Last December, as a first-year at Wesleyan, I participated in a Black Lives Matter protest and die-in organized by various student leaders of color. The march started in the Exley Science Center and moved around campus, culminating in four and a half minutes of silence on Main Street. It consisted of hundreds of students and faculty members (including President Michael Roth); Middletown police even established a perimeter to keep the protest peaceful. I look back on that march fondly because of its scale, its precision, and its impact. That protest marked the moment I began taking an interest in campus activism that went beyond furthering my own understanding of the oppression of marginalized groups.
This year, the campus hasn’t seen organization of the same scale. This is not to slam the amazing, hardworking activists—many of them my friends—tackling important issues through the Is This Why? campaign and protests, vigils for the survivors of sexual assault, and discussions about slacktivism. But there simply has not been a movement among students to mobilize and create productive disruption.
The advantages of such disruptions are multifold. For one, they force people who are not part of marginalized groups to pay attention to our words. Privilege is just as much about being able to look the other way as it is about active subordination; the popularization of the word and its colloquial usage have masked this nuance. Not having to fear for your life around police because you don’t look like Laquan McDonald, not having to wonder which of the two bathrooms to use because you fit into a gender binary, not having to fit a particular body type to be considered beautiful—these are examples of some of the privileges that black, genderqueer, female-identifying, and other marginalized peoples do not have. Disruption of the status quo indisputably draws attention to these issues.
Another advantage to disruption is that civil disobedience is a reassertion of the agency of oppressed bodies. Wesleyan encourages activists to partake in productive discussion, “teach-ins,” and administration-sanctioned conversations with the trustees or the deans. But to work within the boundaries of what the University administration considers acceptable is to reify the domination of an institution that historically has disenfranchised and invisibilized othered voices (take, for instance, the demographics of the staff of the publication I’m currently writing for, which is coincidentally also Wesleyan’s primary vehicle for student expression). Implicit discrimination is still discrimination. Low-income, first-generation, international, queer, female, neurodivergent, of color—these are markers that signify a person who has been systematically oppressed throughout their experience in America because of insidious structural factors that pervade even the hallowed halls of our oh-so-nominally-liberal university. For us to look to the administration for resources for the support of marginalized groups is to reinforce the ties that keep us beholden to a primarily straight, white, male institution for our protection and well-being, one that has thus far failed to provide that protection.
To clarify, I’m not out for the administration’s blood. In fact, I believe there are administrative bodies at Wesleyan that are doing the very important work of social justice education already—Residential Life, which I work for as an RA in 200 Church, is an excellent example of a body that strives to acknowledge and actively work against oppression. I also recently joined the Student Judicial Board, which handles disciplinary infractions in a forum that is diverse by design. There are activists (including some of my residents) making important strides as part of the WSA. But ResLife, the SJB, and the WSA are examples of work within an oppressive system, analogues to Martin Luther King and the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights Movement; and it’s easily demonstrable that such bodies (which use the tools of the oppressor to eliminate oppression) do their best work when accompanied by a countervailing force outside of the system, such as Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party.
I know that it is far too easy to sit and armchair-hypothesize about effective activism, far too easy to intellectualize the struggles of the groups who are subordinated by America’s power hierarchy, and far too easy to ignore the fact that we are, after all, students with other problems too. So I want it to be clear that rather than an op-ed, this piece is a statement of purpose and a call to action. As a man of color, I have plenty of gripes with the way the Board of Trustees makes the decisions that affect my life and the lives of my peers. I will be communicating with the leaders of other student groups to plan more creative civil disobedience that brings attention to the issues that we can address as part of the Wesleyan community; I hope that my fellow students from marginalized backgrounds feel similarly and I encourage them to do the same.
Singhvi is a member of the class of 2018.