Social justice codeswitch

Opinion by Lily Zheng
April 20, 2017, 12:36 a.m.

Sometime during sophomore year, for the first time, a friend told me that I was “woke.”

“Thanks,” I said, as I tried to look unsurprised, like there had been a sticker on my head for a few months that had only gotten noticed now. I was, of course, thrilled.

2015 was my year of politicization, when the events that took place on campus and in the world forced me and many others to take action. The sense of urgency in the air drove us to attend events, devour online educational guides and self-educate so that we could understand police brutality, systemic racism and other modern-day forms of historical injustice from which no person was immune.

We picked up, among other things, a vocabulary that allowed us to communicate about these concepts. We learned about the many privileges afforded to us by historically-based inequity, the ways we remain complicit in maintaining these inequities, the ways in which this inequity manifested in the active oppression of marginalized groups and the injustice of this entire arrangement.

We learned about the powerful tools of intersectionality, and the dream we could achieve of collective liberation, a world in which inequity did not exist, oppressive systems had been dismantled and people could realize self-determination and self-actualization. We learned, perhaps implicitly, that silence is violence, that remaining passive or neutral in the face of injustice made us a part of that injustice ourselves.

And there were always more ideas. Regarding gender equity and trans liberation, we learned about toxic masculinity, passing politics, cisheteronormativity. Regarding militarism and imperialism, we learned about proxy wars, occupation, pinkwashing. Regarding race and racism, we learned about the school-to-prison pipeline, colorism, colonization. Every injustice had a name and a mechanism, and as there were many injustices, so, too, were there many names and many mechanisms.

This was — and to a large extent, still is — a different type of learning than the type we did in the classroom. The literary canon we drew from was shared through mass emails and Facebook posts and discussed in community centers and student group gatherings. It was learning that empowered us to give words to our experiences, and to strikingly indict the world around us — our dorms, our classrooms, our university. For students who hadn’t felt like they had a voice here, it was a poignant reminder of our power.

Two years have passed since, and activism has changed. Many frosh come pre-politicized, and a campus-wide movement is notably absent, swapped out for an endless number of smaller projects, initiatives and events. The words “intersectionality,” “justice,” “privilege” and “liberation” can now be found on flyers and promotional materials for the many academic departments, labs and research centers on campus. A student says “oppression” during class, and we all nod understandingly, perhaps even boredly (whereas during sophomore year, this act of bravery would cause time to stop as we collectively held our breath, expecting carnage as activist and professor duked it out).

Happy ending? Of course not.

Many of the systems, processes and ideas we indicted two years ago are still around, and institutionalization of activist lingo notwithstanding, this university continues to be riddled with injustices and inequities. As activists, we can either see the university’s usage of “our” language as one of two things. We can interpret it as cooptation and find new words and ideas for our movements that have not been coopted (in the same way we abandoned “diversity” and “equality”). Or, we can use this as an opportunity to really figure out what we want — what changes we want to see and how we can get there — and leverage our shared language to put change in motion.

This necessitates, as the title of this piece suggests, a social justice codeswitch. While the language of indictment (“this class is a transphobic mess that silences trans students”) is a powerful rallying tool for awareness-building and social pressure, it is not a language that can sustain the work of problem-solving, negotiation and institutional change. (“Is there a way we can hold a best practices training for this department? Is a best practices training even the right idea? Is there a way we can influence what’s taught in the curriculum of this class? How?) To do this, as activists, we either need to practice our translation skills or do better at identifying institutional liaisons who already know them.

Our actions and words become powerful when we can use them like tactics, and we can only call these things “tactics” when we have more than one at our disposal. If activism at Stanford is here to stay — and I suspect it is — then we have a responsibility as activists to do it well.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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