An immutable fact of life is that people talk. But when Brown students are frustrated, not all of us can feel better just by talking. Some of us yell, some argue and some even protest.
One of the first things I noticed when I got to college was the overwhelming lack of silence. While I appreciate the privileges that come with being a Brown student, I often find myself longing for a space in which opinions and outrage can coexist without megaphones and picketing signs.
I’ve found that if you want something done at Brown, you can either make noise or move out the way for someone louder to do it for you. No one ever asks the quiet kid to lead the movement. And I’m not saying we have to. But I often wonder how helpful a protest can really be to someone like myself, who is not as comfortable in these spaces as other students might be.
After the 2016 presidential elections, I felt an uncomfortable pressure, followed by what seemed like an obligation, to voice my outrage in the form of peaceful protest. I was obviously unhappy, but I mostly just wanted time to process what the president’s election actually meant for myself and for my family. I wanted to know why it had happened and what the politics were behind this unsettling rise of nationalism. Instead, my social media feeds were flooded with calls-to-action, and all people could talk about was what march they were going to attend next.
As a child, I was raised to mind my business and no one else’s. That meant if nobody was attacking me directly, I had no reason to get involved in another person’s drama. To a certain extent, this rule still applies in my household. I distinctly remember my mother warning me not to go and “embarrass myself” in public by going to an equal housing protest in Providence. “This is not your fight,” she reminded me. “Americans complain too much. Just keep your head down, focus on your grades and be grateful that you’re alive.”
And at the end of the school year, that is exactly what I had planned on doing. Then about halfway through the Summer@Brown program, for which I was a summer residential advisor, there were a series of demonstrations against summer employee wages and unclear program policies. I went to a couple of them, but truthfully, I was more concerned with what my mom would say than with the actual outcome of the protests. Losing my summer job was an expense I knew I could not afford, and yet still I felt this sense of urgency to act immediately by joining the movement.
In hindsight, I think that the mental pressure had a lot to do with the fact that these protests were headed by people of color. Since moving to the United States, I’ve found myself constantly (and reluctantly) having to prove my blackness — or rather, my authenticity as a black woman — to other people. And because of the way people of color have historically fought for liberation, protests, to me, feel more like tests of legitimacy. Can I really call myself oppressed if I’m not visibly fighting against the system?
But who’s to say I’m not fighting? In a way, I feel out of place at protests. It seems to me as if everyone there is passionately striving toward a common goal, and I’m just standing in for a friend who couldn’t make it. This isn’t because I lack empathy or anger; it’s simply because of the fact that when I speak, I like to have my individual voice heard. Like many other people in the world, my own voice is the only thing I have to offer. Further, not everyone can take the risk of getting arrested at a march, and while I applaud those who make that sacrifice, I also want to highlight the individuals who choose to sit on the sidelines for various reasons.
It’s easy for someone to dismiss a “problematic” opinion and walk away from the discussion, but I see plenty of opportunity in healthy conversation. Hearing the same story from different sides, sharing my own truths, even listening to opinions I may not agree with are my own forms of activism. Somewhere along the line, I was made to feel as if these aren’t good enough — as if I should be doing more to help the cause.
In no attempt to undermine calls for solidarity and unity, I want to emphasize that skipping a rally to go to work or just spending time with friends doesn’t make you any less of an activist. And by that same logic, chanting loudly at a protest just to make noise doesn’t make you the ultimate revolutionary. Progress looks different depending on who is making it.
Bami Oke ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.