Discourse / Editorials / January 20, 2016

Activists work to change, not flaunt discomfort

To quote one of author Roxane Gay’s recent articles, student activism is serious business. During my time at Knox, I have seen students come together to push boundaries, hold protests and challenge social norms. The conviction, perseverance and even the anger of student activists here has radically transformed my own understanding of my identities. Yet at the same time, I have seen the same discouraging pattern arise time and time again: When students protest, petition and demand change at Knox, there is an inevitable wave of skepticism afterward.

The skeptical backlash is founded on the assumption that activists here are asking too much. When the ongoing Title IX reform campaign published a list of demands for change (as other students have done across the country), I heard some claim that the campaign was asking too much. When Black activists held a Black Lives Matter rally at last year’s MLK Convocation, Yik Yak predictably exploded with sarcastic remarks that Black students here are complaining about nothing. Over and over students here have formed truly remarkable coalitions against oppression, and then the skepticism ensues: Why are these students asking so much of our school? How are they going to function in real life if they can’t even handle being at Knox?

First of all, I’d argue, Knox is real life. Our school is not a magical getaway from “the real world” where we students vacation for a while before returning to reality; it is a microcosm of whatever the rest of our society is like. If students protest sexism here, it’s because sexism actually happens here. We protest because our activism efforts are greatly informed by our experiences both at Knox and in “the outside world,” and because this is a way of preparing for when we face larger-scale struggles after Knox.

Second, I feel that a lot of the skepticism at Knox hinges on the idea that activists are overly angry, that we feel we should get everything we want (in fact, I was told this by an administrator recently). Yet activist efforts here do not come from a place of entitlement; they come from a collective understanding of how we have been hurt. I myself have sat through countless meeting with administrators to discuss and resolve continuing problems of sexual violence and Title IX issues here, and wondered if in the midst of the uproar the truth was becoming obscured: Activists are angry, yes, but not because we have been coddled. It’s because we have been hurt. Then we have rallied, healed and demanded better.

Let’s also remember that if you observe the student anger around campus and don’t share in that same anger, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a more objective view than the rest of us (if I could be so blunt!). Rather, detachment is typically a luxury that only those in positions of privilege possess. Meaning, for example, if you believe the Black Lives Matter rally and march last term was “a bunch of noise,” I think it is important to question whether that perspective is fundamentally tied to white privilege. Ridiculing, ostracizing or even outright harassing activists who are attempting to call attention to their own lived experiences reveals privilege and complacency. As journalist Laurie Penny states, “One sure test of social privilege is how much anger you get to express without threat of expulsion.”

In the end, to reiterate, student activism is not entitlement, nonsense or a product of the “coddling” of younger generations. As students, young people and activists with tremendous access to social networks and unprecedented exposure to social injustice and reform, we are more aware than ever of how much the status quo needs to be challenged. If you are threatened by the activism at Knox, take a moment to ask yourself: Why do demands for change unnerve you? What experiences or identities may you have (or not have) that might preclude you from understanding the activism here? Can you say with sincerity that your stance on activism is empathetic to the experiences and identities of others?

Erica Witzig

Tags:  activists anger change erica witzig Knox College student activism Students understanding

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