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Girish ’17: Privilege and disenfranchisement are not mutually exclusive

Op-Ed Contributor
Friday, December 4, 2015

A few weeks ago, Junot Diaz gave a rousing and thought-provoking lecture at Brown on social activism in academia. Of the many nuggets of wisdom in his talk, one struck a chord with me:  “You’ve got to have a conversation with your privilege parallel to your conversation with your disenfranchisement.” The Pulitzer Prize winner urged the students in the audience to reflect on the advantages a college education affords them even as they fight the ways in which college institutions disempower them.

Diaz was responding to a student’s question about giving back to one’s community after making it to Brown. His statement was specifically intended as a call for students to recognize their responsibility to those who are even less privileged than they are. Yet it brought to light a larger point that the current, raging media debate against student activism fails to acknowledge: Privilege and disenfranchisement are not mutually exclusive.

In the think pieces that have flooded the media of late, denouncing the anti-racism protests at schools like Yale, the University of Missouri and Brown, a common refrain has been that the grievances of marginalized students cannot be legitimate because they each attend an institution that is a “bastion of wealth and privilege.” In a recent piece in the National Review Online, Jay Nordlinger found it hard to believe that Brown students, who are “the luckiest people on the face of the earth,” can be so ungrateful as to feel systematically oppressed “at this renowned institution, on this beautiful campus, at the tippy-top of American society.”

In the City Journal, Heather MacDonald questioned accusations of racism at Mizzou, writing that “black students, like every other student on campus, are surrounded by lavish educational resources” and going so far as to claim that “thousands of Chinese students would undoubtedly do anything for the chance to be ‘systemically oppressed’ by the University of Missouri’s stupendous laboratories and research funding.” An opinion in The Wall Street Journal dismissed student allegations of marginalization at Yale, noting, “as though someone with a Yale degree could be marginalized in America.”

This reductive tendency to paint the college experience, especially the Ivy League experience, in one broad stroke of “wealth and privilege” is problematic in two ways. Firstly, it generalizes a narrative that simply isn’t true for many students. The unspoken assumption in these pieces is that students at elite colleges are all students of privilege. While that may have been true once — and that legacy still persists on these campuses — the demographics are changing.

As of September 2014, 31.5 percent of Brown’s undergraduate student body identified as American Indian, Asian, African American, Hispanic or Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. About 46 percent of undergraduates received need-based financial aid. And 17 percent of the class of 2018 are the first in their families to attend college.

Whether these numbers say anything decisive about how inclusive these schools are may be open to debate, but what these numbers do say is that these students exist. And they deserve to be listened to, because their experience at these elite institutions may not be the same as that of the blue-blooded Ivy Leaguer of lore.

The students protesting systematic oppression on campus are not all spoiled brats who critics assume are throwing tantrums because they’re used to getting what they want. Not all of them waltzed in on the strength of their social, cultural and economic capital. They are often students who have worked hard to overcome a lack of privilege and capital and make it to these schools, only to find themselves in institutions ill-equipped to support socioeconomic diversity.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the argument that students cannot, or should not, feel disenfranchised when they have the privilege of a “lavish” college education denies them their intersectionality. Developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, the concept of intersectionality emphasizes that individuals exist at the intersection of multiple social identities, and systems of oppression and discrimination impact individuals differently depending on the particular intersection they inhabit.

Intersectionality tells us that social identities are not insular, but rather influence and compound each other: A woman of color experiences sexism differently than a white woman. Yet intersectionality also tells us that social identities don’t cancel each other out: Class privilege — or cultural privilege, in the form of a Yale degree — may change a person of color’s experience of racism, but it doesn’t make it disappear.

As Perrye Proctor puts it eloquently in the Huffington Post, the psychological toll on students stopped to present an ID because of their race or called “ghetto” by classmates isn’t mitigated by “access to a nice treadmill.” A well-to-do student at Brown can face institutional racism or sexism, a white student can face classism or ableism or homophobia and a “rich” international student can face xenophobia or Islamophobia.

