On privilege in protest

We appreciate the coverage by Liam Adams in The Chronicle of Higher Education on our paper, “Beyond the Incident: Institutional Predictors of Student Collective Action,” which was recently published in the Journal of Higher Education. Yet while we are glad to see interest in this timely topic, we have seen multiple responses to our work following the Chronicle article that we do not believe capture the spirit of our paper.

Briefly, we would like to address two narratives found in those responses. (For further information and clarification on what was in the original article, we suggest this post from Southern Methodist University.)

Among other results discussed in the paper, we found that institutional characteristics, some of which align with class privilege (e.g., the percentage of students eligible for Pell grants), predict the presence of I, Too, Am Harvard-like movements at colleges and universities. In other words, more elite (where elite is defined by selectivity and, in this case, resources) institutions appear more likely to have had one of these movements on their campus. It is likely that this result, in conjunction with a brief, theory-grounded speculation that we made in the concluding section of our paper was the impetus for the title of the Chronicle article, “Is Protesting a Privilege?,” as well as the tack taken by other articles and posts about our paper.

Broadly, we have seen two major types of responses to our work: one contesting the notion that privilege is a relevant factor and one using privilege as a way to critique the movements themselves. Though coming to opposite conclusions, we believe both response types draw upon a common theme. In each of these views, the notion of privilege is seen as a method for discounting the legitimacy of the I, Too, Am movements. Our research is not meant to comment on the validity of the movements at all. Instead our research leads us to believe that while the motivation or capacity of students to protest may indeed be related to privilege (a relationship that we are certainly not the first to discuss in the literature), the presence of privilege does not by direct consequence delegitimize the I, Too, Am and other similar movements. In other words, (ours, in fact, from the paper) since “it may be that students at more elite institutions possess greater capital (along some dimension) such that they have the ability to protest…other important implications [of our findings] includ[e] one that calls for less elite institutions that are not seeing these campaigns to still remain vigilant against oppressive environments.” In other words, the types of “protest” and mobilization that we, as a larger society, generally focus on may occur more frequently at certain types of institutions. This does not mean that institutions without these protests have healthy climates where the students are able to thrive and succeed.

To those who do not like the implication that protests may largely be more available to students with access to greater financial and social resources to be able to protest, we think that realistically interrogating the role of privilege in political participation is an important part of the work of social justice. Discomfort with the fact that those with fewer resources are often less likely to be heard should not discourage proactive effort, but rather should motivate those of us with privilege to work even harder to engage and uplift communities not afforded the same opportunity to speak out, or, for that matter, to work to change the environment such that the ability to speak out is not something afforded only to privileged groups. We believe that activists and advocates who benefit from various forms of privilege (including class, male, white, etc.) should embrace this understanding in order to engage in the reflective work that it takes to break down the systems that produced that privilege. We, the authors, attempt to do the same as we recognize the aspects of our own identities that have afforded us the opportunities to, for example, make this post.

To those, on the other hand, who see privilege as a means to argue that these protests don’t matter, we push even harder. Among those making this argument, there seems to be a conflation of various dimensions of societal oppression and disadvantage into one “privilege” dimension. In this narrative, issues faced by black students attending elite institutions, for example, are questioned as legitimate due to the relative privilege they experience. This conclusion, to us, misconstrues how privilege works as a concept, particularly to the extent that people see it as something where various dimensions cancel each other out. In our view, this is simply not a useful endeavor. Is the argument of a black man speaking on issues of racism invalid because of his male privilege? Is the argument of a white woman speaking on issues of sexism invalid because of her white privilege? We think not. In both of these example cases and others like them, we want to push people to think more holistically about protest as a form of political information that offers insights, however imperfect, into the experiences of others.. It is indeed possible for us, as people, to listen to the voices of those who speak out while also considering the voices who are not heard.

We greatly enjoy talking about this important topic, and are open to further discussion. Now that we’ve closed out 2017, let us move with peace and compassion into 2018.

Forgiving, forgetting, and fixing racial climates

From the 21-point plan developed by Colgate University to Vanderbilt University’s own burgeoning efforts to increase diversity, there are a lot of responses that universities have been developing to address student dissatisfaction with negative racial climates.

To a certain extent, I guess I should be glad. The kinds of efforts that these universities are undertaking are exactly the kinds of things that advocates, both student and otherwise, have been asking for from the start. These things make it sound, on the surface, like universities are genuinely making progress. I don’t think that’s particularly a wrong takeaway, since I think there’s something important about keeping an open mind as we move forward. That said, I can’t make myself feel particularly good about these efforts. And from what I can tell, having talked to other people who have been engaged with these movements from the start, I’m not alone.

