Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Friday, January 19, 2018

I didn't know my activism was failing

Creating accessible and inclusive activist spaces

I didn't know my activism was failing

Try successfully explaining what the gender binary is to a 50-something year old man. By successful, I mean patiently clarifying what the term means and convincing him to believe what you are telling him is true. I tried to give my dad a brief lesson about gender identity in the 21st century, which did not go well. When I said “gender is not the same thing as sexuality,” without explaining what “gender” or “sexuality” meant in simple terms, I didn’t notice his confused reaction. As I proceeded to recite some boring definition of the gender binary, I did not realize my activism was failing.

I can attribute much of my early knowledge of social problems to the “woke,” or socially aware, side of Twitter and Tumblr, two resources that people like my dad do not have access to. While I dislike the term “social justice warrior,” I will admit that there have been times I wanted to launch a crusade against systems like capitalism and racism. I was instantly annoyed by anybody who didn’t share it my passion for change. What my irritability translated to is something along the lines of “what do you mean that what I know isn’t common knowledge?” When we deconstruct what “common knowledge” means, who exactly is it common to?

I have reacted harshly when someone asks for clarification when I use the words “colorism” or “patriarchy.” As a gender studies major, my reading material never diverts from social issues. Being part of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program makes me feel like I have enough knowledge to enter conversations with a variety of people about many types of inequalities.

However, maybe I’m too caught up trying to be a badass gender studies major that I’ve forgotten that my vocabulary is not universal. Of course I’m familiar with concepts such as “male gaze” and “fetishization of women of color,” I read about these theories every day, both inside and outside of the classroom.

I could not successfully explain the gender binary to my dad because I held him to an unfair standard: I assumed he would catch on quickly because I believed my knowledge was common. My activism fails when I become frustrated at my dad for not understanding what “agender” means without taking into consideration that his generation didn’t have words for gender identities outside the binary. People who do not identify with any gender at all may choose to claim the word “agender,” a word that people my dad’s age may not have heard before.

By overlooking his confusion and mistaking it as opposition to my argument, my activism fails because I do not have the humility to take a step back and explain the concept of “gender identity” to him. If I cannot explain a concept to my dad without becoming impatient or welcoming his questions, how can I take pride in my activism?

The Washington Post recently published an article featuring several American University students that sought to break down the new “college vocabulary.” While we have been familiar with this language, we are forgetting that a lot of this confusion stems from generational gaps. However, the Washington Post failed to include two crucial aspects about today’s “college vocabulary.” First, language around social justice is not limited to college campuses. While campuses are fervent hotspots for change, college students are not the only groups using this vocabulary. It is hardly ours to claim. Second, the confusion over terms is not purely a generational problem. Even other college students find themselves lost in a sea of new terms. I’ve realized that sometimes my peers are the ones who need the most thorough and patient explanations.

In many classes I’ve attended, Black students feel the need to explain issues that affect them to the White majority, including everything from cultural appropriation to the reclaiming of the “n-word” and why we say “locs” instead of “dreadlocks.” All of this demonstrates the necessity for conversation and patience. With that being said, it is not the responsibility of other students to educate each other about social and political issues. I know eagle-secure can get a little backed up, but we all have access to Google and there is no room for excuses. It’s important to do some self-educating before entering conversations about social and political issues.

As activists, our goal is to fight for the causes we care about and encourage other people to support us. The kind of systematic revolution we want is not one that can be attained without strength in numbers. If our language is not user-friendly, it is going to be very difficult to get enough people on board with our cause. This is not to say that we should “dumb down” our language, we should just be open to clarifying it. In order to make our activism accessible, we need to be a lot more understanding with one another. There’s no need to make things more complicated than they are already. If we can’t explain something in simplistic terms, do we even fully understand?

Shelby Moring is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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