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This is the fourth entry in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by readers. See more about the series or ask your own question here.


“I get that white people can’t be victims of racial prejudice in the US. I get the definition of ‘racism = prejudice+power.’ How do you explain that to a working class white person in an instance where a person of color clearly has institutional power the working class white person does not (For example a Principal and a young student, a cop, etc). My go to approach has been to basically say ‘they weren’t being racist, they were being an asshole,’ but I don’t know how effective that is.”

I’ve written about explaining the “prejudice + power” definition of racism in the past, here. That post didn’t address class imbalances specifically, but it’s useful background.

In short, I personally don’t think it’s necessary to insist on the “prejudice + power” definition in all contexts. The “prejudice on the basis of race” definition of racism is a legitimate one. It’s been around a long time, and insisting that it’s wrong will often get you a dictionary shoved in your face.

What I suggested saying in that other post was that the activist/scholarly definition of racism exists because it serves a purpose — that prejudice which has the weight of history and power behind it operates differently than prejudice which doesn’t. If you don’t want to use the term “racism” to refer to prejudice backed by that kind of power that’s fine, but the distinction remains an important one.

Okay. So that’s where I’m coming from generally on this. On to your specific question.

To my mind, the scenario you describe highlights a real weakness in the “prejudice + power” shorthand. It’s meant to reference the kind of hegemonic power I talked about above, but the word “power” on its own doesn’t really convey that. As a result, it’s not at all unreasonable for a white person confronted by it to point out that (1) sometimes people of color have power over white people, and that (2) it’s pretty weird and gross not to acknowledge that fact.

But if “power” as a word choice is maybe unfortunate in this context, the dynamic it’s trying to highlight is real. I’m not sure this analogy would work for everyone, but it might be useful to suggest that existing in society is like being in a boat on a river. Even when you’re just sitting there not doing anything, you’re being carried along by the current.

For four centuries in this country — since long before this country even was a country — anti-black racism has been part of the current that carried everyone along. It was part of the way that people — white and black — understood the world. And it wasn’t just a matter of ideas. It was built into the structure of the society legally, economically, politically. In every way. And though I’ve been using the past tense here, neither those structural inequalities nor the ideology of racism have disappeared. They remain, and they remain profoundly important.

Anti-black racism is part of the current we’re carried by, and that current is the difference between racism and prejudice. A white person who is prejudiced against black people is rowing with the current of the river, and even a white person who isn’t prejudiced against black people is traveling downstream just by sitting there in the boat.

Now, yes, there are circumstances in which anti-white prejudice is backed up by institutional power or locally prevailing attitudes. (There are eddies in a river that will carry you upstream sometimes too.) But the overwhelming truth in this country is that engaging in anti-white prejudice is rowing upstream. It’s not impossible to row upstream, and it’s not at all impossible for a white person to be harmed by racial prejudice. We do an injustice to the truth and to real people’s lived experience when we deny that, or dismiss it. On an individual level, a white person’s experience of racial prejudice can be devastating, and legitimately so.

But the river is the river.

This is the third entry in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by readers. See more about the series or ask your own question here.

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Via and Twitter, from @scorpiogrrl78:

What can I do to be a better ally as far as intersectionality is concerned? 

I’ve hesitated on answering this one, for a couple of reasons. Allyship is a process, not an identity, as @FeministGriote says — Melissa McEwan has written about that as well — and a big part of doing ally work usefully is responsiveness to context.

An example: Yesterday Elon James White tweeted about being studiously avoided by a bartender while she served all the white people in the bar around him. Several of the white patrons, he said, were visibly confused by the bartender’s neglect of him, but none said anything.

In response to those tweets — and having today’s questions in mind — I tweeted this:

It wasn’t terribly profound, but I figured it was something.

In response, though, two different people pushed back. One said that one time she’d handled a situation that way she’d been cursed out for her “white savior attitude,” and another said that in those situations she tends to defer to the person on the receiving end of the crap — if they don’t want to make a big deal about it, she doesn’t want to make a big deal on their behalf.

I pushed back a little on the pushback, noting that you can address a situation quietly, without escalating, and that intervening on someone’s behalf can be subtle and non-adversarial. I also suggested that in many situations it’s possible to intervene without implicating the person who’s being targeted in your intervention. My friend Andrea also offered some good suggestions, pointing out that a simple “hey, not cool” is often both more effective at changing behavior and less mortifying to the person you’re trying to assist than a big scene would be.

But ultimately, yeah, the responses were reasonable, because yeah, these kinds of interactions are complex and it’s easy to react in ways that’ll make things worse.

I offered a few other suggestions for specific things a person could do to be a useful ally in various situations (here, here, here, here, here, and here), but each of them is highly context-dependent, too. Attempting to grope toward a unifying principle, I came up with this:

Not a quote for the ages, but maybe a start.

Okay, so there’s all that. But that’s all general allyship stuff, and the question @scorpiogrrl78 asked was specifically about intersectionality. What about that issue?

One thing I find really useful about the much-maligned concept of intersectionality is its reminder that identities can’t be mapped as Venn diagrams — that the experience of being a woman of color, say, can’t be broken down to “experience of being a woman” + “experience of being a person of color.” Our identities aren’t just overlaid on top of each other, and they don’t just mix together like paint. They interact with and inflect each other in complex, particular, and constantly shifting ways. Identity categories are concepts — important concepts, but concepts — and nobody lives life as a concept.

Building off of that, it’s crucial to remember that all of us inhabit intersectional identities. (Whiteness and maleness are identities, for instance, and they’re ones that absolutely operate intersectionally.) “Intersectionality” is sometimes used as a shorthand for discussing the experience of being oppressed or marginalized along multiple axes simultaneously, but that’s a huge and harmful misreading of the idea.

Beyond that, I’d say that trying to come to grips with productive allyship though an intersectional framework serves to bring to the foreground the tensions that exist in all ally work. A lot of folks I know who want to be allies find themselves paralyzed by the contradiction between two imperatives — the demand that allies recognize their own ignorance and marginality in others’ struggles against oppression and the demand that they act forcefully against injustice. As a wise man once said, “you’ve gotta play this game with fear and arrogance,” and without succumbing to either.

Which, I guess, brings us back to where we started. There’s no template for ally work, no comprehensive set of rules. There’s no formula to follow to ensure you’ll never screw up, because confidence that you’re safe from screwing up is itself a way of screwing up. A commitment to not screwing up, a willingness to screw up, and an ability to repair the damage done when you screw up are all essential to the project.

Now that the podcast of the Intelligence Squared debate is up and the show is beginning to run on the radio, I’m seeing a bit of new site traffic from viewers and listeners. Hi!

If you’re interested in more background on the arguments I made in the debate, here are some links…

  • The current wave of attention to campus free speech issues and political correctness is in large part a response to Jonathan Chait’s January New York magazine essay “Not a Very PC Thing to Say.” I wrote a critique of that essay’s arguments here, as well as several followups you can find in the archives.
  • I’ve written about the violent suppression of peaceful student protest in the University of California on many occasions. A few examples can be found here, here, and here. A full year before the pepper-spray incident at UC Davis captured the nation’s attention, I expressed my fear that the UC police’s accelerating spiral into violence could end in tragedy.
  • I wrote about Wendy Kaminer’s controversial appearance on the Smith College panel before the debate, and recapped our IQ2 discussion of it here.

If you’d like more background on anything else I said, feel free to let me know. And if you’d like to continue the discussion of the issues that we tackled in the debate, just leave a comment and I’ll be sure to respond.

This is the second entry in a series of posts in which I answer questions posed by readers. See more about the series, or ask your own question, here.

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This question was posed via

What’s the best definition of social justice that is generally accepted among its advocates? Further what is the reason why the concept of social justice specifically is needed, as opposed to just calling it “justice”? Thanks.

Here’s a case where Google can get us most of the way home. I typed in “what does social justice mean” and Google’s built-in dictionary spit back this:

Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.

“individuality gives way to the struggle for social justice”

Pretty good, it seems to me. And that was before I even clicked on anything.

