As we jump to criticise those who want Rhodes to fall and advocate trigger warnings, we forget our compassion

As the only black student in my classroom, I recall sitting silently as unthinking and deliberate bigotry in literature and life were dismissed out of hand

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The Independent Online

There’s an insidious notion taking shape in western media; it holds that progressive societies have advanced enough. Articles like the The Coddling of the American Mind — an Atlantic article that went transatlantic — declared particular minority concerns on university campuses to be anti-intellectual, patronising and overly emotional.

It took issue with the concept of ‘trigger warnings’, a method used by rape survivors, taken up by minorities, to alert individuals to emotionally challenging content in what they are about to read or discuss. The media has declared experience a one-size-fits-all blanket and those who deign to say otherwise are caricatured and dismissed.

I was a student at Oxford, and as the only black student on my course in my College, I was subject to ‘jokes’ that I was admitted on the basis of my minority status rather than my academic ability. I was repeatedly called ‘coloured’, an outdated racist term, by one of my dearest friends. And on moving in with a black girl in my final year, I was asked if this was because we were both black, as opposed to simply being friends.

While individually minor, collectively these experiences have power; they tell me that I am not normal, I am an other, my experience is that of an other. Things that are normal to white people - being friends with people of their own race, working hard and being accepted onto a university programme - garner suspicion when attempted by me, and are indelibly tied to my skin tone. I do not have the luxury of being normal; no minority does. 

As an other I found myself in a class discussion where I couldn’t be objective. A discussion about the artistic merits of incredibly racist writing, about the necessity of questioning unconscious bigotry, can never be an abstract topic for me. As the only black student in my classroom, I recall sitting silently as unthinking and deliberate bigotry in literature and life were dismissed out of hand.

By singling out complaints about appropriation of pizza and sushi, food on university campuses with origins outside of America, the media reduces a debate about cultural appropriation and assimilation to a dismissal of the existence of cultural difference. The idea of being an other is reduced to flimsy examples, as though students are a homogeny of pure intellect, taking umbrage at lone instances of cultural ignorance. 

Consequently, going into a classroom, a place that should be ‘safe’ from the biases and indignities that minority life includes, to discuss issues that a minority simply cannot treat with objectivity, does require a warning. Call it ‘triggering’ if you must; I call it informative.

And those who cannot be bothered to engage with this discussion, I call lazy. Because a truly progressive society is not simply one where we stop physically oppressing one another; it’s one where we listen to each other.

It’s one where we bear our privilege as a responsibility — to empathise with those whose lives do not command the respect others do, to understand people who are frustrated with being made into a caricature. To strive to be accommodating of others, not complain of the marginal effort. To listen to others instead of telling them; to try and risk failure and then try again - because there is virtue, even, in failing better.