This article contains explicit and potentially offensive terms that are essential to reporting on this situation.
Leda Fisher didn't waste any time getting to the point in her recent essay in The Dickinsonian. The title was "Should White Boys Still Be Allowed to Talk?"
"When you ask a question at a lecture, is it secretly just your opinion ending with the phrase 'do you agree?'" asked Fisher, a senior at Dickinson College, at the start of her piece in the student paper. "If so, your name is something like Jake, or Chad, or Alex, and you were taught that your voice is the most important in every room. Somewhere along your academic journey, you decided your search for intellectual validation was more important than the actual exchange of information. Now how do you expect to actually learn anything?"
Fisher added, "From classes and lectures, to the news and politics, there is an endless line of white boys waiting to share their opinions on the state of feminism in America, whether the LGBTQ+ population finally has enough rights, the merits of capitalism, etc. The list of what white boys think they are qualified to talk about is endless … White boys spout the narrative of dominant ideologies and pretend they’re hot takes instead of the same misleading garbage shoved down our throats by American institutions from birth."
The willingness of white male students to dominate discussions extends to those in which they may not have personal knowledge, Fisher wrote. "I cannot describe to you how frustrating it is to be forced to listen to a white boy explain his take on the black experience in the Obama era. Hey, Brian, I’m an actual black woman alive right now with a brain. In what world would your understanding of my life carry more weight than my understanding?"
She closed her piece by saying, "So, should white boys still be allowed to share their 'opinions'? Should we be forced to listen? In honor of Black History Month, I’m gonna go with a hell no. Go find someone whose perspective has been buried or ignored and listen to them, raise up their voice. To all the Chrises, Ryans, Olivers and Seans out there, I encourage you to critically examine where your viewpoints come from, read a text that challenges you without looking for reasons to dismiss it and maybe try listening from now on."
The debate Fisher was seeking did take off -- and not just at Dickinson.
Breitbart and others denounced her. Fox News featured the column in a segment titled: "Have American universities become breeding grounds for anti-white hate?" Hundreds (most of them with no apparent connection to Dickinson) signed a petition calling for the college to expel her, and accusing her of having "spewed censorship, bigotry, racism and hatred." Others criticized the college for not doing so or for not preventing the newspaper from publishing the piece.
Hundreds of comments came in to The Dickinsonian. Some engaged in Fisher's arguments. Many said that she was trying to silence white men from speaking in class, and that view was racist. Some said her use of stereotypical white names was demeaning. Some parents of (white) Dickinson students wrote in to say that they feared for their children's ability to be treated equally. Others expressed their disagreement in ways such as this: "You people are freakin nuts … deranged … and VILE [sic]."
Fisher did not respond to an email request for a comment. She told The Carlisle Sentinel that she stood behind her piece. “I don’t regret how I wrote the article or the tone I took,” she said. “If anything, backlash to how angry or dismissive I seem just reveals how limited the range of acceptable emotion for a black woman is.”
Some minority students at Dickinson have been on edge after the posting of Ku Klux Klan leaflets in Carlisle, Pa., where the college is located. And the Fisher essay has added to a focus on racial issues at the college.
Fisher's mother, in a post among the hundreds of comments on her daughter's essay on the student newspaper's website, commented on the general environment for a black student who speaks out: "My daughter’s critics operate in the context of the national response to her op-ed in venues like Breitbart and internet forums such as 4chan. All of the responses prove the point of her piece.
"Sorry, not sorry that you cannot understand that my daughter is a little bit angry because she lives in a world where she is now being called a ‘fat kike mulatto pig’ ‘who will be hunted down and killed in the coming purge.’ Sorry, not sorry to the Dickinson mother who notes she fears for her white son in both the Dickinsonian and the Breitbart comment sections. My black child attends school on a campus in a town in which the KKK is handing out fliers. Where’s your outrage there? You think 4chan is a marginal group to which my daughter has no exposure? Individual female Dickinson students are known and discussed there. My daughter’s photograph is amplified there. The KKK is active there in cyberspace and there, up close and personal, in Carlisle."
The college has held several public forums for students on the issues raised by the piece (and of racial issues generally, in the wake of the Klan leaflets in town). Margee M. Ensign, the president, has defended the right of Fisher to have her views and of the student newspaper to publish them.
