There’s something that’s been on my mind for a while. It’s not the general election, or how I’m going to pay off my student loan. It was a shocking conversation with a friend, a self-proclaimed ‘student activist’.
What he said hurt me — surprised me — but more than anything, it showed me that the idea of the ‘woke’ student activist that campaigns for social, political and/or environmental change is just that — an idea. It’s nothing more than another label in a world obsessed with categorising people, but less concerned with the integrity of those labels. The woke student activist is another line of division amongst people. It’s a redundant form of self-identification that not only sometimes encourages protest and outrage at the expense of practical solutions to issues, but also alienates those with different views and experiences. And, as this conversation (which I will get to) showed, it’s a flimsy term that allows students to dodge their own flaws and prejudices. They can call themselves ‘student activist’ and suddenly they can do no wrong; they have no ill will. It’s just not true.
I’m in no way trying to dismiss the importance of student activism. University is the one venue that should without a doubt encourage an independent ethos, and foster a critical mind, but it’s also a bubble. It seems to me that students aren’t necessarily challenging their own beliefs, or opening up to others’ perspectives, but just solidifying the world view that they harboured when they arrived. I can’t say it’s surprising, considering the fact that they (myself included) seem to hang around with others who agree with them, and (naturally) gravitate towards those with a similar background. Yes, diversity and access to university is increasing, but that doesn’t mean university is the ‘melting point’ of diversity people like to believe. The segregation at university between different races and classes is baffling, but that’s for another time.
So often, the term ‘student activism’ is associated with ‘snowflake‘ student unions banning clapping. However, it actually plays a crucial role in forcing change in society, be it acting on climate change, supporting lecturers in the fight for better working conditions, or something as monumental as the 1976 anti-apartheid protests in South Africa, which triggered a wave of student protests across the world in solidarity. Students, and young people, can change the world. But that scope for change is limited if they don’t take everyone with them.
For context, this conversation was with a friend who has previously made many ill-judged comments and dismissed the issue of racism. He has said it’s not really as big a problem as people make it out to be. On the point of diversity in academia, he singled out the field of History and said if people want to do it they can do it, there’s nothing stopping them. He uses me as an example. ‘You did it!’ he said. Yes, I did ‘do it’. I’m still trying to ‘do it’, and even though I’m only in my first year, I’ve already dealt with a barrage of racism and gaslighting from peers and teachers like him throughout primary and secondary school, and in this current climate, the thought of what I may encounter in my working life, or just day-to-day life, has at times made me despair.
This particular time, however, we were discussing an article by another young person, Athian Akec, in The Guardian. He asked me what I thought — I thought it was good. He tried to ease into his upcoming insult by saying he’s read a few pieces by him. Then, with frightening confidence, this friend said that ‘[Athian Akec] is just the token black person of the moment’. He knew a fair bit about Akec for someone who views him as nothing more than a fleeting trend.
Every inch of my being was telling me to respond, to fight back against his casual racism, his patronising attitude, his smugness, but instead I laughed with him, and I feigned agreement. I haven’t yet developed the courage to call out these types of micro aggressions, partly because it seems unless you’ve been called the ‘N’ word you’re accused of just playing the race card. These sorts of comments are viewed as ‘open to interpretation’. Well, here’s my interpretation.
I let the frustration of this missed chance fester inside of me. I’m disappointed with myself, but I’m also sorry towards Athian Akec. From what I know of him, I can tell we’re from different backgrounds, but I should have stuck up for him in the moment, as a fellow black person who has also had to endure the denigration of my achievements, as they’re put down to simply meeting diversity quotas. I know how it shatters your sense of self, how it makes you question your ability, inflates the already suffocating sense of imposter syndrome — at its worst makes you question your existence.
Athian, a member of the Youth Parliament, also calls himself an activist, campaigning on ‘knife crime, Brexit and climate change’. He, like my friend, lists his ‘bylines’ in his biography — it’s a common feature amongst young activists, a statement of credibility. There’s nothing wrong with this, but note how student activists are pitted against each other. In this case, both share the same concern for the environment, along with thousands of other young people, but instead of broadening his understanding of the topic, and acknowledging its complexities, I suspect my friend doesn’t appreciate the suggestion that his angelic form of activism has a problem with race, and isn’t so ‘woke’ after all.
Aside from all that, this friend had completely missed the point of the article. Akec talks of how Extinction Rebellion’s methods (and the wider green movement) not only alienate black people, but also ignore the experiences and voices of other groups in society. It’s frequently been raised, by white and non-white writers, that more should be done to include people of colour, and people from working-class backgrounds, in the conversation surrounding the environment. Would this friend have been more receptive had the author been white?
There’s much more to the article — just read it, and think about it. Don’t do what this guy did and dismiss it as a ‘token’ gesture. Maybe see beyond the author’s name and actually reflect on what he’s saying? Just for the record, the friend in question also had an article published, also about climate change. I don’t think he’d appreciate his efforts being labelled as ‘token’. He of course arrived at that point entirely on merit, co-writing the article with a professional (his godmother and cousin). Read into that what you will.
I want to emphasise just how dehumanising and invalidating it is to describe someone’s experiences as token. It’s not just the article, but the act of giving this young person a voice that was seen as a ‘token gesture’. Has he not commanded this platform in his own right?
The friend went on — ‘If you want to join in [with the protests] you can, you’re just being selfish if you don’t’. The underlying message in this comment, to me, seems to be, ‘Oh not another black person complaining about feeling left out. If you really cared you would put that all aside and just get with the programme’. I don’t have enough words available in my word count to list all the things wrong with that comment, but the absence of thought, the defensiveness, the aggression and the lack of empathy, is astounding, and this from a ‘student activist’. It’s laughable, it’s hypocritical. On a personal level, I must admit I still don’t understand why he felt comfortable saying this to me, his black friend. Did he know I would roll over and validate his terrible attitude? It reminds me of another friend who unashamedly told me his parents would never ‘let [his] sister marry a black guy’. I may need to find better friends, but all of this has inspired some introspection on my part.
Back to this friend. He may have the ‘title’ of ‘student activist’, the classic twitter feed full of witty remarks, ‘a few words in the Guardian … and Independent’, the quirky fashion sense, even a podcast claiming to move away from the ‘toxic atmosphere in the political sphere’ (I would argue that he has added to the toxicity), but for all the gloss and accolades, all the efforts he and many other student activists’ go to in order to project the perfect image of a woke, informed, liberal activist; I’m telling you you’re not one, and you don’t have to be. Stop getting caught up in this whirlwind of activism, and take a moment to check yourself. You don’t have to be perfect — I wouldn’t have written this if I thought the person in question had the self-awareness to realise he isn’t perfect — but you do have to confront the failings in your own thinking.
Before people try and attack me as ‘bitter’ or ‘jealous’, let me clarify that I’m very fond of this person, and I know that a few careless comments don’t define him as a person, but friends also have to bring attention to each other’s blind spots. In this instance, it’s the pursuit of being the perfect student activist that is blinding people. I want to point out that this friend, who shall go unnamed, is not unique. He reflects a wider issue amongst students and young people who are politically or socially active, but jump too soon to label and frame themselves as social justice warriors. With the current environment pressing us to identify ourselves and choose our tribe, we lack the integrity that would give any of these labels meaning. Instead, they act as just another barrier to real change for everyone. I say ditch the tag, look beyond the shallow self-styling that it encourages, and maybe you’ll actually learn something.