Based on my personal experience talking about race, and about conflicts on campus more generally, I expected that the activists I interviewed would be most comfortable voicing their opinions under pseudonyms. However, reactions were much more varied than I had anticipated. A few people strongly opposed my decision. One told me that she wanted the chance to be held accountable for whatever she expressed.
All of the interviewees who objected to having their identities concealed were white. This makes sense to me; white people are afforded the opportunity to be judged as individuals in this country with comparative regularity. I chose to go against their wishes and leave them essentially anonymous because I believe that in this particular context, their individual identities are not important. Sometimes race, gender and location are the only difference between life and death. These are the only data points I will include. 1
Rachel has been involved with anti-racist work since the second half of her first year, in 2013. This was a tumultuous moment in Swarthmore history, currently remembered as “the spring of our discontent,” during which a group of students circulated a much-debated referendum to end Greek life on campus, the college’s administration was accused of mishandling sexual assault and the Intercultural Center was urinated on. Many student activists chose to focus on reforming the college, but while Rachel facilitated a few workshops about affirmative consent, she was also busy honing her organizing chops in nearby Philadelphia. On the weekends, she and a good friend would take the train ($12 and half an hour, give or take 10 minutes) to meet with other student activists and community members in the city’s northeast corner. The neighborhood she began her work in is historically Black. It sits just north of Temple University, a 20 minute walk from the main campus, and has suffered low rates of employment for a long time now. Rachel’s first projects in the area were focused on environmental justice.
Early on, at a planning meeting, Rachel noticed that her optimism wasn’t always matched by the adults present. “Uh, so you gonna stick around or what?” she remembers community members asking her. They had already memorized the usual rhythm of activist involvement in their lives; each fall, new cohorts of young people would flood the organization, ready to revitalize the streets they walked daily, and soon enough, they would graduate quickly to more achievable pursuits.
Rachel and her friend responded to these doubts by making the community members a promise. “We will be here for four years. We can guarantee that we will be invested in this space for four years.”
Now Rachel is feeling more and more certain that she would like to move to Philadelphia after graduation and continue her work. Since she decided to commit herself fully to this community, she has dedicated a significant amount of time to educating herself about the issues it faces and to working to improve the situation in whatever ways she can. Rachel frames what she has to offer in terms of her lifelong history of excellent scholarship. “What my role has been is being there as support, and as someone who can lend skills to people that they don’t necessarily already have … I’m a trained learner, and I’ve also been socialized to believe that I’m entitled to answers to [my] questions.”
Rachel began her training (so to speak) in a highly-ranked public school district where she and most of the other students were white and from wealthy families. She always excelled in school, but in her adolescence, she began seeking out alternative sources of information about her surroundings. She found Tumblr, a microblogging platform, and began to explore important social issues through a newly dynamic, radicalized lens. The new access was exciting, but she was also never sure what to believe from what she read. When Rachel came to Swarthmore, she was glad for the chance to delve into these topics in the classroom. “Learning in that way is how I can legitimize my political beliefs,” she told me.
Rachel sometimes resents her education for taking so much time away from her work. She and her friends will joke about dropping out; a few have seriously considered it. Still, academia continues to influence both her thoughts and her actions. When we met for her interview, she’d printed me a paper by Beverly Daniel Tatum, a Black professor at Mt. Holyoke, on teaching white students about racism. I was to read it later, to contextualize everything we discussed. In the paper, Tatum explains, “Heightening student awareness about racism without also providing some hope for social change is a prescription for despair. We all have a sphere of influence, some domain in which we exercise some level of power and control. For students, the task may be to identify what their own sphere of influence is (however large or small) and to consider how it might be used to interrupt the cycle of racism.”
Rachel’s sphere of influence, as she conceptualizes it, extends beyond Swarthmore into North Philadelphia. Of course, the work she does would be impossible if she were going at it alone. Tatum’s paper discusses the need for white allies to have positive role models with whom they can identify. If most anti-racist research portrays white people only as enemies of the cause, what is the incentive for white students to take it seriously? Following this line of thought, Rachel’s friends at Swarthmore, many of whom are also white and involved in activist work, are in solidarity not just with oppressed people, but with each other.
Rachel stressed to me that the work she does is strengthened by long-term, interpersonal relationships. The successful organization of specific events is best accomplished by teams of people who have been thinking, living, striving together for years.
Michael Brown was shot on August 9, 2014, as the summer began to wind down. He died in Ferguson, Mo. The news described his town as a mixed-race, working-class suburb of St. Louis. It sits almost 1,000 miles west of Swarthmore, but up until the moment of his death, Brown had been living with the rest of us in that odd transitional state: “college-bound.”
School rhythms had to go on without him. On August 12, I would be Swatmailed the first of my syllabi for the semester. Ten days later, I would abandon my Penn sublet to its new tenant. Never mind Swat’s overgenerous policies on extensions — the pull of the academic calendar was as inescapable as the tides, and by September 1, we had all been swept up.
