Okay, here’s the thing. Here’s the thing about Ray Kelly’s speech at Brown. I don’t want to call out specific people here. I acknowledge that conversation around this issue has been tense, loaded, and heated. I also acknowledge that a variety of voices have allied themselves in the fight against Kelly’s speech, for which I am grateful.
But. BUT. I must also acknowledge the voices who wish to drown out the voices of oppressed communities. I need to process all the folks on my Facebook feed talking about how Brown students should not have shouted down and cancelled Kelly’s inevitably offensive, appalling lecture in List Auditorium today. I cannot see one more status pleading that we ask him hard questions; that we engage in discussion with one of the most lauded racists of our time; that we be more “open-minded” in pursuit of a campus community that embodies Brown’s values (whatever those are.) It makes me want to BREAK THINGS. Here is why.
Certain populations in this country are told that what they say deserves to be heard. Certain demographics are lauded for having strong opinions, for pushing the envelope, for speaking loudly and standing up for what they believe in.
Do you know who these people are? Guess. GUESS. (Hint: Not women. Not POC. Not LGBTQA+ people. Also, they look like a lot of the folks perpetuating anti-protest rhetoric on my newsfeed.) Now, please understand that I certainly recognize that my white privilege, my Ivy League education, and my strong personality empower me to speak and be heard in many situations. I am entitled to a platform in many communities, increasingly even on this blog and especially as I try to raise awareness of my writing and work. I believe that I deserve to be listened to, and that makes me entitled. I constantly examine this position, hoping to continually use this entitlement in solidarity with folks less privileged than myself. (And if you have constructive things to say about how this essay is not pursuant to that goal, please engage with me!) BUT.I was also taught my whole life that what I have to say is less important than what white men have to say. I was taught this by the media, by gender expectations, by visions of leadership that did not represent me or my female peers. I was taught: glass ceiling. I was taught: stay quiet. I was taught: make me a sandwich.
From what I have gathered and learned from my incredible friends and peers organizing an enormous effort to shut down Kelly’s lecture, my experience is not unique. Many of us in minority or oppressed communities feel that our voices are not valued. Some have, in recent years, been taught this in not-so-subtle fashion by the New York Police Department. Violence and oppression from the police is status quo in New York City today. I have felt this impact to an extent myself, having been exposed to sexism and verbal harassment from the very people allegedly keeping me safe. This state of fear is a direct result of Ray Kelly’s “proactive policing,” including stop-and-frisk.
It has taken me years to develop a sense of my voice, and to find comfort in speaking my mind. I find empowerment in feminist, activist, and anti-racist communities who echo and amplify messages that guide my decision-making every day. I work and aspire to one day claim those descriptors, myself. But despite the growth and proactivity of progressive communities, we are not living in an equal society. We are not living in a world where anti-racism is “the visible opinion,” as some horrible person wrote on Brown University Compliments. We live in a world where oppressed communities ARE OPPRESSED. THAT MEANS THEY ARE NOT LISTENED TO. And an auditorium at Brown University, though we so desperately wish to believe ourselves special and unique, is not absent the context of our not-at-all-colorblind society. I am not at all surprised that many folks opposed to Kelly’s policies didn’t even entertain asking him questions. Why? Because I was never taught that if I simply ask a well-thought-out question, someone in a position of power will listen to me. Because collective action, chanting, and protest is many communities’ only hope of being heard in a society that is simply unwilling to acknowledge their voices.
I don’t understand the logic that if those opposed to Kelly would just ask him questions, somehow some greater truth would be told. That is simply a privileged understanding of how politics and debate operates in our country.The only truth is the truth of human experience. And human experience in New York City, under the military control of the NYPD, is in desperate need of a new “visible opinion.” Human experience has showed us that stop-and-frisk is destroying communities and lives. Asking communities affected by or opposed to that policy to stay silent IS OPPRESSION.
I so wish we lived in a society where I could expect that, given a platform and time for Q&A, Ray Kelly could engage in conversation with students positioned against his racist policies. Unfortunately, as a New Yorker who is far too aware of the direct consequences of white male privilege, I strongly disagree that such a space could have ever been created today.
In sum, thanks to my Brown friends for fucking shit up.
By Leah Douglas, Contributor
This piece was originally published here.