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When Being ‘Woke’ Is Not Enough

In such polarized times, it is not surprising that on college campuses all over the nation, students are protesting, demonstrating and taking every opportunity to voice their concerns to administrators about campus climate, national issues and how their institutions respond to them.

I find it exciting. The sense of urgency that students feel in relation to fostering equity can lead to positive change in higher education. However, there is a fine line between promoting social justice on campus and creating divisions within the communities you are trying to protect and foster.

Over the past couple of years, the term “woke” has been associated with being aware of social environments or the systemic oppression that permeates American society, especially in relation to marginalized communities. As a former administrator, I remember the rampant organizing that occurred on campus sponsored by the Black student union and other student groups because the consensus was—”most people here are not ‘woke’.” These events usually featured professors who were known to be allies to students of color who spoke about campus climate issues or national issues regarding race and class, and linked it to the civil rights movement or other pivotal moments in history.

Despite these types of events being held across the nation, deep divides still exist within and beyond the communities that are already marginalized. Why? Because at times, the same people who are fighting for social justice are too self-righteous to realize how divisive and seditious they can be to their cause.

I understand that racism, sexism and many of the -isms that are experienced on college campuses can provoke anger and unrest within the campus community.  Many times, these unfortunate, problematic incidents are met with reactionary protests and demands, usually organized by brave, outspoken students who want change. However, it is important to remember that the communities we are a part of are not monolithic, and it takes coalition-building within the community to understand the needs of the collective group.

During my tenure as an assistant dean of students, I supported many student groups in their efforts to push the administration to better support students of color on campus. Although their intent was noble, the urgency to get their concerns addressed immediately often was more important than getting a consensus from the larger community and coming up with a strategy and plan of action so that their goals were sustainable. Using their position in an organization as a symbol of authority for that community on campus, it was common for student leaders to “speak for the community” and at times make comments that were very controversial or untrue, or take actions that benefited one specific community while hurting many others.

Just because you are elected president of a cultural organization, or you have dedicated years advocating for a community, does not mean that you know what is best for everyone. While I do not want to encourage complacency, or stifle any progress students believe they are making on campus, I do want them to consider—whose voices are at the table when deciding how to advocate for a community? As a leader, are you talking to others who are not in your immediate friendship circle or organization leadership? Are you aware of the progress that has occurred prior to your involvement?

Too often, demands pit communities against each other. Advocating for an increased admission rate for a particular ethnic group does not require us to put down other ethnic groups within that broader multicultural community. Calling out White supremacy does not mean that we cannot have White allies. The reactionary and rushed forms of campus activism can be more damaging to the cause. While I am happy to see students feel empowered enough to demand change, I caution them to organize strategically, build coalitions and work with their peers and administrators for sustainable change.

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His column appears in Diverse every other week. 

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