Opinion | Column

Free speech, Black lives and white fragility

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As I write my first column, I am thinking a lot about speech. I am thinking about how an urgent and overdue conversation about racism—on our campus and across our country—has been derailed by a diversionary and duplicitous obsession with the First Amendment. I am thinking about how quickly the conversation has shifted from white supremacy to white fragility—and how this shift is itself an expression of white supremacy.

White fragility refers to a range of defensive behaviors through which white people (or more accurately, people who believe they are white) deflect conversations about race and racism in order to protect themselves from race-based stress. Because white people tend to live in environments where whiteness is both dominant and invisible, they grow accustomed to racial comfort, as a result of which even a small amount of racial stress becomes intolerable. This helps explain why talking about white supremacy can feel more painful to white people than white supremacy itself, why the ostensible "stifling" of debate can feel more pressing than the literal strangulation of Eric Garner and how "free speech" seems more important than Black lives.

Needless to say, it requires an astounding degree of narcissism, ignorance and— yes—fragility to scan headlines detailing the daily, state-sanctioned slaughter of people of color and somehow conclude that speech is the real problem. White fragility weighs the minimal discomfort of being confronted with painful realities about race and racism against the literal death of Black and brown bodies and decides that the latter matter less than white discomfort. Which is how we end up here, talking about speech on campus and reading a dozen iterations of the same editorial in which students describe—with utterly unintentional irony—how being called out by anti-racist activists makes them feel upset and hurts their feelings.

This leaves those of us committed to abolishing white supremacy in a double bind. To engage with this debate is to fall for a diversionary tactic in which we again center the conversation on white feelings. To refuse to engage grants the latter a monopoly on the airways, drowning out more vital issues in an ocean of white noise. Still, in the interests of the open, honest debate the free speechers ostensibly advocate, let me try to address the constitutional and philosophical principles at play here.

The first point to make is that, despite the hand-wringing, I have yet to see a single example of student activists violating the First Amendment. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how they could do so, given that the latter proscribes government abridgment of speech while student activists are private citizens. Many seem to confuse "free speech" with some banal notion of civility, forgetting that the very freedoms they invoke to defend racist drivel permit anti-racists to respond—whether by calling someone out or calling for their resignation.

This would seem to set up a nice equivalence between racists and anti-racists—both exercising free-speech freedoms, which must be equally and indiscriminately defended. What this ignores, however, is the centuries-long history of racialized oppression to which hate speech contributes. Hate speech is thus both violent and an incitement to further violence. The courts already prohibit walking into a crowded theater and shouting "fire." How is this any different from walking into a white supremacist society and shouting racial slurs?

It has become almost a truism that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. Historically speaking, this is inaccurate. As M. Alison Kibler details in her "Censoring Racial Ridicule," the U.S. has a long history of regulating forms of speech that expose racialized groups to "contempt, derision or obloquy." Indeed, as recently as 1952, the Supreme Court upheld an Illinois law applying the standards of libel (another free-speech exception) to hate speech. It is only in recent years that the courts have, as the National Center for Human Rights Education puts it, "privileged white racists to express themselves at the expense of the safety of African-Americans and other people of color."

Key to this new interpretation is a firm separation between speech and action, a legal variant on the old childhood adage: "sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you." The problem—as anyone who has been the victim of hate speech can tell you—is that this simply isn't true. Words hurt as much as actions; indeed, words are actions. Within the context of white supremacy, any distinction between a defaced poster, a racist pamphlet and legal or extralegal murder can be only of degree.

At the same time—and here I'll throw a bone to the civil libertarians—I'm unconvinced that hate speech legislation can resolve this. Not because hate speech isn't violent, but because the state is. As others have noted, we often view the state like some strange sort of Jekyll and Hyde—as if the very government quite literally built on white supremacy could somehow save us from its effects. I've sometimes noticed the same double vision among campus activists, who both call out Duke (quite rightly) for institutional racism yet also call on the administration to fix it.

So where does that leave us? With the painful yet empowering realization that no one will save us but ourselves. Rather than relying on the state to censure hate speech, anti-racists can assume that task—calling out and shouting down every expression of white supremacy as we work to build a genuinely free society. In the meantime, we can construct safe spaces for ourselves where hatred is barred at the door. In other words, the exact work that campus activists are already doing.

Cowardly racists and homophobes who deface posters or vandalize dormitories are not heroic defenders of free speech. The true heroes are those who have spoken out against injustice, time and again, in the face of both material and psychological retaliation. Everything else is just white noise.

Bennett Carpenter is a graduate student in the literature department. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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