When I read Jake Villarreal’s article in a coffee shop in London, I had to take a minute to mentally repeat in a loop, “Preach.”
Like all situations and issues in life, there needs to be an acknowledgement of a problem before discussion of a working solution can take place. While I agree with Jake on various points, I want to further develop this discussion by focusing on the activists who partake in activism and the community in which activism takes place in.
Being abroad has led many epiphanies on Bates. Firstly, the small community and engaging education is what attracted me to the come all the way to Maine. The personalization and access to administration and professors is an incredible asset, which you quickly notice when you attend a school of 25,000 in the heart of London. Relationships you build in such an insular community are precious when you are thrown into the bustle of a global city.
Secondly, the work we do at Bates is well-intentioned, but most often, a significant portion of those who need to be exposed to these important issues the most are often left untouched by the messages. If you think about it, approximately 2,000 of some of the nation’s and world’s most brilliant, capable minds come together for four years seeking to be inspired, to create, and to learn. Are we as a school fulfilling this and providing our diverse cohort of students the sufficient resources to execute this vision of impacting and innovating in a greater world? I’m not asking this just to administration and faculty – but also to us, as peers and friends. The key tenet of activism is meaningful, purposeful work, which is something we want to cultivate here at our institution. In order for good activism to happen, we as individuals in a common collective have to be seeking for meaningful and purposeful work.
So much of what I envisioned Bates to be left me disheartened and disillusioned for some time. While I will be the first to acknowledge that I have grown so much as an individual and that Bates has been a large contributor to my development in many positive ways, a large proportion of the negative experiences have also led to the most important character developments.
I understand so much more about society than I ever did before, but it does not necessarily make me a happier human being – although it has led me to understand much of why people are unhappy and why bonds between people are so important. I studied Sociology and was given language and terminology to describe what I was experiencing in my day to day life at Bates: gender, race, sociological imagination, class difference, white privilege, male privilege, and the extensive list goes on. When you think about experience in these terms, are self-aware and able to distinguish the very real injustice that occurs on campus, the seeds of cynicism take root and start to grow in an open heart. I consistently wonder, is it just Bates or is Bates a microcosmic representation of a greater American problem, at large?
During my freshman year of college, I had a random white male at a party approach me at Yellow House, clap his hands together and utter a spew of racist ching chong mutterings at me. Then there were the more eyebrow-raising comments such as, “I’ve never slept with an Asian girl before, I’ve always wanted to,” on the occasional Saturday night on Frye Street. When you experience these things alone, it can be quite isolating if you don’t realize that it’s the structures beyond you that are being reinforced and a mere lack of education (ironically). You can often be misunderstood, labelled as “overthinking” it, or called the angry minority, which is quite frustrating and delegitimizes an experience that is still very true and alive in our supposedly progressive community.
It wasn’t just me who experienced these comments, it was a group of visibly different students who were keeping their discriminations invisible – as minorities are often taught to do when they hold the minority opinion. “Don’t cause disruptions to the system.”
Subsequently due to our freshman year experiences at Bates as Western-born Asian students, Kevin Deng and I started AASIA, a space for Asian-American and HAPA students. In retrospect, the journey to start AASIA was actually quite ridiculously hilarious.
There was much reluctance to have an Asian-American activism and solidarity group on campus in conjunction with Sangai Asia (which predominantly caters towards International Asian students, who have a wholly different experience from us). At one point, when I was meeting with an unnamed Dean to make our case, I was sharing how there was a growing Asian-American culture in music, to which he asked me with the most serious face, “Wait, there’s such thing as Asian-American music?” I did a double take and thought I had just been transported back to the 1960s. Said person illustrated my point exactly – there’s such a need for more representation and education on campus. There’s LA’s Dumbfoundead, Seattle’s Blue Scholars, the sweet-hearted Kira Grannis, electro house guru Steve Aoki, classical musician Yo-Yo Ma, the soothing Priscilla Ahn and Top 40’s Bruno Mars, to name a few. This lack of sensitivity, while surprising, is set amidst a backdrop where the Office of Intercultural Education has been undergoing such a tumultuous change in a time when it needs the most stability. We are recruiting students from a wider set of experiences and backgrounds at an unprecedented, historical rate for our college and yet we do not have the adequate infrastructure in place to support these students when they arrive through and leave our doors at graduation.
Yes, as a community, we like to brand ourselves as progressive, liberal, and Democrat, but how many of us are actually practicing this in our social groups and our everyday lives? The Class of 2015 has an overflowing amount of Economics majors who often aspire to work at Barclays and consulting firms such as Analysis Group. These students will potentially produce high incomes and give back to the Bates Fund – but how can we engage our future economic leaders to take part in combining social strategy and profit, which is where the future of sustainable business models are moving? How can we encourage students to take classes and truly engage with the content in Sociology (for example) – and care?
Before we can think about activism, we should consider the dynamics of the activists on campus, or rather – the dynamics of our students on campus. Are we united? Are we synchronized? Are we one in our fight against injustice? Without the core grounding of unity and recognition of different beginnings, activism is moot and disorganized. Why are there practically no Asians in the Women of Color group on campus? Are Asian women not women of color? And if they are, why aren’t we “labeling” ourselves as such. White males in their late teens and early twenties are one of the largest demographics for rap and hip hop, yet why do we see barely any white faces at any of the open mic and hip hop nights, but instead a sea of color? I know I heard Juicy J and A$AP Rocky blaring out of the men’s bathroom in 280, and it wasn’t coming from the one black male on my floor. How many friends in your social circle look different from you, have a different sexual orientation or come from a different faith?
Here’s a case for you: we have so much environmentalism going on at Bates that is predominantly spear-headed by white women. Yet, I’ve never heard the green movement utter this truth that a fellow minority friend mentioned to me, “The irony is that poor people recycle the most, because they can’t afford not to.” Activism needs to be inclusive of activists from all backgrounds, classes, and experiences. Just because you take up a cause does not mean you automatically understand all the nuances and layers to it – it is a continuous negotiation that we perpetually immerse ourselves in. bell hooks writes poignantly about it in her “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center:” When the contemporary feminist movement began, many of its proponents argued that women shared “bonds of sisterhood” across race and class lines. This “essentialist” position as it was later called, presumed that the common experience of being born female in a patriarchal social structure transcended in importance and impact the very dissimilar experiences that divided women of diverse classes and race.” Causes and activism are very personal to each individual, and since we all have different experiences, this translates in different ways but is often lost in a conversation led by the dominant group.
The most disappointing realization is that so many people at Bates who are seeking to make change experience marginalization of their marginalization by those who are closest to them – who don’t quite get it or are unwilling to open their minds to acknowledge that there are still some serious problems taking place in our beautiful campus. Being critical is the first step to improvement. Admitting that something needs constructive improvement is not insulting to Bates, but rather a continued dedication to development and progression. As we are on the process of becoming true, we should focus on working towards being better, open-minded people who actively PARTAKE in building meaningful relationships with others. We should work on the activists first before the activism. It will make our cases all the stronger and our work so much more powerful when we can understand, empathize, and support one another. When you start seeing more of the world and meeting more of the world, there is more common ground between us than we all realize. It’s something that I love most about my friends and our community at Bates.