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Diversity courses, pronouns, and critical race theory. Inside a 'woke' US university

Some Danish politicians fear that universities will end up being as ‘woke’ as those in the United States. But what is really happening at US universities right now?

How do you speak up if a fellow student says something racist? What is the difference between biological and social gender? What should you do in situations where a man tries to get a young and drunk woman to go home with him against her will?

These questions are all part of four compulsory online courses on alcohol culture, mental health, diversity, justice, inclusion, and prevention of sexual abuse, that you have to carry out in order to become a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).

If you are fast, you can finish the courses in five hours total. Even though the questions are complicated, and do not imply a yes/no type of response, you still get a warning if you have a ‘wrong’ reply according to the test manufacturer. This warning then redirects you to the question or situation, which you then have to interpret once again.

Finally, you end up with a percentage score telling you exactly how woke you are. I have done the course myself because I took a semester at the university last year. It was clear that the courses are part of a larger inclusion and diversity strategy at UCSC. A strategy to support the students’ »many intersectional identities and thereby their development as students and as committed critical thinkers,« which the university writes on its website.

The courses at UCSC are examples of what some people call identity politics  — and what others describe simply as diversity.

In Danish political debates in recent years, US universities are portrayed as terrifying examples of how bad things can get. According to politicians like Henrik Dahl (Liberal Alliance) and Morten Messerschmidt (Danish People’s Party), the ‘wokeness’ across the Atlantic has gone off the rails, and is now in the process of wiping out all academic independence and freedom of speech in the process.  A trend that the politicians fear will soon hit Denmark, and a trend that they already see signs of in Danish academia.

But what are the Danish politicians so afraid of? Has the independence of research and the freedom of speech really been curtailed at US universities?

Conflicting considerations

At UCSC they want to be woke and safeguard academic freedoms at the same time. They certainly, like most other US universities, have a clear strategy on being diverse and inclusive.

They deem it important to admit students from minority backgrounds, and students with parents who do not themselves have a higher education. They have also hired renowned researchers within the feminism and critical cultural studies fields like Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing and Karen Barad. Every now and again, considerations of diversity and inclusion clash directly with the freedom of speech, if these specific utterances are considered to be hateful, sexist and racist.

In May 2021, for example, an open student meeting was held about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it went off the rails. A number of participants who were not affiliated with UCSC had been given access to the meeting via Zoom, and they expressed their hatred of Jews and Palestinians.

This turned into a big issue. In an email to all staff and students, the chancellor Cynthia K. Larive emphasised that even though it is the university’s core mission to guarantee freedom of speech, there are limits. She wrote:

»There is a difference between freedom of speech, which gives members of our society the opportunity to hear, express, and debate different ideas and points of view — and hate speech, which is primarily aimed at being hurtful, offensive or degrading.«

In the same email, Cynthia K. Larive urged students to report it to the university’s so-called ‘Hate/Bias Response Program’ if they witness so-called ‘bias’ in the future. The Hate/Bias Response Programme is a unit that gives students and employees easy access to lodge complaints, including through online forms.

Feminist stronghold

California is often described as if it is an independent nation in terms of progressive politics in the US. The state votes overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party in US elections and has the highest income taxes in the country. UCSC is particularly ‘far out’ in this connection, and is often portrayed as a university packed with stoned hippies and left-wing radicals. Here you have both a Feminist Studies Department and a Critical Race and Ethnic Studies department.

If there is any place where wokeness has gone haywire, it will be Santa Cruz. And there is no denying that people are quite progressive at this university, according to my own experience during my eight-month stay there, where I took courses in political science, anthropology and philosophy. This means specifically that you do things that are unfamiliar to most people in Denmark.

You always present yourself with your preferred pronoun in a round of introductions, for example.  This is partly due to the fact that some of the students identify themselves as queer, and do not necessarily want to be referred to as either ‘he’ or ‘she’.

It matters whether second-generation immigrants from Latin America are named Latino or Latinx, or whether it is called slaves or enslaved people (the correct answer is the latter).

They start a lot of lectures with the professor reading a ‘land acknowledgement’ statement out loud. This is a declaration that acknowledges the indigenous people who once lived in the large pine forests surrounding the campus.

The idea is that the initiatives should have more of the students feeling included, and that it teaches them to use critical concepts. According to the advocates of these initiatives, wokeness is an attempt to create respectful dialogue. It does not have costs in terms of academic freedom, only in terms of the effort made.

It can get out of hand, and you just have to hope that the best arguments will win in the end. I think they usually do.
Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther, Professor at UCSC

Difficult conversations

But not everyone sees it like this. In the United States, the experience that wokeness is curtailing freedom of speech has led to almost 80 universities endorsing the so-called Chicago principles. It states that universities should not limit the discussion of ideas, even though a majority of staff and students find these ideas to be unpleasant, offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong.

READ ALSO: Does Denmark need the Chicago principles? In the US, their success is still an open question

At the UCSC they have their own guidelines that closely resemble the principles. They appear on a separate website for freedom of speech on campus. A staff manual states that students and staff need to be able to express »the widest spectrum of points of view in accordance with the standards of scientific study and professional ethics« in the classroom. It is also made clear that neither students nor staff are allowed to stop speakers from presenting on campus, even though they say something that is perceived as hateful or offensive, as long as what is said is within the framework of the law.

