diversity digest
Summer 01
Student Experience
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Dismantling the Core: Challenging Racism and Privilege Through Student Organizing
By Michelle Asha Cooper, Program Associate, Association of American Colleges and Universities and PhD Student, University of Maryland, College Park


College campuses have witnessed an increase in political activity as students vehemently challenge acts of injustice and inequality on local, national, and international fronts. Across the nation, students are organizing resistance efforts that emphatically denounce the growing economic chasm and lack of democratic accountability affecting our society.

Some of the major protests by these student organizers have concerned labor issues, focusing on the exploitation of low-wage earners across the globe, World Trade Organization (WTO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies, and the corporatization of higher education. Today's students are making connections between their campus culture and the larger community and are creating pathways to discover histories and issues that have been avoided or neglected in their education.

The energy, passion, and dedication of the student organizers show great promise for social change. As evidenced by the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which called attention to the discrimination of racial minorities and women in academe, student movements can play a transformative role on campuses and in the larger society. In order to achieve substantive change, student movements must address and support diversity and democracy. To reach the core problems of society and effect real social change, student movements must not only protest issues, but they must also acknowledge and attack the system of racism and white privilege that underlies these issues and often the movements themselves.

For instance, the anti-sweatshop movement sweeping across campuses has the potential to be a movement for racial justice. After all, people of color comprise the largest percentage of sweatshop laborers. Within the past year, students at the University of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon, Iowa, and Kentucky, as well as SUNY-Albany, Tulane, Purdue, and Macalester, among others, participated in anti-sweatshop sit-ins and other demonstrations. But are these students seeing the connection between the sweatshop labor issue and institutional racism? To view sweatshop labor simply as an issue about class exploitation is to ignore how racism keeps people economically and socially stratified.

Likewise, to the average observer, the majority of students participating in these campus-based social movements appear to be white. And while students of color are organizing as well, many of these students argue that white student activist groups receive better treatment from those in power.

Justin Higgins, sophomore class president at North Carolina Central University, a historically black college, and a member of the regional student anti-WTO/IMF coalition, explained that he was not sorry to have missed the Seattle demonstrations. If there had been primarily black students, Higgins said, "there would have been real bullets, not rubber bullets" (Featherstone 2000).

Because of the pervasiveness of racism in the lives of people of color, students of color constantly grapple with racism as an issue affecting social organizing. On the other hand, white students are sometimes unaware of how white privilege operates in their lives and affects their worldview. As a result, these disparate realities among organizers can sometimes lead to tension and conflict within groups. So, leaders within these student-led movements, if they are to be effective, should be aware that they cannot dismantle societal problems by simply glossing over or ignoring racist structures and racial inequalities within their own struggles for justice and equality.

When racism is overlooked, it is typically because of one's inability to address how racist practices and assumptions largely ignored in daily life shape opinions, beliefs, and interactions, sometimes in internalized ways. Also, many individuals feel that if they are addressing issues of societal oppression, they do not need to focus directly on racism. Because supporters of an organization that addresses social issues are seen as progressive, the racial politics of the organization itself may never be examined. In the end, if the connection between economic injustice, white privilege, and racism is not emphasized, these movements risk perpetuating the very inequalities they are trying to change.

SOURCE Featherstone, Liza. "The New Student Movement." The Nation (May 15, 2000).


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Because of the pervasiveness of racism in the lives of people of color, students of color constantly grapple with racism as an issue affecting social organizing.

Communication tips
This new wave of activism by college students is extremely newsworthy because it counters stereotypes that students today are apathetic or interested only in online activism. Whether students of color lead, participate in or support protests addressing global issues could provide a fresh angle on the story for many journalists and media outlets. If students can relate their participation in--or attitudes toward--the protests to what they learned in the classroom, there is an opportunity to use this issue to spread the word about the importance of diversity education and the ways that diversity education affect students' lives.

If such protests are taking place at your college or university, consider a discussion group with diverse students to explore their attitudes toward the protests. Invite a friendly journalist to observe, if you think doing so will not inhibit students, and if you think the discussion will be constructive and interesting. Or, consider exploring whether a student or students would consider drafting a 700-word guest editorial on the new wave of student activism--perhaps point/counterpoint guest editorials that explore whether the student group that is organizing the protests is perpetuating injustices in its work. This kind of constructive discussion can educate broad audiences who learn about campus activities through the media.