Give Students Comfort and More During These Traumatic Times

Since Donald Trump was elected president, I have had discussions with several White, heterosexual, men who don't seem to understand the ramifications of Trump's election for others. By others, I mean people of color, immigrants, the LBGTQ community, religious minorities, women and various marginalized groups. In fact, one of my colleagues at Penn authored an essay entitled "Don't Patronize Students with Emotional Support for Trump Trauma," for the New York Daily News. In the essay, historian Jonathan Zimmerman tells colleges and universities, including their leaders, to stop comforting students regarding the emotional trauma they feel since Trump's election.

Zimmerman says to students mourning the election of Trump: "But I will not patronize you by canceling classes or offering you other kinds of emotional "support" for your "trauma." You are much more resilient than these psychological metaphors suggest. In the guise of "empowering" you, they reduce you to hapless-and hopeless-victims of circumstance. And they teach you all the wrong lessons about the world."

From an intellectual standpoint, I understand Zimmerman's arguments. I understand that my students have the power to stand up, push back, challenge authority and confront it. However, I also understand that the election of a racist, sexist, Fascist who represents and attracts a White Supremist point of view is scary, debilitating, and has a powerful impact on the learning and livelihood of my students.

The rhetoric of Trump and his followers is beyond politics; it is the rhetoric of hate. Trump unleashed the dogs from hell and with his election, they feel that they have a license to harm, ridicule, harass, and openly hate those that they deem different from them. Don't get it wrong, these individual have been here for decades but they now have a leader occupying the highest position in the land. This scares the hell out of anyone on the receiving end of this hate. The future of the United States has been high jacked by the older, White population of the country. These students across the nation have every right to be angry, afraid, and traumatized.

At my own institution, racists targeted our Black freshmen with vile text messages and a social media site hosting pictures of lynchings and other disgusting images. (1) My students are numb, broken, and yes, traumatized by this incident and the over 200 incidents happening throughout the nation as a result of Trump's election. They are also traumatized by the every day microagressions that tell them that they don't belong. However, being traumatized doesn't mean that my students are immobilized. I have never been prouder of my students as they rise up, protest, push administrators to do their jobs and speak out, and push back at faculty that don't understand how this kind of trauma feels. They are doing all of this while attending classes and being told that they don't matter and their concerns don't matter by the man who will be president. My students are not 'hopeless victims' - they are fierce, smart, activist role models who also happen to feel the pain of these traumatic times and the brunt of these vile incidents.

I stand behind these students. I may not be able to fully understand and grasp the experiences of all my students based on our different identities, but what I can do is believe them when they tell me they are afraid, lost, angry, and broken. We can disagree intellectually, but we can't tell people how they are feeling nor should we dismiss their feelings as being anything less than traumatic. It demonstrates an enormous sense of privilege to do so.

Whereas Zimmerman critiques presidents of colleges and universities for offering comfort in the midst of these heavy times, I commend them for their efforts and ask what else are they going to do? For too long, our college and university presidents have been in denial about racial issues and inequities on campus. Yes, they acknowledge the glaring incidents when they happen, usually issuing a statement, hopefully condemning such incidents, but not always. But how often do college and university presidents admit that many of the systems on our campuses reinforce racism, sexism and other inequities? How often do they review their own hiring processes at the administrative level to check to see if they are reinforcing these practices? How often do they review the landscape of faculty diversity, looking for implicit and explicit bias? How often do they think about the daily microagressions that so many students experience on college campuses? Lastly, how often do they think about ways to engender inclusion on campus rather than only numeric diversity?

If we can begin with messages of comfort to our students and communities, perhaps these traumatic times before us can lead to systemic change on our campuses that will truly empower and support all of our students. Until then and always, I am going to listen, believe, support, and comfort my students in their lives and learning process. I urge you to do the same. They are our future and our legacy.

1. Zimmerman penned his essay prior to this incident.