Protesting #101

On April 13th, Muhlenberg College participated in a nationwide day of action against racism and student debt by participating in the #MillionStudentMarch. This movement is a united demand for education as a human right. The movement seeks to gain 1) tuition-free public college, 2) cancellation of all student debt, 3) a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers, and 4) divestment from private prisons by all colleges and universities. Our Contemporary Racism class thought that it would be a good idea to actually take part in something that hits close to home for many of us in the classroom. It was also a great opportunity to engage with the concepts that we have been learning in class.

I have never participated in a protest before so this was a really interesting event for me to take part in. To be honest, I felt a little uncomfortable protesting. I’m not sure what was causing the discomfort. It could have been that I was uncomfortable taking part in collective chants and holding signs up to strangers walking by. It could have been that I am still somewhat uncertain on my role as an ally and I didn’t know whether I was doing “the right thing.” I recognize that as a White person, there is going to be a certain amount of discomfort, at least at first. I believe that some discomfort is healthy because it shows that there is something underlying that needs further understanding or something to come to terms with. Because of that discomfort, I can then begin to discover what it is and then continue to grow and develop as an ally.

Another reason that could have contributed to the discomfort could be that I felt as though there weren’t enough voices of people of color (specifically Black students). The event was run by White students and the majority of students participating were White (at least 70% or so). This could also just have been reflective of the representation of diversity on campus but I felt as though I was perhaps taking someone else’s voice. For example, I created a sign that read “Hello, my name is $110,000 of debt.” The sign was meant to call for free public college tuition by recognizing the incredible debt students are graduating with. It was also meant to show how college and university funding is not going towards the support of students and that perhaps, it is being spent in outside resources such as private prisons. Although my sign definitely reflected the 4 demands of the #MillionStudentMarch, I felt as though my sign did not discuss the underlying issues of racism that contribute to the debt of people color such as urbanism, meritocracy, and the cradle-to-prison pipeline.

As a matter of fact, only a few signs actually mentioned race at all. Most signs alluded to the general goals of the movement and did not address race as a contributing factor at all. Considering the #MillionStudentMarch paired with the Black Liberation Collective, it seems strange to me that race wasn’t incorporated more. Additionally, people would come up to me and some of the other protestors and they would ask us what we are protesting about. My response was simply stating what the demands were. Meanwhile, I realized that I did not even address racism as a contributor to the problems we were protesting.

In class, we talk about the overall “net weight” of a situation and whether we feel it was a “net positive” or “net negative.” Personally, I feel like this protest was neither a “net positive” nor a “net negative.” I think that for me, it was great experience and a good way to get my foot in the door in terms of protesting as a form of activism. And yet, I feel that the movement fell short in addressing the causes of these problems most undergraduate students are faced with. I also wonder what my role, as a White ally, was in this situation. Was it appropriate for me to make the sign that I did? Was it appropriate for me to not bring up race as much in my explanations on what we were protesting? Was it okay that the leaders of the protest were White? These are just more questions that I will have to think about in the future as I continue to learn what it means to be an ally.

3 thoughts on “Protesting #101

  1. After reading this, I was thinking of my own experiences at the rally. I had one specific moment of discomfort when I asked a professor to sign the petitions. He asked me a question about the minimum wage increase (you state it as #3 above) and told me that it sounds like the money would be coming out of his salary. In that moment, I questioned my role as an ally as well. I wanted to be part of the rally, but it became apparent to me (pretty quickly) that there was so much I didn’t know. I found myself unable to respond to the comment because of my lack of knowledge. It made me realize how complicated allyship is as well as the importance of having knowledge before acting

  2. I totally agree, it was a bizarre experience. I was also really confused by the fact that there wasn’t more discussion of race in the protest, because of the fact that private prisons were a large point of contention, and the prison system is so racialized.
    I don’t think discomfort is a bad thing, either. I know I was uncomfortable at first, being that it was my first protest as well. But I think getting past that discomfort will let you become a better activist in the future, if you so choose.

  3. I felt similarly to you at the rally, I believe that any activism I do or rallys I go to should be a thoughtful choice and given that it was during class I did not feel that way. However, I do not think you are wrong in holding up a sign, while the million student march has intersectional elements the majority of it to me were demands from college students no matter what race. I also think that part of the march was protesting Sodexo investing in prisons and I think that is a perfect area to protest as a white ally. Sodexo is a service that we all use and therefore protesting what it invests in is not overstepping your boundaries but still targeting a very problematic aspect of mass incarceration.

What do you think? Join the conversation!