But the Swat bubble is semi-permeable, and around two or three weeks in, a series of red and Black lawn signs in the style of those used for political campaigns sprung up between the crocuses on Magill Walk. Each featured a silhouette (in profile), a name, an age and a place. They weren’t running for office. They had been killed by the police.
On September 26, a Friday, a Black-garbed crowd gathered outside of our dining hall to listen to Matthew Armstead ’08 talk about his experience in Ferguson during the protests that followed Brown’s death. He led chants. “I am! Mike Brown!” “We are! Mike Brown!” “No justice! No peace!” The crowd bubbled up and over the crest of the hill towards the amphitheater. Inside, speeches followed from several non-white faculty members. Then there was an open space for students to voice their opinions, which was unavoidable but mostly unproductive. The wind was calm enough to pass a flame. Everyone filed out. Armstead was singing a song whose words only he knew.
The group that put together the awareness campaign and protest is new to Swarthmore’s campus. It was organized by a group of friends, some Black and some not, and seeks to create space for intercultural, interdisciplinary dialogue around race issues on campus. Jordan is one of its founding members. He’s Black and originally from the Caribbean, but says that for him, national identification has never precluded identification with the African-American community. “We’ve both been colonized, just at different times and in different places,” he told me.
When the news broke of Michael Brown’s death, Jordan was upset but hardly surprised. This time, all of the coverage was sensationalized; white cop kills Black teen, riots ensue. For Jordan, these events just enacted the racial biases he faces every day. His group’s work last semester began with raising awareness of police brutality, a nationwide issue, but Jordan also wants to discuss problems specific to students of color at Swarthmore. For instance, the constant presence of college Public Safety means that interactions with municipal police are rare, yet even though P-Safe exists to protect Swarthmore students, Jordan often feels threatened when they issue campus-wide safety alerts. I looked up an old email to see what he was talking about, and found a sketch from a robbery on December 27, 2013: “The perpetrator is a Black male in his 20s with a beard and wearing a brown jacket and knit hat.”
“The description that they provide in those emails can really be attributed to any Black male on this campus,” says Jordan. “It’s interesting to see how we’re so quick to complain and shout about the general issues that go on, as a comment on a bigger thing — which is also important — but things like that, little things, like the wording of an email … those are direct issues that we just don’t think about … If we start holding Public Safety accountable the way that we want to hold police accountable at the general level, I think [activist efforts] will be more organic, to go from there.”
The population at Swarthmore College which identifies primarily as Black (rather than white, Asian, Hispanic or mixed race) is around 7 percent. Our eponymous town is also very non-Black, but the closest cities are very Black indeed: Chester at 75 percent and Philadelphia at 44 percent (the city’s largest demographic). Swarthmore has a long history of community service in Chester, but Jordan has a hard time trusting the school’s intentions when to him, it seems like the admissions office doesn’t fairly represent and work to retain Black students within its own, official sphere of influence.
Despite the gravity of Jordan’s concerns, other campus activists tend to view him as a moderate. His group has been criticized for providing a platform where non-Black people can speak on Black issues. While Jordan says that he understands his critics’ concerns, he doesn’t share in what he terms “a segregationist mindset.” He explained his own understanding of white allyship using a metaphor: racism as a wheelbarrow that’s too heavy to push. White people might notice it, but even if they should try to push it, their efforts would be futile. Lucky for them, they will always have the option to walk away. Black people have no choice but to keep pushing. Jordan believes that a good white ally shouldn’t look away from the work of pushing the wheelbarrow, but that all of their observations should be made “without trying to put yourself in their shoes — because you will never be in their shoes, ever. It’s a distraction. It’s valid to say, ‘You’re going through something I’m never going to understand, ever, but I’m going to try my best to support you.’”
Marc is one of the white allies who tries to support those pushing the wheelbarrow. He’s a first-year student from New York City who got involved with Jordan’s initiative after their first protest, when a classmate and friend of Jordan’s invited him aboard.
Marc arrived at Swarthmore ready to have more serious conversations about race. In high school, when he attended one of New York’s highly regarded test-in public institutions, he’d interacted mostly with white and Asian kids, who together formed over 90 percent of the student body. The underrepresentation of Blacks and Latinos is particularly striking if you consider that they make up 70 percent of the New York public school district. Discussing race in this context was difficult for Marc. Much of what he knew about the Black experience came from his English and history classes. The main demographic divisions at his high school were often class- and neighborhood-based. A lot of his Asian friends were hardworking first-generation Americans who disagreed with affirmative action.
As a white member of Jordan’s organizing team, it’s Marc who’s critiqued when the group is derided by other activists. But skepticism from bystanders doesn’t really faze him. His intention, as he describes it, is to listen to others’ experiences and do what he can to correct an imbalance which has dogged him throughout his entire education.
