What Makes an Activist : The Averse Effects of the PWI

What Makes an Activist : The Averse Effects of the PWI
I remember having a conversation with one of my Asian-American friends about a mutual white acquaintance of ours where we discussed something this acquaintance had asked my friend regarding their culture and background. It was a question of ignorance, prefaced with the phrase "I don't know if this is offensive..." - an all too familiar phrase we had both laughed at.

I remember having a conversation with one of my Asian-American friends about a mutual white acquaintance of ours where we discussed something this acquaintance had asked my friend regarding their culture and background. It was a question of ignorance, prefaced with the phrase "I don't know if this is offensive..." - an all too familiar phrase we had both laughed at. In my conversation with this friend, she had said something along the lines of, "I let her ask these questions, even if I do find them offensive, because how else are they supposed to learn? I'd rather she ask me instead of someone else. She could live with that bias her whole life if I didn’t correct it."

This struck a chord with me. I found her sentiment to be valid, but it certainly wasn’t a simple subject. In observing this bias correction, I found myself with many questions - sure, I felt a similar responsibility to confront ignorance, especially when it occurs right in front of or towards me, but why should I feel this obligation? Why must I be the one to confront implicit bias?

Part of having white privilege must very well be that non-white people are obliged to politely confront your biases and prejudices. As such, being that non-white person - in other words, playing that role of the “educator” - is exhausting, and it's led to many reflections on my own personal values. In this piece, I'd like to discuss my experiences of existing in a predominantly white space, which, in many ways, has made me hyper-aware of my own racial identity.

Existing in White Spaces

I recently finished my first year of university - I attend a small liberal arts school in New Jersey. It was a place far from my home in Texas, a complete departure from the dry heat and rapidly growing suburbs that I had exchanged for a sleepy East coast college town. This was a fresh start for me, through and through.

In high school, I kept my circles small. It was easy to exist in small bubbles. The same groups of kids took the same classes year after year, but in starting my journey in university, I set forward, as many bright-eyed freshmen do, with the goal of putting myself out there. Stepping out of my shell and breaking those pre-constructed bubbles.

In reflecting upon my freshman year experience, I certainly think that this goal was achieved. I believe that socially, I’ve improved in strides. This did not come, however, without its hurdles. These were things that I had been initially wary of even when I had first applied to the school.

My university is a predominantly white institution (PWI), where a little over half of the student population is white. Truthfully, the entire institution of higher education in America is a predominantly white institution.

Ethnic minorities have experienced decades of inequitable distribution of educational resources, and though the proportion of minorities enrolling in higher education has been rising, it still lags behind the attendance rates of the national norm. Something I noticed in many formalized studies is that the heightened enrollment of minority students is often framed as a massive stride from the decades past - while this is, indeed, an advancement, much of the language used in these studies refers to minorities as a monolith. A short summary of a report by the American Council on Education reads, “In 2015–16, approximately 45 percent of all undergraduate students identified as being a race or ethnicity other than White, compared with 29.6 percent in 1995-96.” It feels, at times, that is all there is. White and non-white. No specificity, no acknowledgement of our diversity. Just one melting pot. At this, I can only remark facetiously - the monolith seems fitting, for our plight in these spaces is often a shared one.

Everyone has prejudices in some form - but prejudices belonging to people with the most privilege are perhaps the most damaging, as those with privilege hold the most power. They have the ability to form institutions against minorities, both in social and formal settings. It is these kinds of prejudices that I have become most hyper-aware of.

I believe that confronting prejudices of every kind starts with a mindset. My conversations with people who don’t have a lived experience under discrimination are sometimes difficult, and often in my collegiate setting, many people consider themselves progressive; aware of human rights issues and current events. This is a respectable quality.

I’ve found, however, that many believe a surface level “wokeness”, upheld by equally superficial research, is sufficient as a means of being an activist.

Quite frankly, I’m not sure what entails wokeness - looking back into the word’s origin, which is in Black culture, it refers to the idea of staying alert of the deceptions of other people as a basic survival tactic. This term took a new life following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, becoming a phrase used as a rallying cry against police brutality. Nowadays, staying woke feels extremely vague, morphing from a word to a concept. That concept of course, being political ideology - wokeness today refers to leftist belief systems and, in general, progressiveness. While I don’t believe it is fully productive to politicize these core issues of racial injustice, I know that this is simply the way things are and have been since this nation’s conception.

To demand basic rights is inherently political, as we demand them from institutions higher and more powerful than us. I suppose this demand for equality is modern wokeness, a movement appropriated from Black activism, that has been made more vague to include a wider audience. Still, this is not where the message of “wokeness” ends. It is the unironic usage of this phrase, which is already so divorced from its original meaning, that I use to mark performative activism. It is easy to memorize the frequently used rhetoric of progressivism - being woke is one of those saturated phrases that has been used so frequently that many do not retain the true meaning of it. It is not just “woke” either - we find performative activism in corporate pride collections, social media movements, and street murals. What I’m getting at is that this cloudy, modern idea of youth activism is label-driven and superficial, based upon the language and aesthetics used by movements with perceived progressivism. I find that many white people who attempt to be “woke” aren’t actually very educated about the problems within and the nuances surrounding being a BIPOC. This is expected, and there is nothing inherently wrong with ignorance - all that should be present is a willingness to learn. Still, I have my gripes with the attitudes toward informing white people.

A friend of mine had off-handedly commented about Indian wedding piercings, believing them to be cosmetically “cool” - when it was pointed out that the tone in which he talked about these piercings exoticized them (a comment that was made as a polite correction by an Indian friend), he had apologized. Another person had nonchalantly remarked, “at least he said sorry.”

