Has the true impact of the university been to make direct action impossible?
I was lucky enough to share a meal a few weeks ago with a current student at my alma mater, who was embroiled this last year in a struggle over gender-neutral bathrooms on campus that received national attention.
After she and a group of her peers forcibly removed gendered bathroom signs from the walls of the student center, several of them faced serious fines and academic sanctions for their actions. The battle came after extensive conversations, petitioning and meetings with administration had failed to get queer and gender-nonconforming students any of the demands they had put forth.
I found so many of my friend’s insights profound, as she shared with me everything from the strain that direct action and its consequences can put on the personal relationships of those involved, to how study abroad programs and mental health leave can be leveraged as tools to fracture student organizing and halt political momentum. What surprised me most, though, was when she expressed her feelings of frustration with the ultimate outcome of the action.
After all the hubbub, Wesleyan University still failed to set up gender-neutral bathrooms for its students. (Though, my friend informed me, the signs remained down for the remainder of the year, and the bathrooms were continually faced and de-faced with permanent marker by students of various political persuasions.) From her perspective the action had not achieved its intended goal. I shared that from my perspective as an uninvolved alumni, it had been incredibly powerful to see realizations about the university’s priorities become a mainstream discussion, rather than just another opportunity for Diversity U to paint itself as progressive while continuing to alienate poor, Black, Brown, queer, working, immigrant and first generation students. As we mulled the events over together, we realized an important question we were beginning to ask about them: Was the purpose behind this direct action, however small, to transform the university, or dismantle it?
I left for college with the expectation of freedom. I couldn’t wait to be among other Brown, queer people who shared my passions, and gain tools for social change I believed I had been barred from in my home town. What I arrived at was something totally different: Instead of being empowered to advocate for my communities in ways I had thought myself previously unable, I found myself inculcated into an insular sphere that, even as it claimed me as proof of its own progressiveness, isolated me from the communities from which I came. It connected me to privileged networks and new accesses that estranged me from much of my family, friends and the spaces which had raised me. In order to fit in and survive I had to take on whole new forms of language and communication, ones that rarely offered me new insights into my experiences as an oppressed person, but taught me that those experiences only had meaning and value if they could be expressed through academic jargon. It became ingrained in me that writing, critiquing, analyzing were the highest-order skills, and that somehow the more of this analysis I produced, the closer I would get to liberating myself and people like me.
Living under this jarring new set of values, much of the activism I attempted as a college student looked very similar to my academic work: I gathered with other students to share readings, to teach ourselves on various radical topics, to discuss, to debate. Some of the work I did I was very proud of. But precious little of it was based on targeting the needs of my community with other members, plotting a course of action, and accruing the resources we needed, regardless of what permission we’d been granted. In retrospect, and in light of recent events at my university, reflections on this academic activism reveal to me a crucial new understanding: That the values I was working under, the new things I was learning from the academy, didn’t contribute to my movement building, but in reality ensured that movement building was impossible.
JOMO, a member of the revolutionary Black Orchid Collective, unveils in their landmark piece Queer Liberation is Class Struggle that the strategic gutting of labor and other grassroots, militant community movements in recent decades is what has lead to the current investment on the part of radical activism in the academy and non-profit sector:
The result…is that our movement is left with a shallow analysis of “intersectionality” rather than a full strategy by which the oppressed—people of color, women, queer folks, people with disabilities—can unite to fight our common enemies. Among progressive circles, the idea of “intersectionality” has been taken up by the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC). In the absence of working class organizations like revolutionary organizations and thriving unions, academia and the NPIC have become the dominant progressive institutions today. The theories they espouse understandably have lasting impacts. — JOMO
When placed in a historical context, our reliance on academic institutions and non-profits is not an organic arrival at welcoming spaces, but an exodus from our ravaged community movements to the best shelters we’ve been able to find—ones neither made by us nor for us, and which have no intention of fomenting nor sustaining movements for transformational social change.