I hope this doesn’t come off as snotty, by the way; I’m definitely not chastising you for asking the question instead of Googling it yourself. I invited questions, and I’m happy to get them. And it’s definitely true that just Googling won’t always work out this well — if I’d Googled “what does racism mean” I would have gotten an answer that a lot of lefties wouldn’t have liked at all.

But when I was thinking about how to answer this question, Google was my own first stop. No need to re-invent the wheel writing my own definition if I could find a good one, and I generally try to do a bit of research before spouting off, whatever the topic. Poking around online is also a great way of diving into a subject that you’re nervous about broaching with someone else, particularly if you can figure out how to find an answer that’s tailored to the context you’re interested in.

As for the second part of the question — why “social justice” instead of just “justice” — the quote that follows Google’s definition points toward an answer. Justice, in isolation, is usually defined in relation to the individual, and social justice looks at the problem from a societal perspective, usually with particular attention to issues of diversity and inequality. (The Center for Social Justice and Human Rights at Appalachian State University has a lengthy essay up exploring these issues from a legal/philosophical perspective.)

Though the concept of social justice and the phrase itself have a long history, the term has gained a new prominence in recent years, particularly among activists and those who mock them. I’m not going to try to summarize all that right now, but I’m happy to take follow-up questions in comments if anyone has them.

This is the first entry in a series of posts in which I answer questions posed by readers. Find out  more about the series, or ask your own question, here.

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Today’s question was prompted by my tweets about faculty-student sex yesterday, in which I argued for a flat ban on sexual relations between students and professors. Here’s the question, sent to me by Twitter direct message:

I’m curious to know if you think that that kind of relationship is comparable to a relationship between a prominent student activist in a radical community and someone brand new to this community & social justice / if consent lines are similarly blurred in that kind of situation?

It’s a good question. I’ve got a half-finished piece somewhere about peer-to-peer sexual harassment in student organizing circles, and I think it’s an issue we don’t talk about enough. So, okay. Here we go.

As I said on Twitter, professors who pursue students for sex corrode the teacher-student relationship — not just the relationship with the student who is being pursued, but with all the other students who find out about it. My view is that profs shouldn’t have sex with their students because it’s incompatible with their professional obligations to them and because a teacher’s professional obligations to their students trump their personal interest in them.

Even in the presence of freely-chosen, enthusiastic, mutual consent, in other words, professor-student sex is a really bad idea. And that’s a very unusual situation. Even where institutional relationships exist between two people, it’s rare to regard consensual sexual relationships between adults as immoral. I can imagine exceptions, I suppose, but in general I’d say that if two student activists are freely consenting there’s nothing wrong with them hooking up.

So let’s look at the issue of consent.

In order for consent to exist, it must be freely chosen. If you don’t have the capacity to meaningfully consent, consent can’t exist. If you’ve been been forced or coerced, consent doesn’t exist. Consent consists of a free choice made by someone who possesses the capacity to choose.

Coming back to the organizing environment, my primary concern would not be with lines of consent being “blurred,” as you put it, but with those lines being breached by coercion or predation.

If someone has a lot of social influence in a given group, that gives them power, and that power may be used abusively. They may manipulate situations in order to create the opportunity to exploit others sexually by isolation or incapacitation. They may exert pressure on others to give in to their advances. They may use their influence to silence their victims and their victims’ supporters.

In each of these scenarios, though, we’re talking about behavior that would be abusive even without the power differential — it’s not that sex which would be consensual in another context is now rendered problematic by one party’s power, but that the person’s power gives them opportunities to engage in and get away with behavior that would be wrong in any context.

To put it another way, in this context I’m generally less interested with how encounters look from the outside than in how they look to the participants. If each party sees themselves as actively, enthusiastically, freely choosing a sexual relationship, I’m not going to second-guess their judgment. The hookup be a good idea or a bad one, it may end well or poorly, it may help or harm the movement, but in most situations adults should be presumed to be capable of making their own sexual choices.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What do y’all think?

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

Twitter Updates

  • The Ed Reckless incident in those last tweets is a perfect example of the trend of seeking impunity under the banner of civil liberties. 1 hour ago



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