Student Activism Intimidating, Not Oppressive

Ryan Murphy and

In the Feb. 13 issue of The Oberlin Review, contributing writer James Tanford wrote an op-ed titled “Student Hypocrisy Part of Problem, Contributes to Injustice” on his problems with student activism. Before reading the op-ed, we hoped to find a criticism of the number of white bodies in activist spaces on this campus, or maybe the blatant cissexism that so often occurs in “feminist” organizing. Instead, we found a piece describing the thoughts of a cisgender white man who is made to feel “ostracized” and “irked” by those involved in social justice circles on campus. Never once does the author of this piece consider that people of color are ostracized, either through microaggressions or obvious exclusion, from almost every social space at Oberlin.

The thesis of Tanford’s op-ed was basically that oppressors don’t view themselves as contributing to oppression. This is true. We agree with this idea outside of the context of this piece. However, Tanford didn’t define “oppressors” as people with systemic power or privilege. He seems to speak of oppressors simply as people who are intimidating, specifically when it comes to expressing their political beliefs. This point of view is what allows social justice movements to be dismissed as “extremist.” Intimidating direct action tactics are intimidating for a reason. There are no other options at this college, or in this country, when increasingly militarized state violence continues to disproportionately target Black and trans lives. No matter how “peaceful” a protest is, it will be met with institutional resistance and violence from the law. One needs to look no further than the infamous pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis during the 2011 Occupy protests.

The “hypocrisy” that Tanford speaks of is, in reality, the fact that we are all culpable in oppression. The problem with injustice is that we live in a system that is designed to perpetuate it. Tanford specifically speaks of environmental justice. We throw things in the trash every day. That doesn’t mean that we don’t care about the environment; we all have to throw things in the trash, because that is the way disposable products are designed. This is why we are angry at the system. We are angry that we are forced to be “hypocrites” and to sometimes act in such a way that contributes to the oppression of another. Our ideology cannot always come out in our practices, and this is why we are angry.

Finally, we are most frustrated by Tanford’s assertion that “nobody is part of the problem.” Part of the problem is when a cisgender white man polices the actions of marginalized students on this campus. Maybe nobody thinks that they are a part of the problem. But even this is an objective truth that we don’t agree with. Student protesters don’t contribute to injustice by making a privileged person feel uncomfortable or on the spot. This isn’t about you. This is about a system that listens to you more than it listens to anybody else. That’s why protesters are loud. You will choose not to hear them if they are quiet.