“I think one of the really important questions … for people who take part in social justice movements … is, ‘How can you chase constant improvement without believing that perfection exists?’” Marc told me. While he respects that most activists on campus hold one another to high standards, because they believe that it is through the highest standards that they will reach their goals, “I do think that correcting … should be done with the goal of improving situations, and not with the goal of personal, moral improvement.”
Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch announced the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson on November 24, 2014. From where I sat in the library’s basement, writing a paper due at midnight, I could see no one else tuning into the livestream, but within minutes Facebook friends had organized a moment of silence in our campus’ main building. Facebook’s preference-checking ghosts also sent me an ad for a protest occurring the next day at Temple University, in Philadelphia proper. An email from the Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Development confirmed that I could reserve a spot on a bus direct from Swarthmore.
It was the day before Thanksgiving break, and what felt like hundreds of people showed up at Parrish Circle to ship out. The dean gave us her phone number and promised that Public Safety would come and get us if anything went wrong. Cops = friends. Aspiring student organizers, Rachel among them, passed out flyers with instructions on what to do if we were detained by non-friend cops in the city. The streets had been cleared and barricaded before the protest, which magnified the sensation of crisis. At Temple I could see as many students watching the growing crowd from second-floor windows as standing with us on the ground. An older Black man in front of me wore a giant sweater embroidered with the faces of Malcolm X, MLK, and Angela Davis and, in gold thread, the legend AMERICAN HEROES. Over the mic a white guy recited a poem about gentrification. Something to the effect of, “This has never been a good neighborhood, but it used to be a community.”
The skies grew dark. New people, maybe from Temple’s art school, showed up with ’60s-style puppets on a grand scale. We turned to march. Not towards Center City, as I’d expected, but west on Cecil B. Moore Ave. and then south towards the police headquarters. There wasn’t good lighting until we were back on the streets of commerce. Before there, we passed along the telltale squared edges and tall gates of public housing developments, while members of the communities with whom we (allegedly) stood in solidarity cheered us on. “Whose streets?” we shouted. “Our streets!”
From the middle of the protest, it was impossible to tell how many people had come out. The next day I did some Googling, curious about our impact. The first article I clicked on had no numerical estimates, but I was surprised to recognize the organizer it quoted, Hunter, as a graduate of my high school. He’s now a senior at Temple, and he’s white. His brother and I were friends a bit in eighth and ninth grade, but he and I had never spoken.
Some facts about Hunter’s and my high school: it’s public, and a half-hour’s train ride northeast of Temple. The racial breakdown is 81 percent white, 7 percent Black, 7 percent Asian and 3 percent Hispanic. It’s more than double the size of Swarthmore, 3,000-odd students, and fed by 13 different elementary schools. In my experience, the main source of social division was academic tracking, which had interesting correlations with neighborhood, race and socioeconomic status. I can remember an Advanced Placement teacher commiserating with my class about the difficulties of interacting with “Towners” (local slang for residents of one of the lower-income neighborhoods in-district) in his parallel level. The same teacher would later lead a discussion about Chinua Achebe’s critique of “Heart of Darkness,” where by the end, we were all to agree that Achebe’s failure to recognize Joseph Conrad as quite progressive for his time invalidated his argument. There was only one Black (Jamaican) student in the class, and I sat directly behind her. I remember not knowing how to feel, or what to say.
I searched Hunter on Facebook and wrote him to explain who I was. He wrote back,
I’m willing to do an interview as long as your piece doesn’t place agency on white people to take the lead on Black liberation … I want to make it clear that white people have to be strong allies willing to sacrifice their privilege, and that there [sic] place is in support of strong and courageous Black leaders.
Very good. We spoke the next week by phone, and Hunter explained to me how he’d ended up with the views and in the role that he holds now.
“Growing up in Yardley — I hated it. I felt the environment I was raised in was fake. I didn’t feel like I was living in a real community of people, and race was always the elephant in the room. As a white kid, I was always obsessed with race, because I heard the racism in my parents and my teachers, in the social environments where students interacted with each other.”
Hunter had mostly white friends in elementary school, but began to befriend kids of other races in middle school, which drew from a bigger pool of students. Some of his old friends, upset that he’d drifted away from them, voiced their disgust in racial terms. Hunter remembers one altercation particularly clearly.
“[An old friend] called me a wigger [a white n****r]. These are the kind of memories I have from home, where if you didn’t stay within the structures of our community, you were excommunicated. You were a race traitor. You were punished. That really is how I was treated.”
At Temple, Hunter got involved with a socialist student group. Eventually, he began working with an allied group focused on Black liberation, and now he’s student coordinator. Hunter was quick to clarify that this second group is run by “two strong Black women” and that his involvement is purely in a supportive capacity.
