Things have changed on campus in my time at Stanford. As student activism flared up around such issues as the Black Lives Matter movement and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, topics of social inequity and injustice permeated the walls of the Stanford bubble to settle neatly in our lecture halls and class sections, our dorms and student groups, and notably, our student publications.
Protests, die-ins and other direct actions against a vast array of inequities and injustices swept campus as many students, driven by the tumultuous events occurring around the world, sought to educate themselves on racism, transmisogyny, violence, occupation and more.
That’s how it would go if described in a textbook, at least. There’s no doubt that campus has been rocked by changes of the social justice variety in the last few years, but the demographics of those driving, resisting and struggling with change are less clear-cut. This column seeks to look within those complex demographics to critique the idea of “positive intent” – that framework that centers the innate goodness of people, and calls for patience and tolerance for those who “just aren’t there yet but are trying their best.”
We’ve all seen it before: the person who, in their attempt to do good in the world, is challenged by the people they claim to represent and becomes defensive. Or perhaps it’s one of those cases where rather than challenging the person directly, we confide in a friend only to hear them say “that person means well; they are trying their best!” And this is not so much an individual failure of would-be allies as an indictment of the way many of us think about social justice.
It’s not surprising that people become defensive when challenged if we construct the identity of “ally” or “advocate” or “progressive” around some vague idea of doing good or acting in the service of justice, then assign that identity value in our communities. Any challenge that questions the impact of actions becomes a challenge to the identities people have formed based on those actions, and perhaps even a challenge to individuals’ image of themselves. As a result, attempts to critique impact and outcome become seen as the red herring of character assassination. Defensiveness and posturing about “positive intent” become distractions from necessary and complex conversations about intersectionality, intent versus impact, effectiveness of certain advocacy or teaching tactics, and ideological gray zones in social justice.
And we have all been this type of well-intentioned and entitled ally at some point. Even (if not especially) among activist communities, we play a strange game among ourselves where we pretend that we are maximally good and just, and the people over there are maximally bad and unjust. I’m guilty of this rhetoric as well: activists vs. reactionaries, woke vs. not-woke, ad infinitum. We overlook the inconvenient truths that members of our own communities have work to do, that one experience of marginalization does not make one immune to oppressing others, that the call for “intersectionality” can be more performance than praxis.
We need to re-center our efforts around the real change we want to see. How much of the change we believe ourselves to be making actually occurs? How effective are the strategies and tactics we use in affecting attitudes, behaviors or policies?
This is for the professors out there that think themselves perfect advocates but ignore the students that speak out against their cis- or heteronormative language, their erasure of colonialism and imperialism, their support for violent policing or rape culture or occupation.
This is for the bright-eyed budding advocates, heads swirling with new ideas gleaned from articles and shared Facebook posts, who tokenize and demand labor from marginalized identities and are more eager to do something than do the right thing.
And finally, this is for the self-identified activists (me included) who, even amid advocacy and education, can lose sight of the actual communities both inside and outside of Stanford we have committed ourselves to supporting.
Those of us committed to a more just world must see that commitment past the often empty words of positive intent. We can and must accept the possibility that our actions can be more or less effective, that our understanding of strategy can adapt over time, that we need not only to change the outside world but also ourselves. Not because any of this makes us “good” or “bad” activists or progressives or whatever we call ourselves – but because we owe it to communities that struggle and resist and survive around the world each and every day. Because we understand that the end goal is collective liberation and nothing less.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.