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Columbia Spectator Staff

Did you know that the month of April is Alcohol Awareness Month, Autism Awareness Month, Mathematics Awareness Month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and Testicular Cancer Awareness Month, just to name a few? But this "awareness-raising" stuff is kind of pointless.

Along with many of you, my awareness has been raised to critical mass. In my final column (chin up, readers), I'd like to help raise awareness about raising awareness. I'm going to be really offensive while I do it, but it's OK because I'm doing it for awareness-raising purposes. (I'm also going to say that a lot, you know, to really drive it home.)

People love to be aware and to raise awareness. Ribbon-wearing, status-posting slacktivists practically get off on it. There's even a handy website for all your awareness-raising needs. One awesome listing on the site reads, "In addition to our great prostate cancer magnets and ribbon pins, we have a new prostate cancer khaki cap—a great gift for the guy in your life!" Really? Is it actually a great gift? How about we stop online shopping for bumper stickers and go do something meaningful to show our support?

The problem with these awareness-raising tactics and campaigns is that they are ends in themselves. Slacktivists can't fail because there's nothing to actually fail at. If the goal of an entire campaign is to raise awareness, I'm sorry (#notsorry), but that's a lazy campaign. I can be aware of starving children in Africa—does that mean I'm going to do anything about it? No. 

"But Chayenne, it starts a dialogue." Oh, well-intentioned imaginary commenter, I hate to tell you that that's just as pointless a phrase, too.

Raising awareness is not equivalent to solving a problem. The issue with a lot of awareness campaigns is that they give the participant the warm fuzzies of actually helping without actually helping. You post a status, you take a picture of your dick in a sock (one BuzzFeed article I never needed to see), you wear a "save second base" T-shirt (that one's actually pretty demeaning), and you have done your duty. Now, the expectation is that the issue is going to magically be fixed. The only metric by which a campaign's success should be measured is in how many people were spurred into meaningful action. Campus demonstrations intended to "raise awareness" don't help your cause. They will, however, annoy me while I speed walk to Hamilton.

Additionally, most awareness campaigns focus on well-known problems, like breast cancer, instead of important yet marginalized issues. Don't get me wrong, breast cancer awareness was really, really important… decades ago. Re-branding everything from football cleats to soda cans with the perfect shade of pink cannot possibly make me any more aware of breast cancer than I have been conditioned to be already. 

The second issue with these campaigns is that people seem to think they can get away with offensive shit as long as it's in the name of—let's say it together—raising awareness. For example, in 2003, PETA released a "Holocaust on your plate" campaign that juxtaposed images of prisoners in death camps with images of chickens stuffed into cages in a factory farm. Although the treatment of animals is a grave issue, placing it alongside a horrific human tragedy like the Holocaust is only going to make me outraged by the insensitivity of the campaign, not what the campaign actually wants me to be outraged about. No one should be absolved of poor behavior of any type just because they claim it was meant to raise awareness. Doing harmful or offensive things under the guise of "raising awareness" makes anyone else who tries to call you out look like a mean, bad person who is trying to tear down a cause that is trying to make "gradual steps." (Yes, I'm looking at you, Chicano Caucus.) A campaign to raise awareness does virtually nothing to advance its cause.

Of its Glass House Rocks event, Chicano Caucus has said that "it was a means through which we paid tribute to one of the many cultures within Mexico, combating the very issue of cultural unawareness. We attempted to address the stereotypes imposed upon us by showcasing their underlying truths: the places and peoples they actually pertain to." But were they really "combating"? I think not. You can't expect people to be more "culturally aware" when they are approaching the situation or event in the way you have (intentionally or not) framed it: jokingly. Awareness and consideration are two separate things. No one is going to take a picture with a stereotyped cutout and come away feeling a renewed appreciation or respect for a culture that they were just invited to come and poke fun at. Let's not get confused about what was actually going on: use of the same stereotypes that others were just punished for invoking. You can't then retroactively plead "awareness raising" or "reclaiming" as a way to save face.

[Related: What is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural learning?]

With regard to these kinds of events, grand or miniscule, I say that I get it: In order to make people care about a movement, it has to be "sexy." It has to be dressed up with provocative demonstrations so that people take notice and actually care. But after people are aware, the work is not done—something must actually be done with that awareness.

Columbia's problems don't exist solely because not enough people are made aware of them. So why do so many people think they can solve Columbia's problems by combating them with awareness alone?

Chayenne Mia is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in psychology. She is the 20/20 associate editor for The EyeSpeaking of Mia runs alternate Tuesdays.

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awareness Campus Activism Chicano Caucus activism political activism charity