“Organizing is definitely a skill, and some people are better at it than others, but at the same time, it doesn’t matter if [you’ve been heavily involved in organizing movements] – that doesn’t give you a right to lead Black liberation. If you look at the movement … now, where it started in Ferguson, these were just community people who just erupted. Really, the movement came out of that angst … an important thing to remember for any organizer is that people who have the power. It’s always going to be the people that spark the revolution, and it’s up to the organizer to try to facilitate that energy, and that tenacity, and to build the organizational structure and institutions to make that happen.”
Hunter isn’t sure, but right now, he’s thinking that he would like to become a high school teacher. He thinks that understanding the circumstances of the past, and the questions and answers posed to them, is an important goal for socially conscious people. “But don’t just read the socialists and the labor writers,” he told me. “Read James Baldwin. Read Langston Hughes. Read and listen to Angela Davis. Read Huey P. Newton. Read people who not only have an idea of what revolutionary politics are, but read people who know what it’s like to be oppressed, and read people who have lived that experience.”
Temple University is whiter than the neighborhood surrounding, but is generally recognized for its commitment to diversity. The Princeton Review has ranked it the #1 “Diversity University.” Fourteen percent of its students are Black, double the population at Swarthmore, but white students also form a larger majority at 60 percent. Temple was the first university to offer a doctoral degree in African American studies. Still, racial tensions have often flared at Temple. Hunter first got to know the Black organizers he works under now when they were mobilizing to confront the administration about its promotion of a white woman to program head of African American studies over a well-qualified and well-loved Black professor. And since its opening, Temple’s YikYak page has been littered with posts questioning the purpose of student groups like the Black Student Union. Some students even started a mock Twitter account called the White Student Union, which threatened to interrupt Ferguson-related protests and trolled the BSU’s page. Following the protest I attended at Temple, BSU students staged several die-ins around Main Campus. YikYak users referred mockingly to “Negro protests” and complained about Black students “rioting” in the libraries while bystanders tried to study.
After Thanksgiving break, the push for anti-racist actions at Swarthmore became less consolidated. The group that invited Armstead to campus continued both to meet for discussions and to face criticism. The group of aspiring student organizers filtered in and out of events in Philadelphia. Conversation and proclamations alike found their audiences online.
The more posts I read by online activists, the more I began to get a sense of the learned vocabulary we use to talk about race issues. Buzzwords weren’t just employed in attention-getting, monologue-style posts — my short message from Hunter, which I read assuming a real desire to communicate, had several: “agency,” “Black liberation,” “strong allies.” This shared vocabulary lends authority and the impression of sensitivity to the voices of those who use it. Its mastery is also understood as a “skill,” a rare marker of progress that can be externally validated, when so much of the rest of anti-racist work takes place through introspection. However, the continuity of diction between activists seemed to me to mask some real disconnects between their perspectives. Rachel, Jordan, Marc and Hunter may trust the same words to convey their experiences of racism, but those experiences are all distinct. Based on what they’ve lived, different hierarchies will seem more obvious to each of them.
With this thought in mind, I decided to ask Mr. S, one of my favorite teachers from high school, to give me some insight on the homegrown ideas of race which continue to inform my perspective. Mr. S is “a self-proclaimed open-minded and liberal person” who became a father very recently. He is white, like almost all of the teachers at our high school. When I asked him if and how he thought that race informs academic tracking, he told me:
I don’t think race plays as big of a role in academic tracking as socio-economic background does. Not all, but many students who come from poorer backgrounds are not given the support they need from their home life to succeed academically. I think that there is a perception in the Black community [in-district] that the AP courses are unattainable and part of being Black means not taking full advantage of what academia has to offer. Does this exist in the white communities [as well]? Absolutely. However, on a strictly statistical level, the percentage of students who are Black who have excelled at any level … I have taught versus the percentage of white students who have excelled is much less. This disparity pains me, and I know it often makes me work that much harder to go the extra mile for Black students to get them to believe in themselves. I hate that this disparity exists, but I would be lying if I did not recognize it.
Mr. S’s interpretation of Black underachievement as mostly disconnected from racism does not jive with the interpretations advanced by Swarthmore activists, either in its content or its diction. Returning to Jordan’s wheelbarrow metaphor: Mr. S notices that his Black students are struggling with a heavy load, but at least here, he suggests no possible ways forward except to keep pushing. With the best of intentions, he takes on the task of getting his Black students to believe in themselves, but beyond the lower average wealth of the local Black community (a problem for which exists a white correlate, and which he therefore can analyze independently of disquieting Race Issues), it is difficult for him to observe what is going on from where he is standing. There is no network of allies standing in solidarity with one another at my high school; Mr. S told me that he almost never feels comfortable discussing race with his colleagues.
