By Meiriely Amaral
I’ve experienced punctuating moments that have directly connected me to broader social questions of privilege and collective action a couple times in my life – once in the aftermath of the 2016 election and once during a student-led strike in Chile while I was there studying abroad. The contrast between the aftermath of these two events opened my eyes to how the ways we treat the world around us in daily life can have serious consequences for society.
It’s November 9th, 2016. The day after the election. The finality of the results is devastating. I drag myself out of bed to attend my 9AM Intro to Political Philosophy class. I barely remember what we talked about, but I know it was a mix of class material and abstract election details - what was surprising about swing states, the merits of the electoral college. From there I head to French class. We speak in English; our Professor makes class a space for everyone to express their feelings. My final class of the day, Intro to Computer Science, somehow makes things worse. The professor says “well, we should get to it,” and we spend the class tinkering with Python as if nothing ever happened. Then I go to the dining hall and cry with my friend while watching Hillary Clinton give her concession speech.
Moving from one academic context to the next, the whole day felt surreal, jarring. A lot more processing followed. A lot of gathering together with people as we expressed how terrifying Trump’s election was. Some students marched on campus to demonstrate our dissent, others ridiculed us. Or even worse, stayed complacent.
Fast forward to April of 2018. I’m studying abroad in Santiago, Chile, and my university, Universidad Alberto Hurtado, experiences a feminist strike (“paro”) and university occupation (“toma”). A paro in the context of my university in Santiago paused school as usual. Students involved in the toma went into the university, stayed there 24/7, and boarded up the facilities to maintain control over entry and exit. The paro and toma were feminist in their purpose to protest sexist Professors, sexist curricula, and a lack of consequences for perpetrators of sexual assault in the campus community.
However, the paro and especially the toma were also formulated so that the students protesting could organize workshops and talks inside and outside the university to discuss what was happening and why, and possible solutions. This way, all students could continue with their education. Instead of engaging in the usual academic routines, however, their education would be about feminism, and how sexism was prevailing in their classrooms, syllabi, and community.
I attended some of the events hosted as part of the toma, one being a discussion with my “Social and Political History of Chile” class led by the teaching assistant. The teaching assistant asked me what I, as a foreigner studying abroad, thought of everything going on. I responded that the underlying issues that led to the paro and toma are topics I talk and learn a lot about in my classes in the US. But it’s only me and a select few who choose to major in Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies that engage in these conversations. What most impacted me about the paro and toma was the power of near universal participation in these conversations, or at the very least, that the structure of these protests forced others to think about these issues and how they were complicit in their perpetuation.
I’ve reflected for a while now on how privilege allows for distance. I personally believe that with the resources available to people with privilege – mainly, the internet - there’s no reason for anyone to be ignorant or to lack compassion for things that don’t directly affect them. However, I understand that no one is going to wake up, and without prompting, pursue learning about something that does not affect them, or take it upon themselves to critically engage the very privileges that oppresses others while benefiting them. For example, take the case of men actively fighting against being paid more than women. It’s unlikely that men will advocate, unprompted, to be paid less to promote equal pay, unless some external force shows them the adverse effect their higher pay is having on others.
Such a reality raises the question: which spaces enable this privileged distance? In my experience, I’ve noticed its heavy prevalence in academia. In academic spaces, there exists an unspoken rule that the subject’s content matters above all else; external factors outside the classroom have no influence. However, academia doesn’t exist in a vacuum, particularly when professors and students exist in societies steeped in systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, capitalism, and ableism. The implicit and explicit biases people absorb through living in these systems go ignored. As a result, the learning and teaching that takes place in American institutions of higher education perpetuate the very same ‘isms’. That’s why the separation and compartmentalization between societal issues and academia can be harmful and needs to change. If every class has this compartmentalization, no one can understand the systemic nature of racism, classism, sexism, ableism, or take responsibility for fixing it. Maybe someone will never experience racism, but if, for example, their biology class taught the impact of racism on health and wellbeing, they would not only understand the severity of structural racism, but they would also be better equipped to unlearn their own implicit racism.
I understand that academia in and of itself is a privileged space, but universities do not wield a monopoly on collective consciousness building – awareness raising can happen in workplaces, community centers, and anywhere else people come together. I write about academia because that’s where the most glaring examples have come up for me, but I can easily see how compartmentalization of societal issues manifests in other spaces.
For all of these spaces treated like a vacuum from reality, I think it takes the simple asking: Why do we think [blank] has nothing to do with this space? What resources are there to inform us about how [blank] interacts with this space? What can we do not only to consciously fight and unlearn oppressive systems that WE have internalized, but to transform the spaces we inhabit to be ones where EVERYONE questions and unlearns oppressive systems we have internalized?
Here are some resources that shed light on the interrelatedness of things:
- Poverty Scholarship, Poor People-Led Theory, Art, Words & Tears Across Mama Earth by Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia, Dee Garcia, the POOR Magazine Family
- Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble
- Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies are in a Life-or-Death Crisis by Linda Villarosa, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/magazine/black-mothers-babies-death-maternal-mortality.html
About the Author:
Meiriely is a recent Middlebury College '19 graduate, working as a paralegal for a public interest law firm in San Francisco primarily dealing with labor law. She studied Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies and Political Science in college, and is planning to go to law school next year. She enjoys running, reading, and bad reality TV!