On Responsible Activism

by Heather Charles, B.A. ’10 + M.A. ’12

I am going to do what I always do in these conversations and state my credentials from the get-go. I am going to do this because I am white. And because I am white, and grew up extremely poor in an urban area where I attended some of the worst urban schools in the state of California in a community that is one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation and am living with a Mexican American man I grew up with who told his dad that he had no interest in learning Spanish because “he didn’t want to be one of those Mexican kids who can’t read English” and who is half white but knows he gets stopped by cops all the time because he is Mexican, I am intensely aware of how this whole speech and my mere presence in the activist community comes off, and came off while I while an undergrad, to the very communities that I work with. So demographically, when you ask me to be extra specific, I identify as working class, first. That’s the closest I can get to being honest. I do this because, when I entered Stanford I spoke a non-standard version of American English, and maintained the kind of wit that can only be learned on the playground and lot of people thought I was being a crazy asshole.  And I also do this, because I have the white privilege of not having to identify as my racial background. And because as a straight white woman I don’t have to identify as my sexual orientation either. But the fact of the matter is that the reality of my childhood more closely resembles that of poor folks who grow up in urban areas than it does the white peers I most closely resemble physically. On paper, people often assume I am black. This is because they are racist.

I am also an activist in urban education. I went to STEP for graduate school after being one of the founding members of FLIP and being heavily involved in activism for the low-income community while I was an undergrad. I was not well liked. Mostly because I am obnoxious, but also because I didn’t look like what we think activists should like, and I didn’t talk like one either.

As I said, I spoke a non-standard form of English. In fact, unless I am in a professional setting I still speak a non-standard form of English. This is important because when I came to Stanford my words were not typically well-received and I heard a lot of arguments by education reformers about how we need to train kids to “speak properly.” Now, I will tell you, that we do in fact need to train kids to speak in a way that allows them to be taken seriously by the elites who determine whether or not they get to escape the ghetto. I do this because I am an incredibly practical individual and I want kids to have the same opportunities my privileged friends do. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. I think the dialect of English that I happen to speak is beautiful. All of my friends who went to college back home (a tiny number, that as evidenced by my relationship with my significant other, cling to each other) are incredibly adept with the English language. That’s because the dialect I happen to speak, is all about quick thinking, metaphor and poetry. As a history teacher, I want my kids to have those skills, I just also want them to have the other skills too, because unfortunately I don’t currently have the power to decide which skills we value in society and I want my kids to be valued. I train kids to code-switch because I think their language is beautiful and because I think it is necessary for them to have choices in the world. Choice is the ultimate privilege. And I want them to have it. What I am saying is that it is fine to want to impart the skills that give people power onto others, but its not ok to pretend like those skills are inherently better or more beautiful than what they already have.  You will never know until you can have love for both. I am glad I can sit in the classroom and debate the merits of Rousseau but I am also glad that I can handle myself on the playground. You have to love people and see the beauty in who they are, not who you want them to be. You can love people for what they are or hate them for what they are not, those are your options when you live/work in a community. And trust me when I say to you that you aren’t going to get anything done without love.

Even as I know my neighborhood well, I don’t presume to know everything about growing up poor in America. What happened in my neighborhood in North Highlands has commonalities with East Palo Alto, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, but it isn’t East Palo Alto. So when I went to work in East Palo Alto, I didn’t pretend to know everything about East Palo Alto. At first I just shut up and listened. I also did as much research as I could about the community and asked a lot of questions. This is the most important advice I can give as an activist, you have to listen and be willing to learn. Look, Stanford kids are really smart. We are smart and hardworking and these are admirable and good traits, but they don’t make us omnipotent. They don’t even make us better people. We aren’t Gods, we are just human beings with a slightly faster processor and a whole lot of training. You don’t know everything about the community you are walking into, you can’t assume anything about people unless you can read minds, and even then that doesn’t mean you can fully understand everything about an individual’s thoughts. Listen, and be grateful that someone is giving you the opportunity to do so.

