Every now and then, white supremacy rears its hideous head to disillusion us of the notion of a post-racial America. This summer, the manifestation of this falsehood came in the form of hundreds of armed bigoted white thugs—clad in Nazi and Confederate paraphernalia—rioting through Charlottesville. And Charlottesville was not an isolated event; Columbia University College Republicans has invited white supremacists to spread their vitriol on our campus under the guise of promoting freedom of speech.
After instances of overt white supremacy such as the Charlottesville attack and the Tommy Robinson speech, white people often take to social media to lament the current state of our country and the dangers of racism. Over the summer, many of my white classmates even took part and shared a statement condemning white supremacy and some even showed up to the Tommy Robinson protest last week. But where are these white allies when the problems are less explicit than Nazis parading through the streets? It seems that many white people are only willing to condemn instances of overt white supremacy, while covertly benefitting from systematic racial inequalities.
Especially at Columbia, the Trump era has enabled the rise of performative allyship: empty activism from privileged folk, namely white liberals, driven by the desire to gain social capital. They will wear safety pins, take part in trending hashtags, post pictures from their superficial résumé-stuffer trips to Kenya, rap along to a Kendrick song about police brutality, and feel that they just ended racism. These actions are nullified by the fact that they fail to tackle the root of the problem, which is an inequitable system that oppresses people of color. Privileged people at Columbia opt for these performative acts because they are overt, do not require commitment, and can be used as evidence to uphold their image as a typical socially-conscious Columbia student. They are not willing to educate themselves on the hideous nature of systematic injustices created by their ancestors.
I know it feels revolutionary and rebellious to share quotes about intersectionality and cute pictures of your boys Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama, but your faux activism is not enough right now. It is not enough if you do not physically show up to support disadvantaged individuals or if you dismiss the sentiments of your marginalized classmates. Wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt is not enough if you remain silent while your friends or family members make racially insensitive jokes. Sharing an article denouncing white nationalism is not enough if you are not willing to challenge covert systemic injustices, the glorification of historical bigots, the Eurocentricity and male domination of academia, and the colonization of Harlem.
It is not enough to merely oppose Trump or white nationalists. We need policies, initiatives, real change. So, what can you do? Write to Columbia administrators advising them to cancel the CUCR speaker series and refrain from punishing students who protested Tommy Robinson’s hate speech. Advocate for the diversification of the Core, petition to get rid of racist monuments by tearing down Jefferson and renaming Butler, and replacing them with monuments for the Native Americans whose land this university is built upon and the black slaves whose labor funded this institution. Lobby to stop the gentrification of Harlem, give back to the Harlem community, and hold Columbia accountable for their Community Benefits Agreement with West Harlem.
The ugly truth is that white people in power only listen to other white people in power. If white Ivy League students speak out against the administration, they will be heard. White students also have less at stake when they speak out, because their identities are not criminalized by the NYPD and society as a whole. They need to amplify (not overshadow) the voices of marginalized individuals by using their positions in student government, network connections, and platforms to remedy the ramifications of white supremacy. They can start by simply showing up to a protest—not for social media points, but to bring attention to issues, foster unity, and cultivate solutions for them.
It is true that many students of color at Columbia can advocate for themselves, but it is extremely disrespectful for white “allies” to expect people of color to invest emotional labor into educating them and tearing down the same system of oppression that they could easily tear down themselves. We did not invent white supremacy, white people did.
Since white liberals love to invoke the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., let’s remember that he denounced white moderates as the “Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom.”
If white moderates remain complicit, we are bound to repeat history. White supremacy is not always loud and overt. The Nazi party itself grew from a series of secret speeches made by Hitler and was eventually able to gain influence partly due to complacent moderate Germans. It should worry everyone that a man who escaped literal Nazi Germany has drawn parallels to the rise of fascism in current day America. It should worry everyone even more that Nazis drew inspiration from the Jim Crow laws and “debated whether to introduce similar segregation in Germany.” This is an explicit testimony to how hateful rhetoric can disseminate if left unchecked and unconfronted. When people choose order over justice, they spit in the faces of those devoid of the societal power to speak up for themselves.
In order to confront hate and bigotry, white people and other citizens of a privileged class need to utilize their proximity to power to advocate for marginalized students. Use the internet, read a book, get informed, educate your ignorant peers, ask different activists groups how you can help, check up on the mental and emotional health of your marginalized friends, and do something to actively fight injustice. If you are not willing to show up when we need you most, take Black Lives Matter and #IStandWith____ off of your social media bio, laptop cover, and customized activist gear.
We do not have time for superficial activism when people’s lives are at stake. So take this as a call to action, because your performative activism is disrespectful and frankly disgusting.
The author is a first-year in Columbia College studying political science and African-American history. She is a first-year representative for the Black Students’ Organization and a member of the Ethiopian Eritrean Students’ Association.
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