Mr. S is a smart, inventive teacher, but despite his skills as an educator, he’s not equipped with the skills, theoretical readings or vocabulary that many student activists see as vital to effective allyship. Rachel has little patience for would-be allies like Mr. S, whose good intentions manifest mostly as personal convictions that may be too tender to even voice with much frequency.
“It’s like, read a damn book. You can’t rely on this weekly or monthly analysis of think pieces that come up on your Facebook. That’s not something you’re going to get a good grounding for analysis in. It’s very helpful, especially if you want to be on top of contemporary issues, but history is important … Google it … That’s something people are very averse to, and I don’t understand why … I guess that’s something I’ve overcome in that I Google stuff constantly, and don’t feel the need to ask people. That’s a thing about microaggressions. It’s really awful. People in hegemonic positions feel entitled to answers and personal anecdotes from people who are in marginalized or oppressed situations. The microaggressions of asking about, like, Black people’s hair — it’s like, Google it … You could just Google whatever your question is, and not cause some person a sense of being othered by your ignorant-ass question … That’s the first step, before you infringe upon someone’s personal experience. It’s [as if] you know, whether it’s implicit or explicit … that you’re entitled to information about people’s lives, because they have less power than you. Unlearn that shit. It’s just very detrimental.”
I went to just one more formal protest last semester: a die-in, march and vigil organized by students at nearby Bryn Mawr and Haverford just after December 3’s non-indictment for the death of Eric Garner. We walked through stopped traffic on the Main Line, one of Philadelphia’s richest suburbs, and stopped at a heavily secured square of road for the main event. The police knew where we would be and when, so there were no waiting cars, just a news helicopter whirring overhead like a giant mosquito. Only the Black marchers laid down for the four and a half minutes of feigned death. From where I stood on the sidelines, what I could see was 1) a powerful, artful protest of police brutality and also 2) a life-sized infographic about the under-representation of certain groups in the Tri-Co.
Will and I started talking during the van ride to the Tri-Co die-in, and ended up running into one another the following Saturday at dinnertime. He’s Black, and like Marc, attended an excellent test-in high school in New York City. His presence at the actions taking place around Ferguson is motivated by the physical discomfort he feels in the presence of law enforcement. He also is majoring in linguistics, and has many thoughts of his own about the intersections of language and social justice.
Will told me a story about a time when another linguistics student, a white man, started using a lot of different slurs in a conversation. After he started dropping the n-word, Will called him out. Flippantly, he told Will that he essentially had the power to say whatever he wanted, because “I know at its core that language is arbitrary and meaningless.” Yet Will felt definitively that because of his acquaintance’s position as a white man, the casual use of these words demonstrated the way he fit into an oppressive system without even quite realizing it. “It’s like, because I am so knowledgeable, I can go do x, y and z,” Will said, explaining his impression of the other man’s thought process. He, on the other hand, does not see specific knowledge as a valid reason to play by different rules.
On the use of language by the ally, Will offered this advice: “An ally has to be someone — since they’re not facing this oppression themselves — [who has] more responsibility to communicate things in a way that’s productive and in a way that is meaningful.” This point was something Hunter also stressed when we spoke, reminding me that it is the communities allies support, not allies themselves, who will likely bear the brunt of any missteps.
During reading week, student organizers in New York City mounted a protest called the Millions March. A few Swarthmore activists found time to make it up. Depending on the form of transport, round trip travel to NYC usually takes about three hours and a bare minimum of $50. The march was widely praised as effective because it drew huge crowds of people. At the library that night, I watched a New York Times slideshow from the event which featured shot after shot of black-clad white people pushing forward. They carried huge signs, and their faces were distended by shouts and fierce energy.
Lorena has brown skin. She is originally from Latin America, but New York is her adopted hometown, and she attended an offshoot of the same NYC high school that was Will’s alma mater. Her opportunities in her birthplace were limited by weak public systems and endemic violence. However, her family has always valued education.
At Swarthmore, Lorena’s social engagements and academic choices frequently bring her into contact with aspiring activists. Usually she is behind the causes they advance, but she has trouble condoning some of their approaches. The announcement of Darren Wilson’s non-indictment really touched a nerve with Lorena. She was reminded of the regularity of unprosecuted homicides in the place she comes from, and although she is not Black, she felt that in many ways she could relate directly to the state-sanctioned violence that U.S. Blacks have faced.
When Lorena mentioned her feelings about her own country and experiences of violence to some white activists whom she interacts with regularly, she had a difficult time making herself understood, because she was so upset. Her discussion partners couldn’t understand why (if she felt genuine emotion) she wouldn’t come out to the protests and events they were helping organize. Lorena felt that they were accusing her of self-centeredness, or worse, a kind of myopia, for experiencing the African-American struggle through her own specific lens. This isn’t you…this isn’t about Latinos…this isn’t about Latin America.
