The problem of backwards activists

The problem of backwards activists

CW / Kylie Cowden

As I grow further away from my high school years, I find myself forgetting many things: assemblies, people in my classes, and thankfully, what I looked like with braces. Yet, for having a hideously bad memory, I have found a particular lesson from high school growing more poignant in the scope of my personal efforts to progress human rights and equality.

Like any college student, I often find myself thinking about and internalizing the rhetoric surrounding the 14th and 15th amendments. Here we see both progression and regression: the first gendered language is used to deny women citizenship but in the following amendment, one of the biggest progressions in American history was made when we granted the black man the right to vote. Thus making the longstanding claim that there is not enough room to fight two vehicles of oppression. When women expressed their outrage at what would make the obstacles of the early feminist movement exponentially more difficult, Frederick Douglass, a prominent civil rights activist famously silenced his friend and colleague Elizabeth Cady Stanton and claimed that this was “the Negro’s hour.”

I often think of these words when looking at the complex intersection of race and gender. The sting of Douglass’ words lives on in our approach to both feminism and civil rights, and both movements struggle to garner the small bit of empathy the still empowered cis-hetero white man has for our causes. Both struggle for the spotlight and, in turn, deny the truly earth-shattering consequences of having to deal with other identities.

To an extent, we can see how both groups have risen up in the face of competition. Over the past few years we have seen the first real introduction to sexual assault education through Joe Biden’s 'It’s On Us' initiative. We have seen Black Lives Matter organize and celebrities such as Jesse Williams voice the cries condemning racial injustice that we have desperately needed to hear. While I wholeheartedly support all of these endeavors, it remains true that it is much easier to support a black man or a white woman than it is to support a woman of color. If you were to ask many people engaged in various human rights issues, they might mimic the words of Frederick Douglass and claim their hour. But in doing so, we remain hypocritical and neglect what should be our overarching intention: equality.

Occasionally, I will look at think pieces published by activists of different domains, but rarely will I come across a feminist’s outrage on how Indians experience twice the amount of sexual violence than other races, or anything from a civil rights activist on how 67 percent of hate-crime related homicides are transgender women of color. At the moment, those struggles are not “trendy” enough for mainstream attention and support, and furthermore, white and male privilege still blinds a significant amount of people from caring about issues that directly pertain to their field of interest with the introduction of multiple identities. 

In this way, the activist community is destined for failure. If white women cannot look past their own skin color to see the elevated risks that occur simply because of pigmentation, the feminist neglects her own cause. If the black man champions Bill Cosby because of his forwardness on racial issues and overlooks or jokes about the 57 instances of reported sexual abuse he has perpetrated, including women of color, he makes obvious that he does not value all black lives.

This is not to say that there should just be one group of progressives with a unified set of demands, quite frankly, each vehicle for oppression requires a different driver with different objectives. Isolating women and race is also not fully embracing the scope of prejudices people face every day, some of which include the LGBTQIA+ community, the disabled community and classism. Each identity and how it intersects with others plays an incredibly pertinent role in how we are able to experience the world around us. Each with its own set of startling statistics the concerned should not be pressured to, even at a superficial level, pick one. 

The residual effects of ignorance are in some instances as potent as the good initially intended. It is in the best interest of the activist community to start a more inclusive fight, and the first step in doing so is starting a dialogue addressing the people we so often overlook. Similar to the rippling effects from Douglass’ words, it is important to remember that our words can be just as powerful especially in a highly digitized age. As activists, it is imperative that we push ourselves to do precisely what we encourage others to do; broaden our horizons and give voice to the oppressed.  

Madeline Anscombe is a junior majoring in anthropology. Her column runs biweekly.

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