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Heavy Meddle: I Don't Want To Be A White Savior

A grad student activist can’t get those students affected by her activism involved with it. (Jerry Kiesewetter/Unsplash)
A grad student activist can’t get those students affected by her activism involved with it. (Jerry Kiesewetter/Unsplash)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! We need letters, so please send me one. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

...

Dear Steve,

I'm a grad student who's involved in organizing on campus around international human rights issues. For the past two years, I've given anywhere from four to 15 hours of my time per week doing the often tedious but important work required to educate students on campus about issues, coordinate cultural and social events and generally, keep the organization itself running.

The school I go to has a very high population of international students, and, as it's a relatively affordable school, we have mostly undergrads from working and middle-class backgrounds. Many are taking their coursework extremely seriously, work one or more jobs and have lots of family obligations outside of the classroom. So the good news is that they are mature and generally receptive and bright when it comes to the issues we organize around. The bad news is they are just so busy that they can't participate, come out to the events we organize or even regularly make meetings.

In fact, I often find myself in the awkward position of helping to put on political/cultural events without much if any guidance from students whose own parents and families (or even themselves!) are directly affected by the injustices we are working to remedy. I think it matters, in this context, that I'm a white American, so I am going necessarily to be blind to certain concerns of the largely Arab populations our organization seeks to advocate for. I am a big believer in "nothing about us without us is for us."

In fact, I often find myself in the awkward position of helping to put on political/cultural events without much if any guidance from students whose own parents and families (or even themselves!) are directly affected by the injustices we are working to remedy.

But I also believe that "our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." I am passionate about furthering folks' awareness about this cause, but also aware that part of the reason I even have the privilege of extra time and energy to organize is because I am a white American.

So I'm wondering: What can I do, in my capacity as one of the four or five leading members of this group (some of which are non-white but only one of which is actually from the country we're advocating for), to make it more welcoming and accountable to the student populations most affected by the issues we're dealing with? I graduate next year and want to make sure I leave the organization in better shape than I found it.

Should I consider more virtual, low-stakes way for folks to be involved? I'm honestly not trying to be anyone's white savior. I'm just feeling worried about accountability and short on creative ideas.

Signed,

Passionate But Perplexed

...

Dear PBP,

You’re facing a dilemma inherent to activism in the age of global migration and capitalist anxiety. It’s hard for a cause to compete for time and attention when it’s up against study or work or socializing or simply getting a little downtime. Activism requires that people take action, that they unplug and come out to events. But it also requires them to confront the world’s imperfections and injustices and to recognize that they are morally involved with those injustices.

If you’re finding it hard to rally the troops, it’s because you’re not just asking for their time and energy. You’re asking them to care more about the world, to shoulder an extra burden. And for students whose families have left a troubled part of the world and come to America and enrolled in college, the whole idea of their lives may be predicated on moving beyond that trouble. That is, getting an education, assimilating into American culture and becoming part of the fabric of this country.

For immigrants and/or students with foreign visas, life in the age of Trump comes with a whole new set of anxieties simply by virtue of the anti-immigrant policies the new administration has pursued. If you’re an immigrant or a person of color, you’ve already got a target on you. Why make it worse by getting involved with activism? Again, I don’t know the students in question or their histories. I’m just making educated guesses.

If you’re an immigrant or a person of color, you’ve already got a target on you. Why make it worse by getting involved with activism?

But you’re asking for ideas as to how to get more folks involved, particularly those from the region you’re advocating for. One thing to consider is an event that allows students from this region to talk about their own experiences and those of their families. The event could be one in which they get to be the featured attraction, rather than members of the audience. People tend to be flattered when they’re come to as experts, and they tend to like to tell their own stories.

You might also consider meeting with professors on campus whose courses, or academic study, have some relationship to your activism. This would allow them, potentially, to expose their students to the work your group is doing.

And you should, by all means, solicit Arab or Arab-American students directly. Share your concerns with the one fellow activist in your group from that community. Get his or her advice. See if he or she is willing to help out in recruiting folks who will take up the mantle after you’re gone. And accept that your group may need to change its style of activism — the kinds of events your group organizes, who's in charge, how you do outreach, the language you use — to compel more involvement.

One thing you must do is esteem the hard work you’ve been doing, regardless of the results. As you well know by now, activism is hard. Most of us would rather stay in our own bubbles of thought and concern. Americans, for better or worse, largely enjoy that privilege.

But now is a moment in our history when some Americans are realizing that democracy isn’t just an entertainment product and that the work of engaged citizens will be necessary to protect the rights we’ve come to think of as basic. That’s an energy you can, and should, plug into as you carry out your vital work.

Onward, together,
Steve

Author's note: Calling all activists! What would you say to Passionate But Perplexed? What does she need to hear? Post your feedback, and/or counsel, in the comments section below. Send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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