MLK

What My B.A. Didn’t Teach Me, But I Learned Anyway

I just graduated, but as I’ve been reflecting on how it has shaped me, I realized my most important lessons came outside the classroom. [Insert trite aphorism about learning happening everywhere here.] You’d think as a Human Rights and Political Science double-major I’d have spent a lot of time in class digesting social movements, understanding the complexities of justice, and studying to make the world a better place. But you’d be wrong. When I was working on a campus social movement, I even tried to research it. In the end, nothing quite substituted real world experience. These are 20 lessons my BAs didn’t teach me, but I learned anyway.

  1. If you think justice is easy, you’re doing it wrong. Look, your tweets and Facebook posts are great, but if that’s all you’re doing while you call yourself a “social justice warrior,” etc., then you’re lying to yourself. Even if you bought yourself a “Nevertheless She Persisted” t-shirt or made a #YesAllWomen tweet or held up a sign at the Women’s March, you can’t call it a day and say you did your part. Justice and resistance are ways of life, not merit badges to earn because you did a thing once.

 

  1. Protesting isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. There’s more than one way to achieve justice. Sometimes people don’t want to be on the front lines, sometimes people can’t risk arrest, sometimes introversion or anxieties or disorders make it difficult or even impossible to protest, and sometimes people just don’t like that method of justice. So long as you don’t give up and you don’t stop, that’s okay. You can still call your Congressmen, educate your communities, distribute informational literature, or volunteer with Planned Parenthood or the ACLU or a social justice organization of your choice. Movements are made by far more than protests, and they need you. Find your niche. (EverydayFeminism has a quiz to find your activist superpower.)

 

  1. Justice— doing something that matters— feels exhausting and excruciating, no matter what form it comes in. Justice comes from incendiary, heart-wrenching, emotion- laden protests. Justice is spontaneous demonstrations organized in a day. Justice is anger, heartbreak, and passion that wrench sobs from your throat and make your chest feel like it’s caving in because it just matters so much. And justice is tedious hours of community organizing. Justice is making signs and stapling packets and attending mind-numbing meetings because the devil is in the details. Justice is researching pages of cold, detached policy briefs and finding loopholes in legislation and still coming up empty so many times that you want to cry in frustration because can’t everyone see that it just matters so much.

 

  1. Self-care isn’t selfish. Justice is exhausting and excruciating, and no one expects you to incessantly place yourself in a position to be tired and pained. In fact, you don’t do your best work when you’re not well-rested and healthy (and emotional health is real health!). Balance self-care with your resistance. Taking a moment to think about yourself and your needs is not selfish. It is necessary, or you will burnout. Do not crucify yourself for the cause, or the movement you’re martyring yourself for will only lose an advocate. In that, self-care is an act of resistance. Feminist Audre Lord said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

 

  1. Optimism is not the same as naivete. Always have faith people can change, but never blindly count on it. If you don’t retain hope that things will change and you succumb to the seducing pull of cynicism, despair and frustration will eat you alive. Hold tight to your optimistic belief that you can make things better or you’ll lose the motivation to take action.

 

  1. You can be angry. You can be angry. You can be angry. The world is a hostile place, and you can be angry about that. Use that anger to fuel you, channel it into your activism, and sustain yourself on that resultant passion.

 

  1. Do not try to make yourself or your cause palatable. Tone-policing and respectability politics— ways of telling people the means by which they are expressing their demands for justice are too angry, impassioned, or honest to be palatable— suppress movements. When you censor and sanitize your emotions or your cause for the sake of trying to make the general public accept it or side with you, it only serves to (1) shift the blame from the oppressors to the oppressed by blaming their methods of expressing themselves for the continued injustice; (2) make you feel guilty for not protesting “right” (which doesn’t exist BTW); (3) and distance you from your truth. Be honest to your truth. Again, you can be angry. And you can express it.

 

  1. There is a time and place for obedience, but never stop questioning the rules. Law cannot supplant morality. Apartheid, wife-beating, and child slavery were all legal once. And with the protection of the law, they were also given the benediction of morality, sedating the masses from questioning their ethicality. Rather than lazily relying on established rules and laws to dictate our sense of righteousness, we must always question “why?”. Please, read MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Blind obedience to unjust laws allows evil to flourish.

 

  1. History was written by the victors. At the same time as I realized the significance of learning history to understand nuance and context, I also realized that history books venerate at the altar of moral supremacy. The version of history we’ve been taught was propagandized and weaponized with evangelical exceptionalism. It was white-washed, sanitized, and mutilated— designed to anesthetize us with assurances of American ideological purity. Sure, the morality of slavery motivated the Civil War in part, but capitalist economics also played a key role, no? What justifies the U.S. eugenics program or Japanese internment camps but condemns Nazi racial hygiene politics if not an inveterate belief in American infallibility? Read enough American exceptionalism, and you might start to believe it. Believe it long enough, and nothing will ever change.

 

  1. The institutions are not designed for change. The evils and injustices in our country are too foundational to be easily eradicated. When institutions create “open spaces” and “dialogues,” they are trying to convince you they believe as you do, they respect your call for change, and that they are working to fix it. The goal is to create the illusion that by participating in those forums you have done your job to demand justice, so you don’t have to work any harder or more forcefully or more publicly. But if those fora changed anything beyond the superficial rhetoric of the administration— if they actually challenged the existing power dynamics— they wouldn’t offer them up on a silver platter.

 

  1. Honeyed words are cheaper than material action, and it’s always about the money. Just because you’ve been promised change does not mean it will come about. Change often requires material action— and material action costs money and resources. On the other hand, those saccharine promises cost nothing. Do not celebrate your success before you actually see change. The promises were meant to pacify you; don’t let them.