What are the lasting impacts JOMO predicts, in which our investment in these institutions in place of our own communities has resulted? I feel this point cannot be overemphasized.
The ‘intersectionality’ JOMO refers to speaks not only to the individualistic identity politics that have largely replaced full-scale community movements, but also academic vocabulary. An element as seemingly simple as the language we use to discuss radical change has been wholly hijacked by institutions that have constantly represented the undermining, discrediting and intentional destruction of radical change. We know this language is elitist by definition, yet we continue to employ it to organize our intimate relationships, political alliances, and the futures of our collectives.
Yet it’s not merely elitist language we’ve ironically adopted as tools for social justice, but the larger frameworks and values which generate it. Huge sectors of our activism are based almost solely in critique and analysis, preoccupied with terminology, debate and theory. Our work has become focused on making the most airtight, politically correct arguments, and calling out the flaws in the arguments of others, instead of having messy, complicated conversations with the goal of direct action in mind. How often have we had our own experiences belittled or denied because we did not have the right vocabulary to defend them, lacked access to the buzzwords and frameworks of the moment? How often have we been discouraged from or unable to speak for fear of what analysis we had left out, what holes would be poked in our thoughts? This style of activism—so deeply inspired by the academy—often alienates the exact communities for which it claims to advocate, and ignores the fact that so many of us who are engaged in it are also at the fore of gentrification, consumption and the privatizing of oppressed communities—conversations which occur much less often than ones about ethnic studies and queer theory.
Because the academy and the resources it commands dominate our movements in the current moment, we are continuously coerced into seeking its approval and reinvesting in its values. We are rewarded for doing so—with scholarships, with salaried positions, with accolades, with clout, with publications, with degrees, with grants, with tenure, with fellowships. We are reassured by the university that the accruing of these honors and privileges will result in our commanding of our own resources, ones that will aid us in the service of our visions for justice. The reality is that the university and the NPIC gain incredible influence and control over what our movements look like, who is considered a part of them, and what kinds of organizing and action are condoned. We are dissuaded from any action that would threaten the institutions which grant us these privileges, and the more dependent we become on them, the more we fear for our livelihoods in organizing in the ways our communities truly need. Conferences, gallery openings, articles and pre-approved protests become the only outlets for us to make our voices heard.
The debacle over gender-neutral bathrooms at Wesleyan University comes at the same time as questions about sexual assault on campus and the university’s reactions reemerge yet again, as well as student protests around the insulting lack of support for the African American Studies program. Will the university respond to these struggles in ways that aid and empower oppressed communities, or ones based on preserving its own power and control? Will justice for women, for queers, for Black and Brown people, ever come from institutions which have only welcomed us when it has been convenient for themselves?
As a young, oppressed person who wants militant movements which unite my communities, I do not oppose critical analysis, community discussion, and studied planning for the ways in which we build together. I believe all these things will be crucial in generating struggles which are sustainable, inclusive and effective in threatening the systems which destroy our lives. The issue is that the academy has taught many of us not that these are steps in a larger process of direct action and militant organizing, but that they are the entire process in and of themselves. Moreover, it has taught us that this process can only be carried out on the university’s own terms, with its language, its values, its frameworks, and not the already-existing ones of the communities being affected, those doing the actual organizing.
I believe the struggle of queer and trans students at my college is powerful because in an attempt on the part of oppressed people to make the university more welcoming and inclusive, they uncovered something much more potent: That the university is unwilling and unable to include them; That the academy has roots that will always serve as its foundation, and that these have always defined, confined and rejected our struggles for autonomy; That the destruction of property—the literal and not figurative dismantling of our oppression—is exactly what it may take to gain our liberation; That the best way to advocate for ourselves and our communities is to work within them, not removed from them, and that the tools we already collectively possess are the most effective ones for gaining the resources we lack and regenerating community movements; That the university is yet another face of the same structures we must oppose, confront and destroy if we are to be truly free.