I took some time to really think through why my reaction to these things is overwhelmingly negative, and when it comes down to it, it’s fairly simple: I don’t quite trust those driving these reforms. There are two halves to this feeling, which I share with some of my colleagues, that I think are both critical for understanding this reaction and also determining how we can move forward.

The first half of my negative feelings, in this context, is that these efforts are often coming from those same powers that produced the dissatisfaction that drove students to mobilization in the first place. Despite the perhaps cynical supposition that these powers developed these plans not out of actual empathy but rather to save face, I think it’s reasonable that students might not believe in their institutions, which were only recently the cause of their pain, to faithfully and effectively implement justice.

The second half concerns a certain lack of restorative justice in these efforts. Throughout the tenure of the students involved in this activism (as well as other students of color more generally), there has been a significant amount of harm done. First, before mobilization, many of these students consistently faced a racist environment that made their campus experiences painful. Second, during mobilization, many of the movement organizations faced significant opposition from their administrations, their faculty, and even their peers. This work is exhausting, as I’ve mentioned in the past, but it can also be damaging.

In the end, what this means is that the powers that be in institutions of higher education have effectively lost the trust of many students of color, especially those in positions of leadership. In my opinion, this dooms these new efforts to fail. What, then, would make students (like me) happy?

It’s going to take more than asking students to just forgive and forget what has happened in order for us to move forward as a nation. Significant damage has been done, and unless universities take sensitive, humble, and rigorous care in fixing the wrongs they have committed against students, they’re not going to have the support they need from communities that matter the most in these contexts. How can people do this? I don’t have all of the answers, but this is my opinion: Own it. Identify with the aggrieved students what harms have been done. Develop substantial and genuine apologies. As institutional leaders, commit to change not only in terms of what policies are made, but also in terms of how you as individuals will change yourselves. Acknowledge the pain you have caused, and continue to mend those relationships as you go through your work. And most importantly, in my opinion, approach this reparation in the spirit not of political reconciliation, but rather of a true and meaningful desire to make things right by these students.

I’m not saying this will always work, but these concrete actions, in my estimation, contain some of the elements of true humility that institutions will need in order to make these reforms work. I have yet to see an institution say “I’m sorry.” But I think that until that happens, students will continue to distrust the institutions that are trying to change.

Including student voices in education

This post is a modified version of an earlier commentary I had made on a previous blog, which I have since deleted.

From discussions about student government to policies that give children responsibilities in managing their classroom experiences, common justifications for these practices include (a) that kids will be more invested in their education if they are a part of shaping it and (b) that it gives children good experience in participating in democracy.

I’ve never been a fan of either of those reasonings for including youth voices in the formation of the education vision. I get that both of those things are probably true, but they feel patronizing to me. Basically, we’re asking kids what they think just so they feel included, which we’re doing so they’re “better” at doing what we want them to do. This has never felt like a sufficient reason to include people in democratic processes, as if we’re doing them a favor.

I think that at the root of it, the more compelling reason is that the voices of young people have value in the visioning of education. Yes, of course, we were all children once, but education changes every day, and so do we. I think the value of including the voices of youth is that they are the ones most directly affected by the decisions we make in education, and at least in the short term, they can provide the best insight into how things are working on the ground and what can be done better, what should be better and how they, in the short-term, are being disserviced or benefited.

In the long-term, I think it’s a more complicated question, one to which I honestly haven’t ironed out my answer that well just yet. What does the uniquely youth perspective add to the discussion of the wider economic and social benefits and consequences of education practice and policy? In my estimation, not that much. This isn’t to say that youth don’t have value in that discussion. I’m just saying that I think that what youth can say there, generally, is more muddy in terms of its potential to really make that conversation more comprehensive. Overall, I think that the primary value of including them from a long-term perspective isn’t that it benefits the conversation.

As such, I think that the inclusion of young people in long-term, larger discussions of education vision comes from a different motivation. They’re the people who will be living in the society we’re creating. I think it’s the right thing to do, then, to include them in these discussions. This isn’t an empirical position, since I can’t speak much to whether current structures of student input are actually working, but a moral argument that students need to be in these discussions from a justice point of view. Not only that, but we’ve seen some brilliant ideas come from young people. It’d be a shame to miss out on them because we think they’re “too young.”

So overall, I think the discussion about youth voice needs to be less about how it’ll help students as individuals, but more about what youth bring to the table and the right of students to be there, which I feel like is kind of the point of youth voice.