Who Does Radical Activism Leave Behind?

Jessy Wu, NUS delegate and ANUSA Education Officer, analyses how the Socialist Alternative’s favoured brand of activism excludes ethnoculturally diverse students.

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Last week I attended the national conference of the National Union of Students (NUS). There, I encountered a group of people who pride themselves on being radical activists. They decry working with governments and university administrators; they deride wellbeing surveys, trigger warnings and constitutional reforms. They call on us to stop tinkering on the fringes of bureaucracy and to take to the streets in protest instead. They are, of course, the Socialist Alternative (SA).

The SA have a list, they’ve checked it twice, and they will jump at every opportunity to tell you who is naughty or nice. The naughty list includes Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson, the Liberal party, university vice-chancellors, the omnibus savings bill, lobbying and capitalism. The nice list features Karl Marx, workers’ unions, protests, free education and revolutionary thinking.

Having divided the entire world into these two categories, the SA ooze certainty. They know who the enemies are, and they will rally en masse to protest them. They have mastered the art of composing catchy chants, devising slogans that fit neatly onto placards, and saturating social media with their rhetoric. There is no denying these tactics can be effective – the SA played a large role in orchestrating large and highly visible student rallies against fee deregulation, and continue to play an active role in opposing the inhumane detention of refugees.

We cannot, however, put every issue on a placard or banner – dismissing other forms of collective action excludes voices that deserve to be heard. The SA, for example, oppose conducting surveys about the wellbeing of ethnoculturally diverse students, and spoke derisively about the ANU Ethnocultural Department’s recent photo campaign that raised awareness about the way people of colour experience mental illness. Their argument is this: why conduct a survey when we already know that racism is the issue at hand; why hold up whiteboards with stories about our experiences when we could be holding up placards that oppose known racists such as Hanson and Trump?

The SA do not seem to care that their brand of activism can only be accessed by a privileged few. Their activism excludes those who juggle multiple identities; those who must navigate cultural quagmires; those whose families do not understand their politics. Specifically, these are queer* people who are not out to their conservative families, Asian students whose parents expect them to be nothing less than highly functional paragons of virtue, and sexual assault survivors whose suffering is stigmatised or disbelieved by their community.

As a Chinese woman who has battled depression, I know it is impossible to distil these experiences into catchy slogans and march to Parliament House with a megaphone. It is not easy to speak publically about my illness when my parents believe depression betrays a weakness of the will – that it is a crutch invented by people who want an excuse for their failures. Moreover, our suffering does not end with the fall of visible enemies such as Hanson and Trump. It can only be alleviated through the inglorious hard work of dismantling racist structures, bridging cultural divides, and lobbying for the implementation of tailored support services.

The exclusive focus SA places on opposing highly visible public figures ignores the way racism is experienced individually – the way it is experienced by every woman of colour who has been told they are exotically beautiful, by every person of colour who has had someone yell at them to go back to where they came from, by every person who has been marginalised by white supremacy.

In this battle against systemic oppression, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. Our activism must be plural and inclusive. We must not chase only flashy victories, but also concern ourselves with incremental change.