"I have heard from many of you about an opinion piece in The Dickinsonian. First, let me remind you that The Dickinsonian is a student-run newspaper that has editorial control over its content. It expresses the opinions of its writers -- it does not speak for the college," Ensign wrote. "Let me be clear. Dickinson believes in free speech. We also condemn stereotyping and prejudice. Dickinson values inclusivity. We expect our community members to engage in thoughtful dialogue and believe that no group or individual should be silenced. It is a fundamental policy of the college to respect pluralism and to promote civility and mutual understanding." Ensign did not express an opinion one way or the other on Fisher's views -- and has been criticized by Fisher's supporters and critics for not doing so (in ways they would approve of).
In response to inquiries, the college send out this statement widely: "Dickinson is a microcosm of the nation. Our campus community is composed of individuals who hold varied beliefs, opinions and life experiences. We engage in the hard work every day that is necessary to become a more inclusive community. This work is ongoing."
Some Dickinson students have followed Fisher's piece with essays of their own, defending her and saying that she was never truly trying to prevent white male students from talking in class, only to use satire and rhetoric to get them to think.
"Even if the article truly wished for all white men to be silent forever (which seems to be the goal only if you naïvely take its satirical tone literally), the author does not have the power to enforce this," wrote one student in an essay. "There is no actual threat on this campus to the domination of white, male voices. It is not that white men should never speak, or shouldn’t speak on issues of race and gender. It is that they are already speaking, and speaking so much that other voices -- often more relevant voices -- do not have the chance to be heard."
Julie J. Park, associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of Race on Campus: Debunking Myths With Data (Harvard Education Press), said that she was not surprised that the essay has set off a debate. But she also said that the feelings Fisher expressed are far from unique.
"The piece probably reflects frustration about the racial climate at her campus," Park said. "This type of frustration is not uncommon among students of color at predominantly white institutions."
And indeed the issue of male or white domination of classroom conversations has been raised by others, as has the issue of favoritism toward white males in class. A 2018 study by Stanford University researchers found that instructors online, to the extent they are aware of the race and gender of students, are more likely to respond to the comments of white male students than of others.
In Inside Higher Ed's annual survey of provosts, one question is about the relative comfort levels of different groups of students in the classroom. In this year's survey, 93 percent of provosts said that white students "generally feel welcome in classrooms on my campus." The figure fell to 62 percent when asked about minority students. (Similarly, provosts felt more confident of liberal students' comfort in their classrooms than about conservative students.)
A 2014 research study in the journal Life Sciences Education explored women's class participation in introductory biology classes for students in the biology major. The prompt for the study was that biology, though previously a field in which a majority of students were male, now has a female majority of students. In the study of 23 courses, the analysis found that women made up 60 percent of the students, but 40 percent of those heard responding to questions posed by instructors in class.
Some faculty members, cognizant of patterns in which white male students dominate classroom discussions, advocate "progressive stacking," in which instructors call on students who want to talk in the reverse order that one might predictably do so, based on social biases.
A 2015 column in the student newspaper at North Carolina State University (which did not go viral as Fisher's piece did) was titled "Men, Stop Dominating Classroom Discussion."
Feeling ‘Invisible and Marginalized’
Raechele L. Pope, an expert on campus climate issues and efforts to promote inclusion in higher education, is associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University at Buffalo of the State University of New York. She said via email that numerous studies have found that male students tend to dominate classroom discussions. Pope said that there have not been many studies on the role of race in classroom discussions but that "there is some preliminary evidence that white students participate at a higher rate than students of color."
She said that Fisher's essay was similar to "sentiments or something similar from students of color throughout my almost 40 years working on college campuses and consulting on campuses across the nation." Many are frustrated, she said, when "white male students speak about the experiences of students of color even though that is not their life experience." That doesn't mean, Pope said, that anyone should be left out of the discussion. "Let me be clear, everyone can and should participate in discussions on race and gender. However, for those conversations to be successful and lead to greater understanding, it is important for people to speak about their own experiences and not speak for other people or make assumptions about the experiences of others."
Reading the essay by Fisher, Pope said, "I sense the frustration that many students of color attending historically white institutions feel about their experiences on campus and in the classroom. They feel invisible and marginalized. They are either not seen or asked to speak for their entire racial group. When they do speak up and share their own experiences, they believe their comments are often denied and or negated by many white students and faculty and told how people of color really feel. This can be maddening and disempowering. The negative -- even vitriolic at times -- and viral reaction to an op-ed by an individual college student in a small college newspaper is astounding. The way her voice is being drowned out by the loud and angry voices of others, some even calling for her expulsion, may, in fact, prove her point that there is no room for her voice and her perspective."