Most US universities have, for a long time, had their freedom of research and speech formally enshrined, either in the form of Chicago principles or similar guidelines. But the criticism from the right is that the campuses are nevertheless pervaded by so-called ‘cancel culture’. This means, in practice, that it is not possible to say out loud what you mean because teachers and students are ‘cancelled’, or the object of complaints if they have unpopular opinions or use the wrong pronoun.

The fear of making a fool of yourself in a culture of debate like this can be seen at UCSC. At the beginning of a course, many professors, emphasise that we need to be welcoming and forgiving of each other’s opinions and arguments.

This is stated directly in the syllabus of one of my courses called ‘Blue Humanities’. Under the heading »difficult conversations,« you can read the following:

»Sometimes we make mistakes when we speak and when we listen. Sometimes we need patience, or courage, or imagination, or several qualities in combination to engage with our texts, our classmates and our own ideas and experiences. We will always need respect for others.«

My professor on this subject is called Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther. For almost fifteen years, he has worked as a philosopher and science theorist at UCSC and has been affiliated with the world-renowned ‘History of Consciousness’ department, which Donna Haraway, Angela Davis, Hayden White and James Clifford helped set up. He is, incidentally, a Dane, lives in Copenhagen, and is currently live streaming his teaching these days via Zoom. But he has mostly taught in-person at UCSC.

When I call Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther, he is on a balcony in Nørrebro. He is convinced that neither the independence of research nor the freedom of speech is threatened in the US. But he has experienced students getting very angry with each other in his course on race philosophy. Not because they disagree over the syllabus, even though this, for example, is about more unpopular understandings of race. But sometimes the students just get very annoyed with each other, he says:

»It has happened more than once that two very talented students have each written to me individually, and said that they find that the other is not sensitive enough, or has said something irritating and ‘slightly racist’ etc. I answer all these emails, or ask the students to show up during office hours. That’s where I listen. Because it’s extremely important to listen. And you can often can find a solution.«

Apart from listening, Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther speaks about the debate culture when a new course is started, he says.

»It has helped to have it put it in the syllabus and to have actually spent some energy explaining it, and saying: Hey, we have to be a little more aware of how we talk to each other and what we think. This may seem like a bit of a cliché, but I think it has an effect,« he says.

In this way, according to Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther, you can easily solve the disputes that some Danish politicians are so afraid of. Even in the most woke courses in one of the most progressive universities in the US.

Widespread self-censorship

At this exact moment, far away from the West Coast, more specifically at the University of Virginia in the American South, they are discussing ‘cancel culture’.

In March this year, the student Emma Camp had a piece in the New York Times which went viral. It was about how the debate environment at the university had been curtailed by extensive self-censorship. She found that her fellow students were scared of being criticised, or the object of reprisals, if they voiced an unpopular opinion openly.

Emma Camp called on universities to resist students’ demands to cancel controversial speakers. She also wrote that they should remove the ‘Bias Response Teams’ that are found throughout the US.

Many lectures start with the professor reading a 'land acknowledgement' statement out loud. This is a declaration that acknowledges the indigenous people who once lived in the large pine forests surrounding the campus.
Drude Morthorst Rasmussen, exchange student at UCSC

Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther does not believe that he censors himself, neither as a researcher or as a teacher. In fact, it is extremely important for him to present a wide range of interpretations and arguments about, for example, race research, he says. The fact that he does not censor himself is perhaps also because he, as a researcher, has spent a considerable amount of time and energy thinking about how he communicates.

But he understands  that the current academic environment is more difficult to navigate as a young student:

»I can understand the student from the University of Virginia. When you are 20 years old, you can get to say all sorts of things. And in a culture where everything has to be politically correct, it cannot always be easy, even if you have the best intentions,« says Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther.

Can you cancel ‘cancel culture’?

Interestingly, the University of Virginia has already signed up for the Chicago principles.

Emma Camp’s experience therefore raises the question: Do declarations and rules make a difference to the students in their daily lives? In other words: Can you legislate your way out of ‘wokeness’ and ‘cancel culture’?

Some politicians also want to go further than just write declarations. Another solution — proposed by right-wing politicians in both Denmark and the US — is to ban research and teaching in gender and race completely.

This has already taken place in some parts of the United States. In several US states, primary schools are not allowed to teach about homosexuality or LGBTQ-related subjects. In other places, critical race theory has been deleted from the syllabus, because it is considered illegitimate science. This means, in practice, that in several states you cannot discuss bias, privileges or discrimination in the teaching.

In Denmark, Henrik Dahl (Liberal Alliance) and Morten Messerschmidt (Danish People’s Party) have criticised Danish gender and migration researchers for carrying out activist and pseudoscientific research.

Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther does research on race questions from a philosophical point of view. He disagrees with the criticism raised by the two Danish politicians:

»Henrik Dahl and Morten Messerschmidt are mistaken in their assertion that there is no freedom of speech and independence of research at US universities. There is,« says Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther.

Research into fundamental categories like gender, race and class can easily exist without giving up on the independence of research, he says. In his own field, time and space are given to the minority of researchers who believe that race – at least partially – can be justified biologically and genetically, and that race is not purely a social construct.

But even though the university safeguards staff and their research independence, there is social pressure from colleagues and students, according to Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther’s experience. A number of researchers receive complaints from students, and this can have serious consequences.

Yet Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther insists that there has been a need to face up to what he calls a »white cis male dominated« culture at universities. Wokeness, in other words, has been important in order to get a better university, he says.

»It’s been a bit of a painful process that we have to go through sometimes. But I think it’s important that we do it. It can get out of hand, and you just have to hope that the best arguments will win in the end. I think they usually do.