Op-ed: Students of color, others are speaking for us

On Nov. 7, 2018, I walked into a meeting about institutional racism at Emerson College and was surprised to see I was the only student of color in the room.

The meeting was led by Sylvia Spears, vice president of the Social Justice Center, and included eight others who were staff, administrators, and students. They sat in a room on the 10th floor of the Walker Building to discuss the best way to give a voice to marginalized people, find discriminatory undercurrents in school policy, and talk about how to be “socially just”—as the name of the department suggests.

One of the student members who had recently joined the group told me about a social justice project in the works. As a woman of color, I seemed to be a part of the subject matter, and their research fell in line with issues of bias I have reported on in the past, so I thought it would be an interesting venture to explore.

However, the majority of the nine people in the room were white. While they drafted this project for the welfare of students who looked like me, a staff member said that none of those students were actually involved because students of color told her they were tired of fighting for their rights as equal citizens.

Ironically, I was unwelcome. Even as I sat in that room and inquired about this undertaking that started because students like me were too tired, an administrator told me the information was too delicate for them to entrust to me.

When asked how the only two students already in the room had been selected, both of whom were white and being paid $14 an hour to participate, another administrator told me it was about community and that the students had gained her confidence to view and discuss information about marginalized groups.

There was no formal announcement made about this research group or employment opportunities for students regarding this project.

I believe understanding the demographics of that meeting in November is essential to what I ask next: Students of color, who are you? Who spoke for us?

Who spoke for my Black friends, for my Latinx friends, for my Asian friends—for those of us who had to be told by a white staff member of the Social Justice Center that we had not yet been invited to this revolutionary project about our rights because students of color say they are tired?

Who gave you the liberty to speak for us? I certainly did not.

By letting the Social Justice Center fight a fight that is ours, we have also given them the power to speak about our experiences—not the power of students of color merely, but of white students, of professors, of a long line of social rights activists and of the resilience and kindness that is intrinsic for communities to evolve.

We have allowed the administration to do what those in power have been doing for a very long time—make social revolution a personnel issue, make it about the behind-the-scenes greater good, a good that is defined by them, not us. We have allowed them to make it about a good we may or may not see with our eyes, but that we have no choice but to trust is coming.

True social justice at a college cannot be brought about without its students.

All of us, regardless of color or nationality, enter Emerson College with our unique histories and knowledge. We enter, in many ways, to disseminate that unique knowledge through meeting others and sharing our stories. The clash of these varied histories can, and likely will, cause an error and may offend. Not offend in malicious ways, but in curious, yet ignorant ones.

In acquiring “equal” rights, not only constitutionally, but on an interpersonal level, there needs to be room for error. Subsequently, there also needs to be a resolution of that error.

And in most cases, an offense can be clarified by calling it out.

This holds true not only for relationships between students of different races, but also between professors and students of different races.

We are here to learn, but in the case of students of color, we are also here to teach. Unfortunately, in every sphere where we are the minority, our role as unpaid teachers follows us.

If we don’t tell our story when we have the chance to, someone else will.

“It’s not my job,” I hear from students of color on campus. I see it in protests, in classrooms, and on Facebook posts.

“It is not my job to inform you.”

I agree. It is not your job; it is not my job.

However, if only those who got paid did the tasks their contracts bound them to, more than half of the country would still be ineligible to vote, marriages would exclusively be between men and women, and abortions would be sequestered to dark alleys with rusty coat hangers.

Then again, there are those who believe that that is how things should be and have the same prerogative to make a case. Not in the court of law merely, or on nighttime news, or at the polls, but in a method that came about a hundred millennia ago—conversation. In loud conversation—in protest, in rallies, in garbled op-eds, in sweaty congregations, and in reading books.

Social activism, from the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960, to the Women’s Liberation Movement, to the Iranian Revolutionhas often been ignited by students. In fact, several social revolutions have been maintained by the support of a sympathetic faculty. Both parties remained unpaid for their activism.

I understand the concept of “activism fatigue.” Today, in times when the country is so openly divided in its beliefs, activism is inextricably tied to everyday tasks. And by proxy, so is fatigue.

So, take a weekend off from explaining the “obvious” racist undertones of why your professor looks at you, the only Indian student, every time he mentions Gandhi. Explore a new Ben & Jerry’s flavor, have a drink, make an appointment with a therapist, but then go back.

Because fair or not, the fight for equal rights is ours.

I believe Spears is committed to doing good work for the community at Emerson College. I believe she is knowledgeable of the complexities of social justice work—she even teaches a class on it. I believe she is honorable, she listens to every public protest demand and responds in politically correct terms.

Yet, to call the former Office of Diversity and Inclusion the Social Justice Center is at best naïve, and at worst, an attempt at misleading the community since their members can only function within the limits of what retains their employment.

The center should have held on to its former title to better reflect its jurisdiction, its interests, and its capabilities. And if I don’t understand the extent and depth of their reach, it is because the office’s practices are opaque, staggeringly vague, and—as the institution is—elite.

Students of color, we have given the alleged Social Justice Center our license to revolt, and in their lesser liberated hands, it has become a glorified and myopic exercise in public relations. An exercise in which “students of color” are not invited to participate because we are tired.

But tiredness, though real and uncomfortable, is neither weakness nor surrender. For it to be used as a reason for exclusion is a breach of our trust and is insulting.

We are tired of being used as nothing more than statistics. We are tired of two white students representing us in projects meant for our benefit. We are tired of patronizing and paternalistic excuses from the administration to keep us out of conversations that we want to have.

We are not tired of asking for equal rights.

The next time you feel a slow wave of exasperation, remember that nobody knows your story better than you do. You and I deserved to have a chance to be in that room on Nov. 7, 2018.

It is not the institution’s jurisdiction to decide what we want, where we want their time spent or who our collective speaker is. Those decisions are ours to make. This is our jurisdiction. It is time for us to reclaim it.

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