By Margot Rosenblatt
I never thought that the Caribbean island of Antigua, of all places and things, would embody so well my apprehension of coming to Scripps College. Orientation was like Antigua; the light was blinding and as an East Coaster, the palm trees were a novelty. I remember being one of 250-strong first-year Scrippsies, packed in a line, three by three, marching in a herd towards Garrison Theater. It was time for yet another presentation, yet another lecture. They were all the same to me.
All I knew about this particular lecture was that I was required to be there. As the chatter died down we turned our attention to the line of older students on stage. The dean in front of them informed us that we were about to witness some skits about sensitivity on campus; the first skit was on “problematic speech.”
Two older girls took the stage. Lips to the microphone, they set the scene: a history class discussing British colonialism in Antigua. The first girl said something along the lines of “colonialism was bad for Antiguans.” The second girl said roughly, in admittedly-insensitive manner, “parts of colonialism were good for Antiguans. It raised some objective measures of standards of living, such as access to clean water.”
The scene stopped. We drew a collective breath, knowing what was coming; the dean explained why the second girl’s speech was “problematic”—it was disrespectful to Antiguans, and we are still living with the effects of colonialism today. The second girl should have used “correct” speech to be more sensitive to those people. “Speak as if there is a survivor in the room,” said the dean. We proceeded to learn how to address problematic comments such as the one demonstrated.
We didn’t end there; we then learned how to apologize and retract an insensitive argument, shown by the second girl in the Antigua scene apologizing and agreeing with the first girl. Colonialism, it was decided, was in fact bad.
The dean moved on to other topics, but my head was reeling. I had seen this before. Two summers ago, at a grassroots activism training seminar, we talked about self-policing. Self-policing is exactly what it sounds like: neighborhoods policing themselves as a means to cut down on racial profiling and brutality in policework. Being new to the topic, I began to ask questions: how would these local police be trained? How would this system interact with federal and state governments? Would there be neighborhood-specific prisons? Instead of answering these completely relevant queries, my fellow trainees went on the defensive. One of the seminar leaders took me outside the room to tell me that I was being “problematic,” and that I should apologize. Later, I heard them gleefully proclaim that I was “cancelled.” In that moment, I was the second girl, an example of what not to do at Scripps.
I agree with the message I believe the dean was trying to get across: don’t be racist, and try to be sensitive. I try at all times to “speak as if there is a survivor in the room.” However, the message that did get across was that we should not voice opinions if they disagree with the established narrative. What bothered me wasn’t that the first girl was offended, it was that the administration’s skit threw out the second girl’s argument like it was a bad apple that didn’t deserve to be even a small slice in the pie of our learning experience.
It goes without saying that in college, we should be able to voice our opinions, even if they are ill-informed. My chemistry professor likes to talk about what she calls the “performance zone” and the “learning zone.” The performance zone is where the goal is minimization of mistakes and application of knowledge. In other words, you don’t try to improve in the performance zone. The “learning zone,” as you may have guessed, is the opposite—you put all your effort into learning and make no effort to minimize mistakes. With the exception of tests and presentations, class should be in the learning zone. We should go into classroom discussions with the assumption that no one is trying to offend anybody, that we’re all just trying to learn. That’s what being open-minded means. No student should be labeled as a racist, sexist, or “not actually a Scripps student” (this happened to me) and such, for voicing a half-baked opinion in the learning zone.
Scripps has a reputation as being very liberal and close-minded to other opinions; when all is said and done, I don’t believe that this is true. In my CORE I class I have voiced some opinions akin to what the second girl said, and I have been treated with complete civility every time. I have had to venture off campus to talk politics with people who lean farther right than me (and I’m fully a liberal), but that’s all right. In my limited experience, Scripps students in general will engage with any thought-out argument, even if the Scripps administration doesn’t. So here’s my call to action for my fellow Scrippsies: say what you’re thinking. It’s up to us to show the administration that we are mature enough to learn from ideas from across the political spectrum. It’s up to us to change our reputation and culture, and it’s to everyone’s benefit if we do.