By Lily Zheng
The latest chapter of racial violence in America unfolded in the same way it always does. In the span of two months, the nation watched as a Black student was assaulted by a police officer in South Carolina, and prosecutors argued that the murder of Tamir Rice, a black child, was justified. We watched as systems of Black subjugation and murder replicated themselves in a pattern we have seen over and over again. But Black resistance continues, and in recent weeks, the hunger strike, football strike and the subsequent resignations of the President and Chancellor at the University of Missouri have sparked protests and direct action at Yale University, Ithaca College and other academic institutions across the country.
These victories have not been without consequences. At Mizzou, student organizing was met by a string of terrorist threats published on Yik Yak. Black students fearing for their lives fled campus in response to white supremacist groups and threats of violence, prompting widespread statements of solidarity from universities across the country.
It was Wednesday of last week when I saw the first few posts on Facebook. Tens, then dozens, then well over a hundred people on my Facebook feed shared some variation on the same status: “To the students of color at Mizzou, we stand with you in solidarity. To those who would threaten their sense of safety, we are watching.” It seemed like that message was the only thing on people’s minds. Six hours later, I shared it too. The next day, at the crux of these feelings, roughly a thousand Stanford students gathered in White Plaza for a photo op, fists in the air, before just as quickly dispersing back into their everyday campus lives.
Few people would say such an action was unnecessary or wrong, but we must realize that these performances of solidarity are a diversion from effective work. These sorts of statements, rather than serving as a base for activism, action, resistance and change, have become substitutes altogether for the work that must be done. We call it “showing support,” and no term could be more accurate – because of course, it’s not the support that we care about. It’s the showing, the parade of social justice-esque, slightly-left-of-center politics that care more about looking progressive than actually challenging the status quo.
So let’s talk about Mizzou. Mizzou is a place in the world, a real university with real students facing a dire situation. But it’s starting to mean something else when we say “Mizzou.” We are beginning to understand it like we did “Baltimore” and “Ferguson” – as an excerpt of social reality, an isolated incident of “racial tension,” “activism” and “unrest.” Thousands of miles away, we name these sites of violence as if they are hurricanes, natural disasters that come out of nowhere, wreak havoc and quickly fade from public consciousness, social media and moral responsibility.
How long has it been since you’ve used #Ferguson?
Awareness campaigns come in waves; there is always a new threat, a new outrage, a new injustice looming over the horizon. America cannot multitask – we can only deal with one “social justice issue” at once, and tragedies often compete for our desire to care. Society teaches us that our empathy is a limited resource – pick one: Ebola or Keystone XL, the Boston Bombings or Ferguson, Paris or Mizzou. And then those too will fade away, and we’ll find new disasters to take into our consciousness.
But mass incarceration and police brutality continue in Black communities across America. The Israeli occupation continues in Palestine; climate change continues to displace native and indigenous people around the world. It’s harder to understand oppressive structures when they are systems and not place names, in large part because “showing support” now feels so difficult. We can tell ourselves that sharing Facebook statuses and retweeting #InSolidarityWithMizzou do something – at least, compared to hashtags like #InSolidarityWithBlackAmerica, or#InSolidarityWithOppressedPeoples. Those sentiments feel powerless and empty, guilty promises in the absence of action.
It’s time to reframe how we think about the mechanisms that distribute power in our world – Islamophobia, White Supremacy, imperialism, colonialism, masculinity, militarism, capitalism and many others – as things that we must live with on every level of society. We must view realities like those unfolding in Mizzou as far more than media-fueled disaster porn focused on Black suffering and reductionist headlines. Mizzou is embroiled in a complex situation resulting from decades of ingrained racism, inspired by the work of black queer women amidst the Black Lives Matter movement and struggling against white supremacist sentiment on campus and in the nation. Race in America is a series of tectonic plates under the surface of our society, colliding where we cannot see and pushing mountain ranges up where they meet – Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Penny Proud. Media tells us again and again that each name is an individual tragedy. The real tragedy is our nation itself.
Our activism needs to shift. Hashtags and awareness campaigns point fingers at problems, but it is the hard and often unsung work of dismantling systems that needs to be done and that so much “allyship” and activism overlooks. We can get a thousand people in White Plaza to take a photo. Can we get a thousand people to call out their parents, friends, professors for racist, classist, transmisogynistic and ableist practices? Can we get a thousand people to turn their organizations, communities and public service away from apathy and towards liberation? Statements of solidarity are promises to action. I’ve seen many of us make those pledges – it’s about time we saw them through.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.