogue between highly-learned experts—the professors—and curious, bright novices—the students. No one should really be shutting up, least of all the people teaching the classes. While it's true that professors have a lot to learn from their students, leftist students increasingly seem to hold the attitude that the purpose of higher education is to reinforce the ideas they already have and shut out all contrary voices.

Such an attitude will leave them ill-equipped for the real world, where the trauma of encountering an uncomfortable notion is unavoidable.