Believing in and supporting white supremacy is not just an opinion in the way that saying David Kaluuya deserves an Oscar is an opinion. White supremacists are responsible for harming, terrorizing and ending thousands of lives. Even seemingly small decisions to draw swastikas in the snow and invite Lucian Wintrich to speak spark controversy.
In his talk in the Dodd Center Wednesday afternoon titled “Confronting White Supremacy on Campus: Epistemic Disobedience, Free Speech and Protest,” A. Kayum Ahmed discussed the complexities, ironies and paradoxes in the current free speech and hate speech debate.
Ahmed is a doctoral fellow at Teachers College at Columbia University and an adjunct faculty member at Columbia Law School. Prior to this, he was the Chief Executive Officer of the South African Human Rights Commission where he “led a team of 178 colleagues to monitor, protect and promote human rights in South Africa, and oversaw the management of nearly 45,000 human rights cases,” according to the Dodd Center’s website.
During his time at Columbia, a white supremacist group was invited to speak. Upon hearing about this invitation, Ahmed lodged a formal complaint with the university. He argued that “the speaker’s invitation was a potential threat-- was a potential act of violence against black bodies and brown bodies on campus.” By using the established rules and regulations within the university, he hoped to start a conversation between the students, Columbia and the college’s Republicans.
Columbia responded by saying they could not take action until some act of physical harm or violence had been committed. “They seemed to suggest that I needed to first be attacked, beaten, threatened, harassed before they would be able to take action,” Ahmed said, “but until that point, the university was a space where…the first amendment and free expression… was a foundational idea that the university had adopted.”
Throughout the talk, Ahmed made his argument by refuting many things that UConn President Susan Herbst said in December 2017 following the Wintrich incident. One thing Ahmed particularly disagreed with was how Herbst, as appears in many other civil rights discourses, referred to white supremacists and social justice groups as “two groups with opposing views.”
Ahmed argued this “blind neutrality” ignores the basis of white supremacy that says a black or brown body is worthless compared to a white body. He even goes as far as to say the university’s neutrality, which allows hate speech to masquerade as opinion, is “prepping us to live in a world of white supremacy. At these institutions, we are not taught to upend these patriarchal systems as we should be.”
Ahmed did not leave it there, though. Instead, he offered ways to combat this system of power. He advocated for building coalitions to find alternative ways to solve human rights issues, including the debate about freedom of speech; building a collective memory that does not ignore America’s slaughter of Native Americans and history with slavery; and practicing disobedience by questioning and breaking rules and laws that perpetuate injustice and inequality.
A graduate student in women’s, gender and sexuality studies who chose to remain anonymous thought the most important takeaway from the talk involved this topic of disobedience and of “thinking about the question of power and the differences in power between different groups of people engaged in free speech.”
“It is important to consider current people talking about white supremacy and advocating those ideas and that they have support in high level of government, including the president and Congress,” they said. “These important institutions are not challenging white supremacy.”
They emphasized being able to discern the difference between what is ethical and what is legal. Apartheid and slavery were both legitimized by law, but it took a lot of people questioning the system and realizing that “what is legal is not always moral,” they said.
Samantha Goyzueta, an eighth-semester psychology and human rights double major, expanded upon Ahmed’s points of how hate speech and identity are related.
“I definitely think the conversations that we had about how the first amendment is so vital, not only in terms of legal rights, but also how it partakes and implements itself into identity,” Goyzueta said. “I think that’s a very important conversation to be had because it’s not something that’s talked about. We don’t talk about it in a sense that, ‘Wait, this is what makes me American. If you take that away from me, then what am I left with?’”
Alex Taylor is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.