Thomas Chatterton Williams joins a long line of whiners complaining that taking basic steps to make our public and academic life more inclusive is Just. Too. Hard. In his review, entitled “Does Our Cultural Obsession with Safety Spell the Downfall of Democracy,” he argues that it is “fraught” for marginalized people to object to the appropriation of their language or to the use of their bodies as metaphors. He describes an allegedly new generation of college students who “are ‘obsessed with safety,’ which they define to include expansive notions of ‘emotional safety.’” He asserts that this “safetyism culture” started when this generation “began arriving on college campuses in 2013.” These students apparently have the audacity to want respect, to want a classroom in which their existence, freedom, and standing as citizens is not open for debate. Oh the drama!
You want safe? I’ll show you safe. I’ll show you a truly fucking safe college experience — 89 years before 2013.
When it was time for my white, Christian, Southern,* formerly-wealthy-but-still-pretty-fucking-privileged, two-generations-away-from-enslaving-people grandfather to go to college, he found a very, very safe space.** In 1924 — according to a story my father often told*** — Yale College accepted the entire graduating class from Hotchkiss, my grandfather’s prep school. Talk about safety schools!
What Granddaddy found when he got to Yale must have felt very safe, too. His entering class of 823 students had (::checks calculator::) zero women. It also had:
- one (1) Black student;
- by my very unscientific count (*cough* lastnames *cough*) approximately 20 Jewish students;
- one Armenian-American (again, per my unscientific analysis of the guy’s last name);
- one Greek-American (same), and
- one (likely) Syrian-American (same).
The “Yale Freshman Yearbook” for the Class of 1928 claimed that the class included six “foreign” students, which turned out to be six white guys who happened to be living outside the country when they were accepted at Yale, for example, Willard Tisdel Hodgsdon from Guatemala, and George Robert Carter, Jr. from Hawaii (remember the year!). And of course a token Canadian — so diverse! There were no students with names that appeared to be even remotely Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malaysian, Vietnamese, etc.).
If the Yale class of 1928 was not safe enough for Granddaddy, he could always retreat to his fraternity or, if that was still too diverse, to his “secret society,” Skull and Bones. There, I said it. A bunch of white guys with weird rituals whose childish need for safety, sorry secrecy, was so profound that my father warned us NEVER, EVER to so much as say the words “skull and bones” in front of my grandfather. Guess this made our family an “emotionally safe space” for Granddaddy.
This cocoon of unisex, monoracial safety was the default setting for the American university for most of our history. These white dudes did not have to encounter classmates with different gender, racial, cultural, or linguistic experiences. They did not have to worry that speakers invited to campus would call their very existence a “disease” or “a disorder comparable to sociopathy” or explain that they were genetically inferior to individuals of a different race.
Sometime between 1924 and 2013, colleges began to integrate. My guess is that, for much of that time, female and minority students were (and were expected to be) sufficiently grateful just to attend college in the first place that they did not dare or did not know how to demand a space that respected their existence. By the time I started college in 1978, we were griping about the white male canon and marching for divestment from apartheid. Even then, though, I don’t think we gave much thought to how welcoming we were to students of different backgrounds.
But let’s examine the whole “safety” thing from a broader perspective. White people’s need to feel safe has given us lynchings, the modern police state, and BBQ Becky. A white woman felt emotionally unsafe in the presence of Emmett Till.**** His penalty was not cancellation of his speaking tour or criticism in the college newspaper. It was violent death at the hands of a white mob.
Do students from marginalized backgrounds demanding respect at university “spell the downfall of democracy.” Oh hell no. They will help us build a democracy that is truly democratic. But I’ll edit Williams’s question and answer in the affirmative. “Has White People’s Cultural Obsession with Safety Almost Spelled the Downfall of Democracy?” A resounding yes.
* I’m not really sure how he ended up with a Cambridge, MA address. I think I know the story, but it’s not really important. He was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a family with deep roots in the south.
** I hate telling this story. Granddaddy is not who I am. Within his generation, the family fortune was lost in the Depression and he was a very deeply flawed, highly entertaining failure. My father, also a privileged WASP, married my mother, the daughter of a middle-class Jewish family, and my public school upbringing in the DC suburbs was a far cry from Hotchkiss. But who am I really fooling? I went to a small liberal arts college that my aunt and uncle had also attended, and then to Yale Law School, which my father had attended. My path, too, was plowed by white affirmative action.
*** My father often told this story because he lectured widely on employment discrimination and specifically affirmative action. He would explain “you want affirmative action? Let me tell you about Yale’s admissions policies in 1924.”
**** Edited. I originally wrote, “Emmett Till made a white woman feel emotionally unsafe.” As Anita Cameron pointed out, Mr. Till himself did nothing. His accuser ultimately confessed that “she falsely testified he made physical and verbal threats.”