Faculty voice:

Alyssa Hadley Dunn and Terah Venzant Chambers: Student-led activism, what's race got to do with it?

March 14, 2018

Alyssa Hadley Dunn (above right) is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Terah Venzant Chambers is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration.

We were horrified, as were many across the nation, by the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that took the lives of 17 innocent students and teachers. We also share feelings of pride and admiration for the student survivors who have subsequently led a movement for changes in gun laws.

This movement resonates particularly strongly for us as professors at MSU, given the horrific news that has emerged about the lack of response to allegations of sexual assault and violence, and the way on-campus student activism has been (and will continue to be) instrumental in fomenting change.

However, as scholars who critically examine the role of race and racism in schools, particularly and importantly in intersectional ways, we can’t help but notice how these student protests are being taken up both in national and local discourse.

Of course, student-led activism is nothing new. In fact, given recent events, it is especially critical to connect the historical to the present-day. Many of the individual efforts and demonstrations that comprised the larger Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s were led by students of color.

Organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee are better known, while the stories of other young activists were quieter yet nonetheless held historical significance. See, for example, Terah’s recent social media post about 16-year-old Barbara Johns, an African American girl whose school walkout in protest of subpar learning conditions was one of the threads that ultimately led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding of school segregation as unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

These efforts were certainly not limited to the United States, as young people of color around the globe have often led the way forward, as evidenced by protests by French college students in 1968 to achieve education reform or the 1976 Soweto Uprising led by South African high school students in protest of Apartheid rule. Thus, students, particularly youth of color, have a history of leading protests against injustice, including more recently the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

There has been a similar spirit of student activism at MSU. Most notably, the #LiberateMSU movement that emerged a few years ago. Comprised of black students at MSU, this group argued against white supremacy on campus, and called for an increase in educational and mental health resources for black students.

If we acknowledge these roots, and we acknowledge the racial dimensions of such student activism, then we have to be able to hold side-by-side two current realities, as well. We can acknowledge that what is happening now is important and valuable, but we must not ignore the racial dimensions of current student activism either.

The way that contemporary student protests, such as those happening in Parkland and at MSU, are being taken up in public discourse is a direct reflection of these racial dimensions. There have been (attempts at) major youth-led movements in recent years that have not been as widely accepted or praised, that have not seemed to “resonate” as much as these two have. The majority of the protestors we see in both of these current examples are white, in contrast to other movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #LiberateMSU.

The largely white public sees themselves in the cases of Parkland and Nassar in ways that they do not (and have been socialized not to) see themselves as directly affected by racial discrimination and other causes for which predominantly youth of color have been fighting for years.

As author Roxane Gay tweeted, “It is interesting to note the difference in support for the kids in FL versus the kids in Black Lives Matter. I say that with full admiration for the kids in FL, to survive such a trauma and fight for everyone to be safer. But that’s also what was happening in Ferguson and beyond.”

We are not asking people to challenge or not support the youth in Parkland and our MSU students; indeed, we ourselves have been active in this support and strongly believe in the power of youth voice. But we must consider, alongside this support, what types of protests and what type of protesters have captured the national media attention and social imagination, as well as why there is such disproportionate support for some youth activism over others.

We can recognize the importance of what’s happening now and simultaneously express profound disappointment that explicitly racial struggles, such as those associated with #BLM, didn’t have that kind of resonance when such struggles are of equal importance for all individuals and communities.

So what are we to do about this, at MSU and beyond? The first step is acknowledging that the attention to and praise for current forms of youth protest is about race. To acknowledge that is not racist, as some many argue; rather, it’s racist not to acknowledge that, to ignore the social realities that shape how whiteness is perpetuated and advanced in the U.S.

Next, we must recognize that current youth activism, and discussions about it, need to be intersectional. That is, we cannot see one struggle for justice as disconnected from others.

As author-scholar-activist Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Indeed, we must learn from the students in Parkland themselves, who are trying to raise the importance of intersectional justice, even as national media coverage is not.

As usual, the students are leading the way in how we must take up these efforts. At MSU, we must do the same. In our ongoing lists of demands for how we want the university to change, are we being sure to connect struggles across identity groups?

As we think about implications for MSU, another important piece to consider is the manner in which the reaction at MSU, particularly by administration, has been about Nassar. It’s convenient to do this, as he is a deserving target. But making this about Nassar also ignores the 20 years of systemic failure on the part of MSU administration to protect victims of sexual assault. Further, it leaves wide open the possibility that we continue to ignore the ways that race plays into the university’s response to student-led activism in this particular case.

Rather, as a community, we should strive to be intersectional in our fight for justice, to push back against discourse that ignores other struggles, and to lead the way – as the students in Parkland are showing us – in refusing to ignore the complexities of student activism.

MSU is a great institution — one that we’re both proud to represent. But we’re better than how we’ve responded to this situation thus far. We must be better. We must demand that we be better.