Whether or not she can make the reasons understood to other people, Lorena’s decision to sit out the protests was an emotional one, based on a desire to shield herself from reminders of the traumas in her past. “There’s just a lot of connections you can make,” she told me. “I started to feel bad about not going to the marches, the protests, the die-ins that other [white acquaintances] were going to, but obviously, it takes so much more emotional strength [for me]. I don’t know. I guess I do have these expectations for white people to think more and know more about it … but I don’t think expecting everyone to show up to these events and be thinking and talking about it all the time, is fair … It’s not easy … it doesn’t mean they don’t care. It might also be very scary to [those who are staying home]. It is very scary. But I also think it’s important to engage in conversations about it.”
If it’s not just pure feeling, then why do organizers organize? And why does the pursuit of social justice at Swarthmore so often feel like a competition? Again, I wondered if the reason the answer wasn’t obvious to me had to do with where I was standing. I contacted another friend I’d made in the van back from the die-in. She’d attended the same NYC high school as Will, and put me in touch with Sarah, who’s now a senior there. Sarah is Black, half-Black on both sides. Both of her parents are professors.
Although Sarah has spent her school years within private and test-in institutions, she has a strong sense of the inequity within New York’s broader public school system. She spoke of the unfairness of the heightened surveillance of Black people, which starts in school and eventually can enable police officers to collect stacks of petty legal complaints against certain individuals. Sarah has always done well in school and impressed the teachers and students who got to know her. However, in many contexts, she still finds herself subject to the arbitrary negative judgments of strangers. For example, when she and her even-more-accomplished father travel together by plane, they both have to take care to dress up so they will not be stopped by airport security.
For Sarah, organizing is “amazing, but it’s exhausting. You’ve really found a change that needs to be made, [but] the people that are marching are still making jokes about how dope this is … or, ‘I feel like such a badass right now’ or, ‘This is a throwback to the Civil Rights movement!’ It’s exhausting.” While Sarah and her friends have their own sincere intentions in getting involved, she feels suspicious that some people are failing to “check their privilege” and are just showing up to seem cool. Where she’s standing, involvement with social justice can be a way to get attention, or simply to become part of something larger than oneself.
In Sarah’s high school, which has more Black students than Swarthmore and fewer white students than Temple, the main source of social division is socioeconomic status. The school is diverse enough that Sarah, whose parents are fairly well-off, has friends in like situations from all races. However, social segregation manifests itself very visibly in the lunch scene. Students at Sarah’s school have the option of bringing lunch from home, buying it in the city, or buying it from the school cafeteria. Those whose family incomes fall below a certain level are given a free cafeteria lunch by the school. There are also two separate areas where friend groups can sit together and eat lunch. A lot, maybe most, of the Black and Latino friend groups congregate in the cafeteria, which is where they get their food. Higher-income students, a greater percentage of whom are white, eat elsewhere.
Recently, Sarah began to participate in a new coalition aiming to connect student organizers from across New York City. It’s through this team of people that she’s had the chance to do much of her recent organizing. However, the group itself can’t help but mirror the representational dynamics of the city’s public school system. A clear majority of the members are white, and as far as Sarah can tell, everyone is from a “good” school. She hasn’t met anyone there from a zone school — a public school without entrance tests — yet.
I asked Sarah if the coalition included many, or any, of the students who eat in the cafeteria, and she told me (wistfully) that it did not.
“The problem is that we haven’t valued their opinions enough in the classroom,” she explained. “I don’t think they’re used to us wanting to hear their voices at this point, because we’ve never wanted to hear them in the past.”
Ana is Latina, but light-skinned and sometimes taken for white. She’s part of the first generation in her family to be born and raised in the United States. The town she grew up in was one of immigrants, and it wasn’t until college that she found herself a literal minority in the classroom.
When Ana arrived at Swat, she was excited about the opportunities for involvement in social justice. She feels strongly about immigration and also about mobilizing for better conditions, wages and benefits in the working class. During the “spring of discontent,” she facilitated a few workshops where participants spoke out about why they were upset and tried to brainstorm new paths forward. Since then, Philadelphia has afforded her plenty of opportunities to get involved with immigration activism, to which she makes her connection obvious, but when she attended a few meetings around labor action at Swarthmore, she was quickly turned off.
“A lot of these organizing groups … are very white spaces … I don’t want to say anything bad about [the group], because the stuff that they’re doing is really cool, and super important, but I just didn’t feel welcomed when I went to my first meeting,” she told me. “My interest in going was very specifically tied to my experience growing up with my dad as part of a union, and my mom not being [part of one] — what that meant for us in terms of what benefits we could have as a family, and what medical care we could get when my mom was very very sick, and all of sorts of personal things that I felt like were not …”
Ana still doesn’t feel she understands why so many wealthy, cosmopolitan white people involve themselves in campus activism, but she’s come to accept that their work is many ways a kind of job, as much or more than it is an iteration of feeling. For her, the responsibilities involved with organizing would be a lot to take on when added to her coursework.
