Why did the one straw break the camel’s back / here’s the secret / there’s a million underneath it.”– Yasiin Bey (Mos Def); “Mathematics.”
I remember during my first year at Occidental College when a professor and mentor of mine, Kenjus Watson, lead a weekend workshop on racism. One of the students, an older white male, acknowledged his unwillingness in not wanting to talk about racism in fear of “creating tension” between him and peers of color (Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, etc.,). Then, one of my good friends (and a current organizer) Ben responded, “The tension was already there, whether you want to say something or not.”
That statement has stuck with me since that year because of its profound truth. Racism is neither a ghost of another time nor a demon that causes chaos at the mere utterance of its name. Instead, White supremacy is a man-made machine whose political manifestation leeches from the life force of all communities, especially those of color. Ignoring the dangers of race-based oppression does a disservice to everyone, as it allows for real-life structural and interpersonal violence to continue against communities of color.
A lot has been said and written about the recent wave of activism on the campuses of the University of Missouri (Mizzou), Yale, Berkeley, and a plethora of others the past week. The topics of these conversations range from structural racism at Predominantly White Institutions to first amendment rights and “political correctness.” These conversations reminded me of the time I spent as a student activist at Occidental College, simply because our stories are eerily (and not coincidently) similar.
Just as it is the duties of intellectuals to understand the realities of racism, it is equally the obligation of activists to combat its pernicious effects. As an activist, and one of several student co-founders of the Coalition at Oxy for Diversity and Equity (C.O.D.E), I understood that we needed to challenge the administration into investing in a multicultural campus. Despite what some critics suggest, we also understood that there wasn’t any “safe space” on campus, which is precisely why we organized in the first place.
At the time, there were very little parameters that would ensure a safe and equitable space for all students on Oxy’s campus. There are fewer undergrads of color than in the years past. These same students (particularly Black and Brown undergrads) reported harassment and profiling by some Campus Safety officers. The multicultural hall slowly eroded into one that cared almost nothing about diversity as the semesters passed. Cultural clubs such as the Black Student Alliance (BSA), La Raza, and Asian Pacific Americans for Liberation (APAL) were not getting the institutional support that other non-cultural clubs seemed to enjoy financially. Many faculty of color, who were already severely underrepresented on campus, were stuck in adjunct positions and let go if they challenged administration. Finally, there was no office of diversity (which is common at many liberal arts colleges) to ensure that there were adequate structures to address all the ills listed above.
As my friend said all those years ago, the tension had been brewing. The straws and their immense weight were crushing the camel’s back.
Figure 2: Students demonstrating on Yale’s campus. Philipp Arndt Photography
CODE challenged administration for much of my senior year into making sure our demands were met. We received a lot of backlash from both administration and the student body who decried us as “oversensitive,” “PC,” and “agitators.” Occidental was already dealing with the protests and national media coverage of on-campus sexual assault. As such, a great deal of administrators and the students already had assumptions about us and were unwilling to listen to what we had to say, which in turn created more frustration that lead to more dramatic action. Sometimes, it is not enough to be “polite” to those who are unwilling to listen and lie to you about the struggles you endure. At times, one has to speak truths to power and implement “impolite” action strategies at the expense of other’s comfort.
I learned the hard way just how mind numbingly slow and torturous the process of positive change often is. There were times that I would sit across from people (students, faculty, and administration alike) who actively denied the existence of my experiences, labeled me as “oversensitive,” and slurred me as an “affirmative action student” or a “reverse racist.” I witnessed my institution let professors of color go (like Xuan Santos [whom I mention in my speech]) who criticized the college for its failure to properly address racism; this only infuriated me further, as I felt my right to speak out was less protected than I previously imagined. The last thing I ever felt was “coddled.”
At many points, I felt like screaming towards and physically shaking my opponents until they could fully understand the magnitude of my frustrations. However, it felt as if I was talking to an empty void. My patience waned with administration’s unwillingness to truly listen to our concerns. All the while, my fury grew as I heard younger students of color feel neglected by their professors, invalidated with racial slurs, and feel lonelier at Oxy. At various moments, I felt as if the very struggle for a multicultural campus was utterly meaningless as nothing would change no matter what I said or did.
Judging by what we are seeing with Black student activist groups such as Concerned Student 1950 on Mizzou as well as a plethora of other students (including my alma mater just recently) protesting their administration, their struggles are not that different from our own.
Figure 3: Student protestors w/ President Veitch at Occidental College November 12th. Cred: César Martínez
Like groups that exist outside the academy such Black Lives Matter, the Dream Defenders, and the Fight For 15 laborers, student activists across the country are channeling their frustration with their school’s administration by utilizing their 1st Amendment rights of free speech and assembly. These students are tired of hate speech on campus, having their culture and skin color mocked in the form of costume, and monuments that honor Confederates and their ideological godfathers. Moreover, Black students are tired of receiving death threats for expressing their viewpoints.
Contrary to what many pundits are saying, the activists are neither irrational angry anarchists nor are they being manipulated by “white liberal hipsters.” To propagate either is to continue the ugly traditions of making fallacious claims that Martin Luther King Jr. as an outside agitator who hates white people, that Black Lives Matter is a racist terrorist group, and that anyone who fights against white supremacy are somehow “reverse-racist.” Moreover, these tensions did not emerge from some abyss of “coddled millennial oversensitivity.” Rather, the conflicts over racism have been brewing since the integration of these institutions, finally bubbling to the surface as a result of social media and renewed mainstream media interest.
Activism, regardless when and where it’s situated, is necessary to keep people in positions of power accountable to all citizens within a democracy. The process is often messy and mistakes will be made on the activists’ part, thus inviting both fair and unfair criticism. There will be conflict regarding strategy and ideology that might estrange others from participating. Hell, there might even be groupthink and contradictions within logic that will have to be addressed within these same groups. They will stumble at times and outright fail in certain aspects of organizing.
Yet, I will recall what Professor Watson, my old mentor, always told me whenever I was unsure of how to challenge an injustice: “when in doubt, do.” This quote reminds me that missteps are okay because activism is never perfect. Like any other activity or profession, it requires tremendous evolution and growth on the part of the organizers if they are to achieve their goals.
While the process of achieving social justice in our precious academic institutions is often unpleasant, the benefits of attaining it are invaluable to all students. Campus police should not harass black and brown students, Jewish students should not be subjected to swastikas, and faculty should be more diverse to include a greater range of perspectives in scholarship. I would have enjoyed my own collegiate experience if I did not have to endure racial hostility and the campus’s seeming unwillingness to engage in action around racism. Although I doubt that spaces will be 100% “safe” from bigotry and intolerance, the idea of a campus where people of color can thrive or fail just as easily as their white counterparts is worth the struggle.
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