A few weeks ago in my seminar, we read a piece by Andrea Smith called "The Problem with 'Privilege". Directed at activists and people who are engaged in grassroots work, Smith calls for more focus on collective action to actually dismantle oppressions as opposed to individual "confessing" of privileges in so-called safe spaces. What Smith meant by this is that activists claim and try to create their spaces as safe spaces so that people feel comfortable being there, but no space is ever really free of oppressions. Instead, Smith argues that it serves all of us better if we acknowledge that every space already has people who can oppress and work to dismantle those systems. Moreover, in these safe spaces there are people who confess their privileges and then people who either have zero or few privileges to confess. Privileged people, once again, get to take up space by talking about acknowledging their privileges. Furthermore, this act individualizes oppression by allowing individuals to talk about their own privileges. But oppression is not just individual persons having privilege. Oppressions are systemic and that's why they're so powerful and hegemonic and problematic. Even though our ideas and thoughts are always already clouded by these forces, Smith claims that we need to continue to think of and re-imagine new ideas to tackle structures that create privilege.
Since then, Smith's piece has been circling in my head, resurfacing and coloring how I see activism and social justice work around me.
Several campus organizations are organizing a Fast-A-Thon for students to fast for a day and then end the fast together with a meal, to dedicate their thoughts to those who live with hunger. What does that mean? How does fasting for a day-ish compare to those who actually live with constant chronic hunger? Hunger is not just about being hungry all the time, it is part of some people's experiences with systemic oppressions constantly. How can we begin to understand what those experiences are like if we just pick the hunger part for a day? How does being hungry for a day as a Rice student even compare to being hungry constantly as abject people who lack other basic needs? Do we have to "try out" someone's life in order to extend compassion and empathy with them? Obviously, I am advocating for a No. Dedicating our thoughts to those who live with hunger do not even ask us to dedicate our actions. All that is asked of us is to think about it, and maybe highly encourage us to donate money and volunteer at a soup kitchen. Most of all, we get to feel good about ourselves when we fast for a day and then go have a meal together and learn about what people's real hunger is like. We did something by depriving ourselves of food for a day, attended an event, and absorbed some ideas. I don't mean to say that fast-a-thons inspire no one or that they are useless. Raising awareness about chronic hunger and poverty are really important and ought to be done. But if our money and time are spent buying food for a group of people to break their fast with, we should spend more time and money elsewhere to tackle the real problem.
Another type of activism on campus that individualizes social justice is ally trainings. Ally trainings, according to the Wellbeing office, aim to "raise awareness about the ways homophobia and heterosexism impact everyone, and to teach skills in being an Ally to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning community." They do this through learning about the history and terminology of LGBTQ communities, practice scenarios, and listening to a student panel about their experiences at Rice. I never attended an ally training at Rice. I always felt bad about that, and I want to be a better ally. I attended a lecture about a week ago and it changed how I thought about allyship. Mia Mckenzie, the founder of the blog Black Girl Dangerous, felt that allyship is less useful when what we want are actions of solidarity instead of a label of support. It's like saying "I can't be a racist, I'm an ally!", said Mia. That got me thinking. The labels of having gone to ally training and received a placard for it or having a black friend do not qualify us as not-oppressors. What matters is action in solidarity. Maybe ally trainings can be called solidarity trainings, since ally is passive and waits for occasions to arise to respond to, while solidarity is active and consistent.
By no means do I think ally trainings at Rice are not about solidarity. For Rice students, committing to a 3-hour long event is plenty of action. But allies are never contacted after that. Queers and Allies and the Wellbeing office aren't inviting allies to their events (not that they have a responsibility to), and allies do whatever they want afterwards. Allies get to pick and choose what events, if any, they want to go to in support and solidarity. Ally trainings are kind of a gender 101 seminar. But how many times do we need to get LGBTQ students to testify to a room of people about their experiences at Rice due to their sexual and gender identities or choices? It becomes a burden on them to have to constantly educate people on what their lives are like and how to interact with them politely. Where is the 201? Solidarity is not just putting a placard on our dorm room door and waiting for something to happen. It requires diligent efforts to reimagine and create a better more just world for all of us. I don't even have a placard, so I have a lot of work to do. Here's one thing I've done that I want to do more of, though: changing bathroom signs on our own to reflect and respect all genders. It took me until a few weeks ago to realize that I can just cover the original bathroom signs with my own pieces of paper. I drew some toilets and wrote ALL-Gender Restroom. I stopped paying attention to the placards and my privilege allows me to comfortably look for just the woman's bathroom. It's going to take a while to get the whole school to systematically change all bathroom signs to all-gender, so why don't we start now with our own temporary signs and make them permanent?