“[Organizers are usually] people who have an intergenerational knowledge of academia, and who can handle being here because of that. And a lot of times, they’re people — they’re not, like, working class people … Swarthmore is ridiculously hard for me. I can barely handle just taking classes, on top of always having jobs on campus, that is a lot, and then on top of always trying to go to CAPS for mental health … trying to then on top of that to join groups, and do activist things is so ridiculously hard, but it’s also shitty, because it’s the only thing I actually want to be doing here out of all the things I’m doing.”
In this way, the wealthy, cosmopolitan white people’s involvement makes complete historical sense. Ana wishes that campus activism groups made more space for different voices and modes of participation, but she doesn’t entirely disagree with the harsh criticisms and judgments that activists mete out to one another. I told her that sometimes I worry about activists directing too much of their anger towards people with good intentions, when there are so many malintentioned people to engage with in the world. Where should we invest our time?
“So often, I just feel like the people that are not trying aren’t going to change, and part of me is just okay with that,” Ana said. “The people who matter more to me are the ones who are trying, because I want them to do better. They actually care. They can be pushed a little more, and it’s more likely to get them on the right side. Right side?” She laughed at herself. “My side.”
The only excursion I made during reading week was to get coffee with Frank, a family friend my parents’ age. He and his wife, Victoria, work in art and media, are both white, and are the two white activists I could list as inspirations right away if Professor Beverly Daniel Tatum ever asked.
Frank told me that it’s not just networks of activists, or histories of anti-racist thought, that predate this fall’s unrest. He was a student at another small liberal arts college in the 1960s, and quite to his surprise, he found that the stated family income on his application qualified him to become part of a sort of diversity support group called The New Directions Program. The group had been started by Black students a few years previously as a way to build solidarity between the fairly small number of Black students admitted to each class, mostly on affirmative action, and later expanded to include other marginalized groups. Frank remembers a lot of social segregation by race, but it was also a time when the need for conversation about racism was more universally recognized, and in some ways that made things easier.
Frank works for an organization which, like Swarthmore, prides itself on its Quaker roots. He, his collaborators, and their coworkers focus strongly on themes of nonviolence and social justice in their work. About a year ago, white members of Frank’s organization realized that they might benefit from more regular, structured critical thinking about race issues. (Seen on Temple’s YikYak, a funhouse mirror: “They literally have Black clubs at temple. if there was EVER a white club … It’ll be all over the news.”) A few of the most committed anti-racist activists decided to create an all-white discussion group on white privilege which would meet outside of work. “Not everyone was immediately thrilled with the idea,” he told me. He himself wasn’t sure what he thought. “It was sort of like, ‘How can you talk about race and not have any Black people there?’ But we sort of persisted.”
Frank’s group has struggled over whether to define itself as a so-called “safe space.” If members of the discussion were allowed to say whatever they wanted without the threat of criticism, the worries he began with could easily become justified. However, the all-white group has potential as a place where members can articulate some of the racism they observe in their own communities or relationships, with the goal of thinking around it, brainstorming solutions, and not personally cutting at any of the thinkers present. So far, it’s going well.
From the success of this first group, a few of Frank’s colleagues began a broader discussion effort that includes more people from the city of Philadelphia. It meets monthly, and each time, the racial makeup of the discussion switches from segregated to mixed, on the alternate months. This way, there is a regular chance and an established format to share ideas and question one another. Frank thinks this is a good format.
Yet (as Swarthmore activists are wont to point out) no matter how well a discussion might go, it is a form of organizing with few sure effects. Frank’s discussions take place amongst political thinkers, but in the end, are they really accomplishing something political? “I think the point of this current wave of politics (Ferguson being a flashpoint),” he told me, “is to actually see — well, it’s important to work on your personal attitudes and behaviors and so on, but probably even more important is justice: looking at your institutions and how they function, and trying to reveal the things that aren’t easily seen … I’ve been through a lot of phases and kinds of activism … A lot of activism sort of takes on that quality [of], ‘I love humanity, it’s just the people I can’t stand,’ … I think that’s something to really struggle with. [There’s something in that] about how we treat each other … how we share insight and information, how and how much we point to or expose deficiencies in each other. There is an impulse to do it like, ‘I know, and I’m going to enlighten you,’ which generally is not a very positive way … There’s a lot of ‘gotcha!’ Are you in, or are you out? I think that’s counterproductive in terms of expanding a movement, and building a sense of alliance around the things that people agree about … At a Quaker school, there is [a] philosophy wherein having a real, principled stance on some issues, and at the same time having compassion and humanity for each other is the tradition.”
