Take a cue from Ralph Ellison: Don't demean minority students by overprotecting them

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tags: Black History, Black lives matter



Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education." Thumbnail Image - blacklivesmatter.com

In a 1967 interview, the African American novelist Ralph Ellison denounced the commonplace idea that blacks had been permanently "damaged" by slavery, segregation and institutional racism. Instead, Ellison insisted, blacks' survival in the face of discrimination and hatred demonstrated their strength and character.

"Any people who could endure all of that brutalization and keep together, who could undergo such dismemberment and resuscitate itself ... is obviously more than the sum of its brutalization," Ellison said. "I am not denying the negative things which have happened to us and which continue to happen, but I am compelled to reject all condescending, narrowly paternalistic interpretations of Negro American life and personality from whatever quarters they come, whether white or Negro."

Ellison would be appalled by our current moment on American campuses, where the damage thesis has returned with a vengeance. From Yale University and Ithaca College to the University of Missouri and Claremont McKenna College, black students and their allies are claiming that racist behavior — and administrators' weak response to it — are harming minorities' psychological health. They insist that overtly racist comments as well as "microaggressions" — smaller, day-to-day slights — take a psychic toll.

"I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns," wrote one student at Yale, where a professor's email about Halloween costumes triggered protests.

I don't doubt that African American students — and other minorities at our colleges — experience routine prejudice and discrimination. We live in a society that is riven by racial stereotypes, distortions and fantasies. As much as I'd like our campuses to be immune from all of that, I know that they are not. ...




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