It’s blindingly obvious from the tension on campus: Yale has a bit of a race problem. It’s been inspiring to see how campus has united as of late, and it’s great that we’re seeing a surge of student activism. But support from certain students has been accompanied by something concerning: dialogue that is self-congratulatory, if not entirely unproductive.
Take the generic Facebook posts that went viral last week, for example; a significant number of white allies felt compelled to post some variant of this: “I know it’s not my place to speak and I’ve been debating this a long time, but … ” followed by a lengthy apology for their complicity in racial oppression. Throw in an anecdote or two, and the post was guaranteed to get 100 plus likes. Who are these posts meant for? Were they for other white allies? Patting oneself on the back seems like a pretty useless gesture. Did they instead expect some kind of reward or validation from people of color on their newsfeeds? I certainly hope not. At best, this is slacktivism — the perfect chance for Yalies eager to cash in on the latest social media trend, while also aligning themselves as paragons of justice.
Of course not all of these posts should be read so cynically. Surely spreading awareness — even on a Facebook page — is worth something, right? Verbalizing support or standing in solidarity with people of color around campus has value, but doing so doesn’t require writing the next great American novel. In fact, these transparent attempts to garner the most likes are arguably counterproductive. The nature of white privilege is that white voices are heard much more often than those of people of color. Such posts drown out the voices of the very victims allies are trying to help. When the very real issues for students of color become the fodder for a white popularity contest, we all suffer. A social media post does not absolve anyone from moral responsibility.
These Facebook statuses and impassioned tweets raise a much bigger concern: where will these same allies — who are now rallying, chanting and decrying systemic racism — be in two weeks? When finals and job interviews roll around, will Yale be quite so spirited? Beyond our social media archives, will we have accomplished anything substantive?
Racial justice is Yale’s current issue du jour, just as divestment and mental health reform were the hot topics before it. What happened with those? Sure, we had a few protests — even a forum or two. We had panels; we had meetings; tears were spilled. And unfortunately, nothing really changed. Why? Though Yalies are good at “spreading awareness,” we don’t know how to do much else. It is an important first step that the Black Student Alliance at Yale outlined tangible and clear recommendations for campus reform, even if I don’t agree with all of them. I fear one thing however: the current push may not have a lasting impact when campus attention inevitably shifts elsewhere. The March for Resilience was a beautiful coming-together of campus to show solidarity. But enacting structural change? That’s an uphill march of its own.
So what should we be doing now? If you insist social media is the best platform for change, then at least do it productively. On Wednesday, my newsfeed was flooded with succinct and unpretentious statements of support for students at the University of Missouri. This simple gesture spread across campuses nationwide, in part, because the messaged focused squarely on the issue, rather than on the person posting.
But a much better solution is far away from our keyboards. For white allies, as trite as it may seem, you should reach out to friends and communities and ask one question: “How can I help?” For my fellow students of color, don’t conflate statuses with support. Invite your “allies” to hear your story. Ask them to join you at the cultural houses. And hold them accountable.
Let’s not have another movement die with the semester.
Shreyas Tirumala is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .