University course on ‘Problem of Whiteness’ shines light on free speech, hypocrisy

A University of Chicago student tweeted that a yet-to-be-taught course was ‘anti-white,’ the instructor was bombarded with hate mail and death threats.

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CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 30: A Pedestrian walks through the Main Quadrangles (Quad) on the Hyde Park Campus of the University of Chicago on November 30, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The university president closed the campus today after the university was informed by the FBI that a threat of gun violence was made against the school specifically mentioning the “campus quad”. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 594158247

A Pedestrian walks through the Main Quadrangles (Quad) on the Hyde Park Campus of the University of Chicago on Nov. 30, 2015.

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College, for those of us fortunate enough to attend, is supposed to be a time of debate and discourse.

Worldviews are constantly challenged on campus, both inside and outside the classroom. Students should learn to question authority, and debate and express their objections to everything from foreign policy to their school’s handling of sexual assault allegations.

Students’ right to protest on college campuses and exercise their free speech are essential to democracy and learning.

Attempting to silence controversial figures goes against that tradition.

When Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart editor and far-right commentator, came to DePaul University in 2016, protesters stormed the stage and snatched the microphone from the moderator’s hand, abruptly ending the event. Three years later, demonstrations over former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ appearance at Northwestern University prompted a larger public discussion on free speech and the freedom of the press. 

Editorial

Editorial

Some conservatives complain that such efforts to “cancel” them on college campuses are unfair and anti-American, describing their critics as sensitive “snowflakes.”

But “cancel culture” works both ways. Freedom of expression should as well.

It’s hypocritical to claim victimhood on one hand, while simultaneously trying to silence your opponents on the other.

Take the case of University of Chicago sophomore Daniel Schmidt, who, as WBEZ’s Nereida Moreno reported recently, has raised issues with a class — that hasn’t even been taught yet — which he has insisted is “anti-white.”

Schmidt aired his grievances on Twitter, piecing together a thread that included the bio and university email of teaching fellow Rebecca Journey, who will lead the course titled “The Problem of Whiteness.” Schmidt’s Twitter thread went viral, igniting a misinformation campaign among right-wing media outlets that spiraled into online attacks against Journey, including death threats.

Journey, who has a doctorate in anthropology from the U. of C., still plans to teach the now-postponed course in the spring, according to the university newspaper The Chicago Maroon.

Meanwhile, Schmidt took offense at Journey’s claim that it was his Twitter thread that sparked the “targeted cyberbullying campaign.”

“Read my original thread yourself,” Schmidt tweeted to his nearly 32,000 followers last week. “I never once called for cyberbullying or attacks on this professor. This is deliberate smearing designed to scare me away from calling out blatant anti-white hatred. I won’t stop.”

Schmidt has a right to speak out, though he should at least know what he’s talking about if he expects to be taken seriously. Read the course description, for one, which states that the seminar is an examination of “the problem of whiteness through an anthropological lens.”

“The class is emphatically not about ‘the problem with white people,’” Journey said.

Schmidt also ought to remember that the university he attends has a reputation for taking free speech seriously, a stand we support. Any institution of higher learning should do the same. A university should not be an echo chamber of cookie-cutter ideas.

We recommend Schmidt read the three-page statement that the U. of C.’s Committee on Freedom of Expression released a few years back.

“Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict,” the statement reads. “But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Schmidt may not have enough intellectual curiosity to challenge himself by taking Journey’s course, but he has no right to misrepresent it or keep her from teaching it.

Calls for the cancellation of similar courses are nothing new. In 2016, a University of Wisconsin-Madison course also titled “The Problem of Whiteness” prompted backlash. The year before, an assistant professor at Arizona State University was subjected to death threats for his course called “U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness.”

If such courses can help young people better understand America’s fraught racial history, more students, including Schmidt, should take them.

“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think,” as former U. of C. President Hanna Holborn Gray has said.

A U. of C. spokesman cited federal privacy protections when asked if Schmidt faces any disciplinary action, adding that the school protects freedom of expression while maintaining prohibitions against harassment, threats and other misconduct.

A true college experience requires both.

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