As I stated above, I am aware that I receive a number of white privileges, and now I am also extremely well educated. I knew when I was a kid that I had white privilege. You’d have to be blind to not figure that out when every time a cop is around one of your non-white friends gets hassled.  Also, I studied history. And if studying history taught me anything it was that white people have privilege. I wish this weren’t true. I wish I could give back all the ways I benefit from my privilege and share them such that everyone benefited. I spend my days trying to find ways to do this for my students. But I have it, and wishing it would go away isn’t going to make it go away, the only thing that will make it go away is if white people start accepting and finding ways to tear down the structures that make it so. Am I pissed off that we have to wait for people who have the power to wake up and realize this and be ashamed of it and fight to distribute it more equitably? Yes. But, I am a practical woman and this is the reality of the situation. And there is also this, at Stanford people from my class background are in the minority. Most of my classmates are better off than my wildest imaginations could possibly create as a child. And we live on campus together and they are my peers and my friends. We have to live in this society together, I want them to be part of the solution. So I want them to acknowledge their white privilege at the same time that they choose to do something about it, and I want to help them by acknowledging my privilege and being incredibly patient while they figure it out, so long as they are trying to figure it out.

As I have said, I am a practical woman. In the words of Deng Xiaoping “I don’t care if it’s a black cat or a white cat, I just care if it’s a cat that catches mice.” He was referring specifically to whether or someone was Communist enough to serve the country because during the Cultural Revolution the conversation became a bunch of college kids shouting “I am more radical than you” instead of sitting around and saying “hey, we have all this power and privilege and there are people suffering, what can we do about that?” His leadership in China was marred with blood, but I am using this quote because he is right. I don’t care who gets things done, I just care that they are taken care of. I don’t much care who progresses human rights, I just want them to progress. My family, friends, and students don’t have time to wait around for the perfect “savior” to come along. Studying history has taught me that they rarely do. MLK had many affairs, he has a record that suggests that he was less than progressive towards the woman in his life. For me, that doesn’t change the power or importance of his message. The same goes for my personal favorite, Malcolm X, because even though I don’t agree with all the things he said or all of his methods, he was often right about very important issues. I have my own tremendous blind spots. In the 1950s Stanford sent one of the largest contingents of participants in Freedom Summer. This is a legacy we should all be proud of, but we should also remember the reasons for Freedom Summer. Black Civil Rights workers had been fighting and dying for a long time in Mississippi by the time that Stanford students traveled down there. The plan was to bring privileged white children to work down in Mississippi so that when one of them was murdered or beaten people would actually care. That this is what needed to happen for the American populace to care about the plight of black people in America is horribly racist, and profoundly disturbing. But do you know what else was horribly racist and profoundly disturbing? Mississippi in the 1950s. We live in a society that is still racist, classist, sexist and heteronormative. It’s hard enough struggling against those things without the infighting that occurs when we start making sure the ranks of activists has the right composition and purity. I will say this again, the people I love most in the world don’t have time for that. We need to stop asking ourselves if people who want to help are good enough to do so and start asking the only question that matters: what is the most efficient way to make things better? Because we have a job to do, and where I come from that’s the only thing that matters.


Heather Charles is a Stanford Class of 2010 graduate in history, and a STEP graduate of 2012 in Social Science.  An Annenberg-Woodrow Wilson teaching fellow, she has spent her time working on educational inequality, first as one of the founding members and presidents of FLIP and then as a classroom teacher. Underneath her notoriously obnoxious and intense demeanor is a girl who loves polka dots, kittens, hanging out with children, consuming media and
South Park. You can reach her at hcharles2010 at gmail dot com.

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2 thoughts on “On Responsible Activism

  1. […] This was originally posted by the lovely people over at Stanford’s progressive blog Static. The link can be found here: https://stnfrdstatic.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/on-responsible-activism/#more-2906 […]

  2. Luke says:

    This article walks through the treacherous minefield of “privilege” in a wonderfully insightful and humorous way. That’s what I miss most in discussions of privilege – activism shouldn’t be a competition for “least privileged.” Anyone who has the courage to show up needs to be respected… yes, they can be educated about privilege, but never mocked for it. Who is anybody to go around hollering about “Privilege” like bloody murder. Heather’s right, “we have a job to do” and any time we waste time cutting hairs and sizing each other up is time better spent on the bullhorn, marching in the streets, and serving your community.

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