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Today’s post in our on-going Scholars Strike Back series is from University of Venus editorial collective member, Afshan Jafar, who asks how we might unhyphenate the “scholar-activist.”

Recently, I was asked to speak at the graduation ceremony of Connecticut College’s Holleran Center  for Community Action and Public Policy. And while these remarks were directed at undergraduate students who have been involved in the Holleran Center, I think they are pertinent to feminists in Academe; especially those of us who choose to engage the public through our writing. Below is a portion of my remarks.

. . . For those of you who don’t know me, I am also the mother of two daughters and given that I teach predominantly about gender, my two daughters are often the subject of many class conversations. I’d like to introduce the rest of you to them through my remarks here today. A few days ago, Aleena, who will be nine this summer, and Lilah who will be six this summer, were talking about the White House, as they are both fascinated with architecture and U.S. presidents. They decided that they want to be presidents of the United States when they grow up and as soon as they decided that, they sat down to write a list of things they wanted to accomplish when they become president. Here are some of the things that showed up on their lists. Let me start with Lilah (and I want to emphasize that I did not guide them in anyway while they made these lists):

Stuff I will change when I am president, by Lilah:

  • I will change schools

  • I will make people not litter as much

  • I will make people sell things at a good amount

  • I will make people not follow gender norms.

And here is some of what Aleena wrote on her list:

Things to change when I am president, by Aleena:

  • Better education at schools

  • Healthier, tastier food at schools

  • Make Walmart pay their workers a living wage

  • Two days a week, every school would have a No Trash Lunch Day. On No Trash Lunch Day, kids (and employees!) would bring a lunch with nothing to throw away. (Only recycling will be allowed!)

  • Once a week, every school will take a field trip to an educational place, such as a museum. There, they will learn about the art and exhibits.

  • Once a week, US schools will go to clean up litter around the school.

 . . . Perhaps what is most surprising about their lists is that they have absorbed a basic sociological lesson: that change needs to be structural as well as cultural . . .

But that’s the problem: How do we influence something that feels as intangible, yet as permanent as culture? Culture is one of those things that we like to use to explain everything  – and as a sociologist, I obviously spend a lot of time talking about how our culture influences us. But that focus on culture, can sometimes become paralyzing. We throw our hands up in the air and say “that’s just our culture, it will NEVER change.” But cultures aren’t permanent and cultures do change. Instead of thinking of cultures as a box (one that contains things, but also one that contains us), it is more appropriate to think of cultures as fluid – changing, shifting, moving constantly. Cultures are made and re-made – they do not descend upon us from the heavens, and they do not materialize out of thin air.

But if cultures are made, then we need to ask ourselves who made them? Does everybody benefit from what has been created? . . . the answer to the second question is “No” – not everybody benefits from what has been created . . . culture is always a manifestation of social relationships and power and privilege within a society.

So how do you change cultures? One small, but I think significant, way is to re-think your identities as activists. There will be many outside of this college who will discourage you from activism and from adopting the label of activist. Even on college campuses we use words like scholar-activists to describe students like you.  Scholar-activist. The two words together, this hyphenated identity, makes me uncomfortable for many reasons. You see, while it’s supposed to be a positive phrase, one that captures the various aspects of our lives, it is a phrase that signals something limiting and mutually exclusive about the two categories on their own. It’s like using the phrase “male-nurse”, which implies that a nurse by definition cannot be male and thus we need the qualifier, male-nurse . . . I want you to think about what the words scholar and activist mean to you.

If I asked you to envision a scholar, here are some things I can guess will come to your mind: A solitary figure, working by the light of a lamp (or a candle because scholars apparently forget to pay their electric bills), somebody who is surrounded by books, and churning out even more books. In short, it is somebody who seems removed from and perhaps even above, the company of other humans. The scholar is also somebody who seems to be interested in knowledge for the sake of knowledge – an unbiased, non-judgmental, rational, researcher.

Now if I asked you to imagine an activist, chances are that you will imagine some sort of a protest, a person with his or her fist in the air.  And if I asked you to describe the activist further, chances are that you might respond with the words “angry, upset, or emotional”.  And that’s the big lie we’ve all been told and we’ve all internalized – that being a scholar and being an activist are two different callings: one is about disinterested, unbiased, scientific pursuit of knowledge, the other is defined by bias, anger, and emotions. To label somebody as “emotional” is a way to devalue that perspective in our culture. And as long as we can paint activists as situated within the realm of emotions and feelings, we can dismiss their contributions and perspectives and we can keep activists on the defensive.  Well, turns out that this definition of activists is completely wrong. A recent study from the University of Chicago revealed that people who have a high “justice sensitivity” (that’s the technical, scientific term for people like you who are interested in issues of justice and fairness), are not “emotionally-driven”. Instead, their interest in justice is cognitively driven – it is the outcome of reason, not emotion. And while I don’t want to devalue the significance of emotions, it is important to understand and remember that we, activists, are not in fact, irrational.

Activists are not biased – at least not any more so than any person who identifies him or herself as a scholar. The guise of disinterested, objective scientific research only serves to hide the bias that exists all around us. Activism is about uncovering those biases that exist in our culture. It is about revealing that which has been made invisible, it is about challenging that which has been made acceptable. You’ll notice that I say “has been made invisible” or “has been made acceptable”, because there is no “natural order”; there is no essential or inherent way of being. And once we accept that, we have to see that power is always implicated in who is made invisible, who is normalized, who is accepted, and who is marginalized.

But that’s the trouble with activists. They see a little too much, a little too well. And that’s the burden you have borne during your time here but a burden I hope you will continue to bear after you leave here by embracing your identities as activists – not as an addendum, not as a hyphenated identity, but as who you are. Because as the writer Arundhati Roy, reminds us: “The trouble is that once you see . . . you can’t unsee . . . And once you’ve seen, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”

I hope you will take these words with you and that they will give you the courage in those times when you most need it. In those times, when it might be so much easier to lower your voice than to speak up. In those times, when it might be so much easier to avert your gaze, than to lock eyes in defiance. But no matter what course of action or inaction you choose in those moments, Roy is correct: Either way, you’re accountable.        

Thank you very much!

If you are interested in participating in our Scholars Strike Back series, please contact assistant editor, Gwendolyn Beetham.

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