a student-run publication that seeks to provide space for voices that are not being heard on our campus. we are grounded by politics that are radical, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-homophobic, anti-ableist, and anti-transphobic (against all forms of oppression) and that reject the structural neo-liberal paradigm that characterizes middlebury college and its official publications
By Kizzy Joseph and Elizabeth Dunn
After yesterday’s Middlebury Solidarity Blackout and corresponding photoshoot and mixer (for lack of better words) organized by the Black Student Union, we walked away feeling not so much empowered as frustrated by several issues, some of them being the subsumation and subsequent erasure of Black identity and struggle under the umbrella label of “People of Color,” and the state of allyship and activism here at Middlebury.
Firstly, we are not standing in solidarity with the students of color at Mizzou. We are standing in solidarity with the Black students of Mizzou. “Black and brown” people should not have been called to gather for a second photo; it should have been only Black people. And if this sounds exclusionary, that’s because it is, and that’s not a bad thing. In order to deal with systematic oppression, we need to address issues with specificity, avoiding overgeneralizations. We are not all the same, we do not all experience oppression in the same way, and “solidarity” isn’t about pretending that we do. It may be difficult to draw that line at times, and when people fail to, they usually have good intentions; but nevertheless, it is something that needs to be done in order to make progress. Being an ally to a group involves knowing when to take a step back and let those groups speak and act for themselves, while still being supportive.
One of the reasons given for first including everyone, and then people of color, but never Black people only in the photos taken yesterday, was that we simply do not have enough Black students at Middlebury (and asking Black students to stand in the front is not the same as having only Black students in a picture). It’s a numbers game; the more people in the photo, the stronger the narrative that “people care” about Black issues is. What was disappointing about yesterday’s Solidarity Blackout event was that it seemed like all we did was take photos and recite a few words by Assata Shakur. Although a discussion will be held on Sunday by BSU, immediately following yesterday’s event, there was no follow-up action. Instead, snacks were served, music was played, and an event meant to promote solidarity turned into one of socializing. While being light-hearted is important, especially in activism, we still cannot help but feel that the vital energy was allowed to dissipate, and the opportunity to engage with people who might not normally come to these discussions was lost.
We are firm believers that each person should do what they can, and if all a person can do is engage on social media or participate in a Blackout event, that is more than enough. But if a person is capable of doing more while they only participate in the “trendier” actions, we’d invite them to question their own motivations. So many people we’ve overheard yesterday apologized for being “late” for the photo, which is absurd — the event was not a photoshoot, it was a gathering in solidarity with the Black students of Mizzou. And by no means is anyone obligated to be an activist, but to be perfectly blunt, if the extent of your allyship is taking a picture, we’d prefer you not claim the label at all until you have a better understanding of what that word encompasses.
The event, while well-intended, was not meant to be an opportunity to take selfies or a chance to pat ourselves on the back for “being involved” without having to do anything more than wear black and take a picture. We need people to do more than just take a few photos and leave. We need them to get involved in conversations, in cultural organizations, in conferences, and in organizing. Allyship is an active engagement and relationship and we need our allies to do more.
We’re not saying that #activism (or “hashtag activism”) is necessarily a bad thing, either. Social media is an increasingly important platform that allows people to connect with each other to effect change, from the 2011 protests in Egypt to the live Twitter feeds documenting the Ferguson protests. However, there are pros and cons. Social media as a platform can be useful, but we need a greater diversity of tactics. Wearing all black and taking a photo demonstrating our solidarity does make an important statement, but it is not enough. We cannot be complacent with these less-disruptive activism methods. Activism is not only a tool to raise awareness and gather support; it is also a tool to disrupt the status quo.
The Solidarity Blackout event was an opportunity to create community through expressing solidarity, yes, but who are we making an impact on other than ourselves, we who are “woke” and already cognizant of the everyday social injustices Black people face? Activism forcibly establishes the presence of the oppressed in a space not meant for them. We need to make ourselves more visible, and not only amongst the people who are already on our side. Activism disrupts, confronts, discomforts, and demands. We should not hesitate or fear marching or rallying on campus. We should not just confine ourselves to Carr Hall or other “acceptable” locations; students everywhere on campus should be made aware. We must assert our presence in the spaces of the socially unaware and the socially ignorant and express our defiance against the status quo that perpetuates the marginalization of Black people. It is time to redefine and re-examine what activism means to us at Middlebury, and also seek other methods to effect social justice.