Frank’s wife, Victoria, is a gifted, compassionate facilitator of inter-group dialogue. The program she founded in Philadelphia has for decades used local creativity and manpower to bring public art to many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, as well as to sections of those communities which are incarcerated. Her projects require her to gain the trust of community members, community leaders, roving graffiti artists, city political leaders, sniping art critics and rich donors alike. Her success evidences her skill in communicating across all different sorts of demographic divisions, and making herself and her work a point of overlap for different demographic groups.
“To be trusted across groups … when the normal way to be trusted is to subscribe to all the tenets of this group … Normally, that’s not how it works,” said Frank. “Whose team are you on? Whose views do you represent? Victoria never takes on the clothing entirely, though if she were pushed, she feels a lot more allied with the community … but in order to make everything work, she has to be able to speak the language of the elite, and of the politicians, of everyone in between … It’s an art to do that, and an art to do that without getting lost.”
Swarthmore’s finals period ended just before the execution-style shooting of two cops by a mentally ill Black man in Brooklyn hit national news. Soon relations between the mayor and the police union would fall apart. Some Swarthmore New Yorkers would take to the internet to express their wishes for peace in the city. Others would continue to advertise the protests they’d planned beforehand.
On the day of my last test, I walked to our main building to collect my mail. The way out to the library took me past the Registrar’s office, where a sheet of white paper was stapled to the bulletin board outside, the boldest legend amongst the add/drop forms surrounding: WE CAN’T BREATHE. Below were perhaps seven signatures. They were as illegible, as signatures usually are. Were these the names of participating Black staff in the Registrar’s office? In the whole main building? On campus?
The first person I remember explaining to me what it meant to be a good white ally was Malcolm X, towards the end of his autobiography. I read it the summer before Swat, before my introduction to the vocab words and Best Practices of social justice.
Malcolm spent a not-insignificant chunk of his adult life claiming that all white people were devils, but after a schism formed between himself and the spiritual leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, he began to re-evaluate many of his old ideas. Eventually, he traveled to Mecca to make the Hajj and saw that many of his fellow worshippers, who treated him like a perfectly decent human and fellow Muslim, had light skin and light eyes. Then, Malcolm traveled to Africa and met with Black men who held positions of power within their own political systems. When he made it back to the USA, he felt convinced that it was politics, and not some essential quality, which had created and continued to contribute to the legacy of racism in America. After all of this thinking, Malcolm had to re-imagine the place of white people in the anti-racist movement.
[Even before the Hajj, when I used to speak at various meetings and in academic settings], I knew that many whites were as frustrated as Negroes. I’ll bet I got fifty letters some days from white people. The white people in meeting audiences would throng around me, asking me, after I had addressed them somewhere, “What can a sincere white person do?”
… Where the really sincere white people have got to do their “proving” of themselves is not among the Black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is — and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites …
I tell sincere white people, “Work in conjunction with us — each of us working among our own kind.” Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do—and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people! We will completely respect our white co-workers. They will deserve every credit. We will give them every credit …
In our mutual sincerity we might be able to show a road to the salvation of America’s very soul. It can only be salvaged if human rights and dignity, in full, are extended to Black men. Only such real, meaningful actions as those which are sincerely motivated from a deep sense of humanism and moral responsibility can get at the basic causes that produce the racial explosions in America today. Otherwise, the racial explosions are only going to grow worse.
I wish Malcolm X hadn’t been killed. I wish every single person whose name is up on Magill Walk hadn’t been killed. Unfortunately, despite a generally agreed-upon set of anti-racist terminology between activists, there is still no clear consensus on what we can do to prevent such deaths in the future, and this is the most important question. Holding onto that, I’ll pose a second question, one these interviews raise more directly. Since not all sincere people, white, Black, or otherwise, are going to do the same thing, how can we even recognize each other when we are out in the world, struggling for justice?
Activism in a college context often concerns itself with language, and trying to communicate with activists led me to think a lot about the pitfalls and potentialities of conversation around these issues. As symbols, I don’t think that words are arbitrary and meaningless, as Will’s acquaintance suggested, but symbolism should not be their primary function. As you’ve probably guessed from the sheer quantity I’ve put down here, I believe that words can do much more than just provide a signal of good intent (a task they don’t even consistently complete). They can explain good intentions in detail, and the emotions which motivate them, and they can tell the stories of the people who are deploying them, fostering a better mutual understanding. We have an obligation to listen to others even if the words they choose are different from those we’d choose ourselves.
I think the two questions I posed actually overlap more than I first realized. After all, the struggle for recognition is an integral part of the struggle for justice. Applying our words to communicate is a good first step, so long as we keep in mind some goals for their future use: new legislation instead of protest signs, indictments instead of equivocations, congratulations instead of condolences.
1 I give my own (white, woman’s) name not as an activist, but as as a writer for whom accountability to the impact of her words must be a central concern.