November 6, 2018 was a day that many Democrats, such as myself, had anticipated for months. Several up-and-coming politicians, such as Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Beto O’Rourke in Texas, had been gathering bases of passionate supporters for months, and the prospect of a “blue-wave” was on the horizon. This year was also the first that many millennials could vote, and young people were excited to finally have their voices heard. Along with the crisp fall breeze, the feeling of change in the air was palpable.
I felt a wave of excitement myself as I sent in my absentee ballot, happy that my vote was being counted and that I was participating as an active member of our democracy. However, my excitement was marred by the disappointment I felt as the day progressed. The more I checked social media, the more I noticed a pattern––my Instagram feed was overflowing with graphics telling me to go out and vote, and every Snapchat story I watched was another video of someone slipping their absentee ballot through a mailbox slot.
At first, these posts were a reassuring reminder that young people were finally getting involved in politics. But after reading what felt like the millionth caption lecturing me about democracy or encouraging people to get out and vote, I started wondering if the users posting actually cared about the issues they were encouraging others to vote for. To me, it seemed more like a kind of performative activism—these people seemed to be selectively uplifting certain voices at a convenient time, while ignoring urgent social issues and the actual needs of marginalized people every other day of the year.
More than that, I noticed some striking similarities among many of the people talking about voting on social media: they were almost all White people who I had previously noticed demonstrating very little investment in political issues. Now I was frustrated. Why were these sudden activists silent throughout the rest of the year?
Simply casting a vote and urging others to do the same is not enough; there is work to be done and greater impact to be had in doing the work of empathizing with the struggles of marginalized groups. When I participated in the Women’s March, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many other people were marching with me through the rainy streets of Portland, Oregon, as well as in different marches across the country. But perhaps one reason that the Women’s March enjoyed such a large turnout is that it was not really doing the work of fighting for a specific cause. People could show up, carry a sign for a couple of hours, and feel as though they had filled their activist quota for the year. In reality, many of the people at the march never specifically advocated for women of color, trans women, or any other intersectional identities.
Many people with marginalized identities cannot choose when to be an activist, or which issues to support on certain days. My mother, for instance, wears a hijab as an outward expression of her Muslim faith. Every day after the travel ban was announced back in January of 2017, her leaving the house felt like a testament to the fact that she was not intimidated by Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. The fact that she was here to stay became her own form of protest.
Donavan Payne, a first year at Tufts, described his own, similar experience. “My whole identity is inherently political,” he explained. “I’m Black, I’m queer… I can’t really choose when to be involved or not.”
Of course, enacting change through electoral and legislative processes is important, but at the same time, voting is not universally accessible to all individuals. There are many barriers that prevent people—usually people of marginalized identities— from voting. Voting booths only being open during the work day, strictly requiring voters to have DMV-issued IDs, or even tampering with voter machines in certain minority neighborhoods are just a few examples.
There are ample opportunities for civic engagement that exist beyond the realm of voting. Here at Tufts, the landscape for student activism is alive and well. Just a couple of weeks ago, I marched up to Ballou Hall with a group of students advocating for a fair contract and working conditions for our dining staff. When we gathered outside Ballou, not only did students speak about why they felt passionate about advocating for our dining workers, but staff members themselves told their stories in front of the whole group. Moments like those are when I feel the most inspired—when my activism is used to uplift the actual stories and struggles of the people I am advocating for and with.
But despite this, Tufts continues to tout voting specifically as the pinnacle of civic engagement. JumboVote—a student voter engagement initiative spearheaded by Tisch College—does important work surrounding getting young people to register to vote. Yet there are no alternate campus groups of the same scale or with the same amount of institutional support encouraging other types of activism. Why are there not as visible structures in place to promote activism, outside of voting, for college students who are obviously passionate about civic engagement?
There are other ways to be an activist. Volunteer for specific movements or causes. Do research about which candidates you are voting for and which organizations you are supporting. Investigate your own privileges and your relationship to marginalized identities. As Payne phrased it, activism has to be “an internal thing of people with privilege checking each other,” instead of placing all of the pressure on marginalized groups to advocate for themselves without support.
It can’t just be small pockets of people caring about intersectional issues in order for them to receive the attention they deserve. It has to be everyone. I wonder how the world would look if, every time an unarmed Black person was shot, there were as many posts about it as there were about registering to vote. I wonder how the world would look if public displays of activism like the Women’s March or the March For Our Lives uplifted non-White voices as loudly as White ones.
It is easy to feel like smaller acts of political and civic engagement can neatly check off all our activist requirements. But we cannot let these infrequent and easy tasks distract us from showing solidarity with marginalized groups who need constant support. There is always more work to be done.