Why Students Might Self-Censor When Discussing Race on Campus

“There is an issue with expression on campus,” Sean Stevens, senior research fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said at IHS’s November 13, 2020 panel discussion with Bradley Jackson, senior program officer at IHS, and Musa Al-Gharbi, the Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University, about FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings report.

Musa Al-Gharbi

While some assume that only conservatives are concerned about free expression on college campuses, FIRE’s report shows otherwise. Most students report experiencing “some sort of chilling effect at times,” Stevens said. And it “seems to impact students regardless of their political beliefs, regardless of their gender, regardless of their race/ethnicity.”

Al-Gharbi delved into the report’s findings on race, noting that Black students are most likely to self-censor overall and especially when talking about race: 66% percent of Black students reported finding it difficult to have an open and honest conversation about race on campus, up from 43% of overall students.

One reason Black students might find it difficult to speak openly about race on campus is that they’re underrepresented in many schools and may find themselves the only Black student in class.

“This creates a situation where when race comes up, everyone kind of turns to you, right?” Al-Gharbi said.

And this is actually one way in which the liberal climate on campus reinforces that, and here’s why: Because a lot of white students and students in general are told that they’re supposed to defer to people of color, to their experiences, to their perspectives on a lot of these issues. And how that cashes itself out in classrooms and other situations with a lot of white students is that then, when race comes up, all the white students do what they’re ‘supposed’ to do, which is defer to the person of color. And so, they all just turn and look at the person of color. And that’s incredibly alienating.

Musa Al-Gharbi

Al-Gharbi also noted that some Black students feel like they’re asked to tell a story about themselves when applying to schools, scholarships, and grants that positions them as representative of a particular Black experience—coming from a disadvantaged background, overcoming adversity, committed to social justice.

Even if Black students are actually middle class or upper middle class, they’re still expected to master this narrative, Al-Gharbi said. “If you have views that don’t conform to that narrative, you might feel like you’re jeopardizing your place within the institution,” Al-Gharbi said, which makes Black students wary of having open conversations about race. 

In his opening remarks, Jackson reminded viewers why the issue of campus free speech matters—and particularly, why it matters right now.

“With tribalism and nationalism increasing outside the academy, colleges have an essential role in shoring up the future of liberalism by fostering productive dialogue, independent thinking, and inclusive communities,” Jackson said. 

If you believe in the higher purpose of the university, you should be concerned about the questions raised by FIRE’s report. For those of you whose academic work focuses on free speech and open inquiry, like mine, we’ll be discussing today how you might apply these findings to your own work.

-Bradley Jackson

Watch the full conversation here and read the report here. Also, read Sean Stevens’ post-event blog post answering submitted audience questions here.   

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