When intersectionality hurts effective activism

Activists preparing for a rally on Low Steps, Columbia University

Columbia University has always been known to be a so-called “activist” campus, in the sense that there are many groups of students on campus who champion social-justice causes. Many of these causes are recognized to be systemic issues in the United States (e.g. the marginalization of minority races, the colonization of native lands, the prevalence of gender bias in academia and industry, LGBTQAP rights, etc.), while others are more specific to the direct effect of Columbia’s presence in the world financial markets and its physical location on the border of Harlem (e.g. divestment, gentrification, etc.). Some activists care about all of these causes, others care about only a small subset.

Traditionally, collegiate activism has used the public opinion as a tool by which to force decision-makers to take issues of social justice into account. After all, an administrator charged with maintaining a safe and educational environment can hardly afford to present an image of discrimination and injustice—especially at a university which claims to be a world leader in diversity and acceptance. Each year, almost like clockwork, a new incident occurs in the public sphere which galvanizes activist groups to organize protests, rallies, and similar gatherings to draw the public attention to a new (or old) issue. This year, we’ve seen the events at Yale and Mizzou serve as that catalyst; last year, they were Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” mattress performance and the handling of sexual assault that preceded it.

Still, there is a silent majority of students who don’t care enough to voice an active opinion. And it is these students who activists need to convince to achieve effective change: the activists themselves are invariably a small subset of the overall population, and decision-makers rarely act without a belief that there is widespread discontent with the status quo. It’s important, then, that any activist movement carefully maintains its relationship with the wider student body.
Read more on When intersectionality hurts effective activism…