This exchange revealed a fundamental problem to me. I am sure that white activism, most times, comes from a place of good will. The people mentioned were both white, and I’m sure they genuinely meant no harm. Regardless, there is this inclination towards rewarding white mediocrity, which is itself a harmful attitude. A white person’s simple acknowledgement of the plights BIPOC go through seems sufficient. After all, these problems are not and will never be experienced by white individuals. It is enough for them to be able to identify the issues we face - they are not held to a standard of action, and they simply can not experience the same degree of emotional labor that BIPOC are expected to perform. But this is why a genuine apology is to be expected; it is not an action that needs to be acknowledged or applauded. I am not impressed by progressive rhetoric or lukewarm and obvious takes on social justice. Many are simple ideas that do not need to be stated because they should be the standard. I will not be impressed by your disgust at the micro-aggressions I face, the appalling history of our nation, or the injustices experienced by immigrants. I expect it.

The Importance of Cultural Spaces

I personally believe that there is value to providing safe spaces specifically for minorities. A 2017 study on the retention rates of students of color at PWI’s observes that the factors of university retention for BIPOC are:

  1. The inclusion of students, faculty, and staff of color

  2. Updated curriculum that displays the current and historic experiences of individuals of color

  3. Programming/initiatives that support the enlistment, preservation, and commencement of students of color

  4. Cultural spaces

I would like to discuss the fourth item on this list, cultural spaces. I was very fortunate to have this kind of community at my university - not just in the Filipino league organization, but also in the friends I made. It is easier to express the struggles of racial injustice with people who can understand it on the same experience you do.

Most universities, I feel, view their multicultural clubs as an opportunity for education.

Education of who? White individuals.

I think this idea needs to be reframed. We should view these organizations not only (in fact, I’d argue not even primarily) as an opportunity for cultural exchange, but as places of respite for BIPOC students. This is especially true for PWI’s. Cultural spaces are worth discussing because it is an idea present in many political philosophies, particularly Malcolm X’s.

Malcolm X’s antiracist philosophy was at its core an anti-assimilist philosophy. In his Ballot or the Bullet speech, he presents Black nationalism as an ideology that uplifts Black communities through internal support. This is a concept of grassroots activism, where actionable change occurs within the local community because of the shared goals of that community’s population. His ideas are simple: “the black man should control the politics and the politicians in his own community.” The community needs to be understood by the individual for this to work.

The first time I read this speech was in one of my political science classes. It stayed with me, encouraging me to reflect upon why I found inherent value in existing in spaces with people who looked like me. In a sense, it was a confirmation of my personhood. There is an immense validation in being understood. That is what cultural spaces did for me. In understanding myself, I better understood what I have a right to as a person. I have become more confident in my ability to demand respect and grace.

Burnout and Challenges

It is easy, in my experience, to take a nihilistic stance when you are a burnt-out activist. Discussions become circular, seemingly unproductive, and pointless. My own experiences with microaggressions have taught me that effective re-education isn’t always possible, not because people are incapable of change, but because it is difficult to fully articulate yourself and even harder to get others to listen.

Furthermore, especially as a BIPOC, the pressure of performing emotional labor on behalf of educating others is exhausting. The climate of modern activism is exhausting - and, unfortunately, heavily based on performance. A lot of progressiveness feels like a complete wash, something with so much time, effort, and energy invested into it that leads to no measurable change. NPR reported on the concept of “racial battle fatigue”, which is the “cumulative impact of experiencing racism day to day.”

My race is part of who I am. Existing within a predominantly white community has made me very aware of it, and there is not a day that goes by where I don’t think about my race. This exhaustion is one I’ve experienced many times - I am shaped by the strangers who call me exotic, who ask me if I can speak English, by the friends to whom I am the first Asian they have ever regularly interacted with. During the rise in hate crimes towards Asian-Americans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, I experienced anxiety towards public transit and solo travel - it wasn’t a worry for just myself. When my parents and grandmother visited, I remember cautioning them against using public transit when venturing into New York City. They assured me that it was something they had already thought about.

The truth is, I don’t know how to be a good activist. I never feel like I’m doing enough, but there always feels like there is too much to do. I know this much - I don’t want to be relied upon to teach other people. White people will call themselves allies, tell me they are listening and note that they care. It is here I am asked to be an educator. Perhaps it is callous of me to call these types of conversations selfish, but I find true allies in an effort that is collaborative, where we both pull an equal weight. And truly, I care more for an advocate than an ally.

Conclusion: So, What’s the Point?

I am drawing from my own experience in writing this in the hopes that I can provide comradery and my own takes on possible answers for people with the same questions as me. I don’t know, however, if I can call this productive activism. My own issues with discourse about racial injustice lie primarily in the fact that a great deal of it has no bearing on the palpable issues that affect our communities. What can we do about income inequality, the greater prison industrial complex, and the erasure of history? There are problems that feel beyond the scope of mild microaggression, so it feels  easier to laugh at a seemingly miniscule exchange with an ignorant stranger, trivialize it, and move on.

Well, once again, I believe that activism starts with mindset. It is not just the ideas of anti-racism that needs to be ingrained in others, but the very concept of effective activism. I dedicate myself every day to a particular task, no matter how small, to find meaning and structure in the things I do. I exert my actions in activism in a similar manner: remember the ends. We do not need complex ideologies or radicalism to promote our ideas. We need support systems, spaces where we can exist as BIPOC unapologetically and freely, and allies that hold themselves to a standard of not only seeking education, but also inward rumination and reflection upon the state of their own mindset.

I myself have much to learn, and while I rely upon collaborative discussions with others to some degree, I seek to educate myself in all sorts of resources. I’ve found that it is not enough to simply consume content by minorities - we must mold our cognitive functions to properly digest this information. We must transform the way we think. This is the path to action.


This article was originally written in July 2022

Image Credits: Alica Brown