In the middle of September, students arrived on campus at the State University of New York at Buffalo to find “White Only” and “Black Only” signs plastered near elevators, water fountains, benches, and bathrooms. It was not immediately clear who put up the signs. But they summoned an era when segregation on the basis of skin color was the law of the land.

The backlash—on campus and across social media—was swift. The incident touched off a tense debate over racism and free speech that is still unfolding more than two months after the signs were taken down.

Ashley Powell, a black graduate student, created the signs as part of a project for a class offered by the Art Department. She says that reaction was exactly the point. “The signs are a reminder that just because you can’t see racism around you doesn’t mean it’s not there,” Powell said in an interview. “I wanted people to feel something. I wanted people to realize they must confront racism and fight against it in their daily lives.”  

But many students insist that what happened was unacceptable. Some activists demanded that the university take action to prevent anything like it from taking place again. “Arts are going to be controversial. But when it’s put on the wall, one should say this is art. So there must be a policy on the campus,” Satish Tripathi, the university president, told the student newspaper in early November.

The controversy has much in common with student uprisings on college campuses across the country. At stake are questions over how universities can promote inclusivity and counter discrimination while protecting free speech. It also feeds into a conversation centered on whether and to what extent academic institutions should shield students from subject matter that might make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. But the incident at the University at Buffalo adds new dimensions to a nationwide debate.

High-profile student protests at the University of Missouri and Yale University have often been depicted as a clash between university administrators and minority students seeking institutional change. The controversy at the University at Buffalo is a stark reminder, however, that conflicting ideas over how to reckon with racism on campus also create divisions among students. Consensus can be difficult to achieve even among activists fighting for a common cause.

Leaders of the Black Student Union say the art project incited fear and inflicted trauma. The signs, they allege, violated what should have been a safe space. Activists have used this logic to appeal for a policy that would ensure that art in public places does not threaten or intimidate. “I do think that the campus should be a safe space,” said Micah Oliver, a senior at the university and president of the BSU. “There is no space that I think shouldn’t be a safe space. Churches should be safe spaces, bus stops and train stations should be safe spaces. But the university is a special case. It’s not only where we work. For many of us, it’s where we live.”  

Still, other students have pushed back against the idea that the art made the campus unsafe. “I believe that the university is a safe space, but a college campus is not a place for comfort,” Powell said. “I question whether people are working off a romantic view of social change where everyone is happy and people don’t have to feel uncomfortable. They are saying they want a safe space but what they are really trying to achieve is a comfortable space.”

Activists who say the display crossed a line insist that they are not focused on the artist or her intentions, but are concerned instead with the impact of the project on students and the administration response. Nevertheless, the controversy highlights the fact that many students view free speech as a critical part of, and not a diversion from, conversations over race on campus. Yet even so, students don’t necessarily agree on what constitutes a threat to free speech.

Some students who took offense at the art project believe that a policy can be put in place that would protect the wellbeing of their classmates without infringing on First Amendment rights.

“I’m not here to stomp on anyone’s freedom of expression or tell anyone how to create art. I don’t want to limit freedom of expression for anyone,” Oliver said. “It’s not that students can’t experience a difficult conversation. Difficult conversations happen on campus all the time. But when students don’t feel safe, we stand against that. We’re thinking long-term about how to make the university better.”

Powell, on the other hand, insists that her art was effective precisely because it was not hidden away in a gallery or marked with a disclaimer. The point of her project, she says, was not to sugarcoat a difficult subject. (The Art Department supports her and opposes the idea of creating new guidelines around public art.)

“If the university dictates what topics can be discussed or mediates how they are discussed our individual voices will suffer from censorship. If that happens, I don’t believe we can create the critical intellectual conversations we need to have,” Powell said. “I don’t believe my art needed a warning. People who experience racism every day do not get warnings.”


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