Yes, because of the privileges students do have, which include a prestigious college education, there might be others in the world who have it worse. And yes, it is important that students be aware of these privileges. But if only those who, by some metric, were the “most” disenfranchised or “least” privileged were allowed to speak up against the status quo, then change would cease to happen.

A person is not defined by just one identity or another, and privilege and disenfranchisement don’t constitute a binary. It is crucial that we keep our conversations with both in parallel as Diaz advised, or else we run the risk of turning a blind eye to a genuine need for change.

Devika Girish ’17 is a modern culture and media concentrator and can be reached at

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  1. Mainstream society, with the exception of the very far left, is rejecting these activists and their supposed suffering for a number of reasons:

    – The significance of their “oppression” is highly disputed. Sure, certain groups still face discrimination, but that becomes the pea beneath the mattresses for the Ivy Leaguer.

    – The activists are hypocrites and intolerant bigots. They clamor for diversity, but only accept their way of thinking. They claim to be anti-racist, but are themselves incredibly racist. Nobody but them buys their newspeak definition of racism. They claim to be against profiling and stereotypes, but judge you (and think they know how and what you think) by how you look rather than what you say. You either join the groupthink or face a witch hunt.

    – They’re neurotic, not oppressed. Woodrow Wilson? Halloween costumes? These are the most pressing issues? These are what they band together and put all their time and energy into protesting? This is what meets the definition of oppression?

    – The activists don’t even focus on their allegedly important issues. The major focus is instead on policing language, symbols, and “perceptions – trigger warnings, microaggressions, what some old dead person said, and so on. Actual issues (drug war, police brutality, whatever you want) isn’t center stage. They’re only fuel to rationalize higher budgets on “diversity” and “equality” metrics.

    – The activists are dishonest in confusing ways. They want dialogues, but shout over anyone they don’t like. They want conversations, but refuse to “educate” people and get highly offended and defensive when someone tries to speak to them.

    – The activists do not actually represent their alleged constituents (or care). Consider a minority or female who disagrees. They’re viciously accused of “internalizing racism” or of being a traitor. The protestors judge by identity, but when that fails, they deny agency. Differing opinions, even would-be good faith criticism, have been defined out of existence. The whole ideology is solipsitic.

    – The students are interested in their own power, not any “social justice” causes. They’re not interested in actually winning hearts and minds, they’re not interested in figuring out how to effectively achieve their goals. They don’t care that most of the world thinks they’re wretched brats, they just scream even louder. In other words, they’re not even interested in being good activists.

    tl;dr: They’re insufferable entitled brats.

  2. The juxtaposition of privilege and the complaining students makes sense when you consider the “triggers” of their angst.

    For instance, the 31% of students who you seem to categorize as notable minorities represent the same proportion of non-white college aged students in the US. But this is somehow a sign of racism at the school.

    Similarly overstated is the pain of “microagressions”. We are asked to equate these with the Ferguson shooting, and others more or less like it. How many police shootings of minorities have taken place on the Brown campus in the last year?

    Instead of police abuse, Brown students of limited means are given grants so they can attend, and those of preferred minority groups are actively recruited, and accepted with poorer scores and academic skills than their Asian or white peers.

    And even that becomes problematic, as some students find themselves ill equipped for the academic rigors of an elite school – which becomes a demand for more support. If that support is lacking in their eyes, then that becomes another complaint.

    In total, this is what people call, “Looking a gift horse in the mouth”.

  3. Man with Axe says:

    The author misses the point of the critics. The critics don’t deny any Brown student’s intersectionality. They don’t deny that these students have some problems.

    But they are asking the Brown students to have a sense of proportion. Their problems, as they themselves describe them to the outside world, of being asked why they would like Taylor Swift or if they are good at math, or not being called on in class, or having to walk past a a statue of a long-dead slaveowner, such problems are nothing compared to what the rest of the world outside of the ivy-covered walls has to deal with every day.

    Try running a business. Try meeting a payroll. Try providing for a family. Try to police a dangerous neighborhood. Try to deal with abject 3rd world poverty. Try to protect your community from invading maniacs. Then, when you have done these things, I’ll be willing to hear how your intersectionality wasn’t recognized by the people who are out there doing such things every day.

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