 

  1. The administration was never on your side. They will try to convince you their beliefs and their values coincide with yours, but in the end their interests lie with their continued power, money, and optics. They will give you awards and make promises and give speeches in response to your demands for justice in the community— all to try to assure you they want what you want, too, so you don’t have to push them so hard so publicly. They’ll claim to be “working behind the scenes” or “caught up in some red tape.” Do not let those sweet nothings make you complacent. Their interests are still their own, and if they do somehow coincide, it is because of the public pressure to act. Keep pressuring.

 

  1. Sometimes people hate you; that means you’re doing it right. When you’re trying to change things, you are changing a system and an order that existed for years— maybe decades— so naturally there are going to be some people who don’t like being removed from power or told that the institution they have benefited from for years is wrong. If the people who have benefited from centuries of prejudice or who are resistant to justice dislike what you’re doing, then you are doing it right. If someone isn’t mad at you— if everyone likes you— you have failed to move towards real justice.

 

  1. White liberalism is not a friend to the movement. When I say White liberals, I don’t necessarily mean White people who are liberal. I mean “the white moderate” MLK censures in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He wrote therein:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

Those who are more concerned with the “offense” of being accused of racism rather than the potential harm of their racism are part of the problem. Those who are more concerned with policing methods of protest than challenging the police brutality that necessitated it are part of the problem. Those whose activism can be delayed until it is convenient rather than demanding liberty and justice now are part of the problem.

  1. There is always more to learn. Never assume you already understand everything. This is particularly true when talking about allyship. When allies assume they inherently understand the complexities of marginalization— or that they have become experts after reading one book or watching one YouTube video or even obtaining a degree about it— they appropriate the struggles, take up too much space in the movement, and impede the path of justice. Never allow your ego to convince you a little more education wouldn’t be beneficial.

 

  1. Sometimes you are impotent at the hands of someone else’s pain. Trump won, children starved, refugees drowned, and bombs droned on while you held a sign. You felt the burden of the world on your shoulders so you held that sign high, but your sign did not save the world. Humanity dies while we look on. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we’re accomplishing anything— like our efforts are futile, like we might as well give up. But just because you can’t save everyone doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to save as many as you can. Sometimes there is nothing you can do, but there is not always nothing you can do. Collective surrender enabled the evil you’re protesting in the first place.

 

  1. There is no such thing as amorality. I have a sticker on my laptop quoting Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” It reminds me that neutrality is complicity and silence is violence. As Albert Einstein said, “the world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” Choose to do something about it.

 

  1. The world is terrible, but never forget there’s always something you can do about it. Schedule a meeting with your administrators to talk about discriminatory policies. Call your Congressperson to make sure they know their constituents won’t look the other way if they pass a bias-motivated law. Volunteer your time or extra money at a local nonprofit like the International Institute or the Kingdom House in STL. Attend a local demonstration for worker’s rights or environmental justice or reproductive health rights. Educate yourself and your community on important sociopolitical issues. One person can make a difference.

 

  1. Empathy can change the world. It is when labels divide and classify us, making the lives of some lesser, that we stop caring about the pain of others. If we see people halfway across the world as valuable and human like us, it becomes far more difficult to turn a blind eye to their suffering. Empathize— reject the idea that the “other” is lesser— and change the world.

 

  1. Justice isn’t a hobby; it’s a lifestyle. It’s choosing to spend your money at minority-owned businesses, reducing your carbon footprint, standing up to prejudiced bullies, making sure diverse voices and interests are heard at the next group meeting, and any of the millions of other small choices people make to improve society. Yes, take every opportunity you can to create radical change when you can, but remember that between those massive undertakings are the everyday actions that shape society, too.
  • Reece Ellis

    I think every young justice minded person should read this, because so many of us feel lost operating in this new era. There are examples to work from, but these are some unique circumstances. Most of us are new to activism, because we felt we didn’t need to be active, but of course the time for complacency is behind us now. If I could, I think I would’ve added two extra points.

    You May Never See The Fruits of Your Labor: Change, especially the kind of radical change that is being advocated by progressive organizations, won’t happen over night. Remember, The Stonewall Riots happened a full 44 years before Marriage Equality became the law of the land, and even now LGBTQ+ Americans still find themselves the target of legal discrimination in several states. You’ll find that after years of marching, volunteering, and organizing, that nothing seems to have significantly improved. But always try to view things in the long term, and you’ll understand that the work you’re doing now isn’t for the current generation, but for the generations to come. Often times, the battle isn’t for policy, at least at first, it’s a battle for the hearts of the people. Getting people to evolve on an issue, is the hardest part and can take longer than anything else.

    Doing What’s Right isn’t Heroic, It’s Just Right: You shouldn’t become an activist with the goal of becoming famous or being internationally recognized for your hard work. Chances are, you’re not Malala, and you won’t be receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. You might end up garnering likes, retweets, or maybe you’ll become a meme along the way, but gathering recognition shouldn’t come into the equation. It might sound tacky, but doing the right thing is it’s own reward. The work you do is making our society more egalitarian, forcing people to resolve their prejudices, and perhaps literally saving lives. That’s enough

    Great Read

  • This is fantastic; thank you. I completely agree that those are important additions to these 20 lessons. And as an addendum to the first point, it’s also interesting that administrators are highly aware of the idea of pushing off change until progressive organizations run out of time, money, and resources to keep fighting. I’ve seen this with school administrations when they make a lot of promises and superficial changes until the students pushing for reform graduate. That can make it rather disheartening for student activists, knowing that anything they’re pushing for isn’t going to benefit their educational experiences while they’re there. The idea that what you’re doing is inherently just has to sustain you, and that’s hard. I appreciate your comments! Thank you!