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.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *