Left Outside the Social-Justice Movement's Small Tent

Why a high school senior feels alienated from activist groups that share causes in which he believes.

An Occupy Wall Street protest in 2010 (Ano Lobb / Flickr)

Mahad Olad, a high school student, used to be active in “the local social-justice scene” around Minneapolis, Minnesota, attending meetings and leading demonstrations for feminist, LGBT, and anti-racism groups. Then he became disillusioned.

When he was just 16, the ACLU profiled the teen activist. He came to the U.S. as a child. Later, his immigrant parents took him back to their home country, Kenya, so that their son could experience what it was like to live in that culture as well.

“In Kenya, he saw the harsh realities faced by women trying to access reproductive health-care services and how the gay and lesbian community is forced to live underground,” the ACLU explained. “While Mahad cares about many social-justice and civil-liberties issues, he is especially drawn to reproductive freedom and LGBT rights because of his experience in Kenya. He has been one of his school's biggest advocates for comprehensive sex education and has helped to organize events at his school to teach students important information about comprehensive safe-sex practices, something that his school does not teach in class.”

Two years later he was sending off a frustrated email to me.

“I genuinely cared about these causes—still do,” he wrote, referencing everything from anti-racism to LGBT rights to reproductive health. “I believed I was doing something noble. At the same time,” he added, “a large part of me was not quite in agreement with some of the views and concepts espoused by social-justice groups. Their pro-censorship tendencies, fixation with intersectionality, and constant uproar over seemingly trivial and innocuous matters like ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘microaggressions’ went against my civil-libertarian sensibilities.”

He fit in fine at the ACLU. But interacting with social-justice groups made up of high school and college students, he increasingly found himself having to bite his tongue.

“I never voiced my personal disagreements because having dissenting views is strictly forbidden in the activist circles I was a part of,” he explained. “If you’re white, you will be charged with being a ‘bad ally.’ (There's also certain gatherings you cannot come to because your mere presence might be threatening.) If you’re a person of color, your disagreements will usually be dismissed as some form of ‘internalized racism,’ ‘internalized sexism,’ or ‘respectability politics,’ among many other activist jargon's thrown at individuals who do not conform the groups views.”

Eventually, he started to speak up anyway, he said.

“On Twitter,” he wrote, “I discussed how trigger warnings have almost been rendered useless now that they’re used to alert individuals when talking about normal everyday things, like food, cars and animals. And that their use could potentially have adverse effects on academic freedom. I was accused of being outrageously insensitive and apparently made three activist cohorts have traumatic breakdowns.”

“In another tweet,” he added, “I criticized the usual tactic of campus activists to disrupt and heckle controversial speakers and advised them to raise their strong objections during the question and answer session, which lectures usually reserve long hours precisely to debate opponents. This time, the attacks got a little more personal. I was accused of being a ‘respectable negro,’ ‘uncle tom,’ ‘local coon’ and defending university officials to continue to ‘systemically oppress minorities.’”

I asked if he thought his race and ethnicity made it easier or harder to dissent. “A little easier, I guess,” he replied, “But it really doesn't feel good being a called a ‘house nigger.’”

He says he was ultimately kicked out of student-led social justice groups.

“In no way am I denying or minimizing the appalling fact that, sometimes, racial and ethnic minority students face abhorrent discrimination—even hate crimes— on certain college and university campuses” he wrote. “For that reason, occasionally, there’s very legitimate reasons for these student activists to be worried, aggrieved, and lead emotionally charged protests. I earnestly believe that the best and most beneficial method to simultaneously fight against blatant bigotry and for marginalized groups who are the objects of hate is more speech, not less.”

He wonders how a kid with beliefs like his will fare in higher education.

“When I go off to college next year, I honestly don't know where I'm going to fit in... The only political/social group accepting of my views are normally libertarians,” he wrote. “For the most part, these campus activism groups have my sympathies. I just wish that they didn't have such a hostile attitude towards free speech and didn’t dismiss opposing viewpoints based on the person’s identity.”

Events at Yale were particularly upsetting to Olad as he pondered going away to college himself.

“From Mizzou to Ithaca to Amherst, I was initially very supportive of the nationwide protests that sparked across college campuses against racial insensitivity. I believed, and still do, that student activists have every right to hold demonstrations, push for robust changes and confront their respective administrations if they truly suspect that they are being treated unfairly or feel threatened,” he wrote. “However, Yale made me take a different look not just at just at these protests, but some of the core concepts these student activists (and the groups I was involved in) take almost too seriously. I sympathize with the student protesters and wholly understand their frustration is not stemming from a simple email, but the overall atmosphere of Yale for students of color. Nonetheless, I believe Erika and Nicholas Christakis were wronged on many levels.”

If social-justice activists on college campuses were committed to respectfully considering the perspectives of individuals from historically marginalized groups, as almost all claim to be, a black immigrant from a relatively poor country would have no reason to worry about being accepted into their communities to fight racism and advance gender equality, even in spite of the well-trod disagreements that have long divided civil libertarians from parts of the social-justice community.

Unfortunately, I think that Mahad Olad is correct to be concerned, and that too many left-wing student groups treat no one as badly as students of color or women who consider themselves to be classical liberals, libertarians, or conservatives, or who merely disagree with the actions of progressive protesters on campus.

They’re seen as special kinds of traitors.

Last week, while reporting on UC Davis, I noted the allegation that a Hispanic staff member loyal to Chancellor Linda Katehi, the object of ongoing protests, was called “a coconut” by several activists, meaning “brown on the outside, white on the inside.”

Back in college, when I edited student newspapers both at Pomona College, my alma mater, and the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of 5 undergraduate institutions, I was constantly urging people who expressed thoughtful opinions in conversation to contribute to our op-ed pages. On four or five occasions, students of color regretfully declined, saying they didn’t feel able to set forth their opinions publicly without being savaged by a tiny subset of campus activists who, despite their small numbers, managed to chill speech. I always wondered if these students were exaggerating the likely backlash—their ostensibly heretical views were almost always extremely mainstream—until a conservative Asian American woman began writing for The Student Life and I got an education in leftist racist hate mail.

Alton Luke II, a black student at Occidental, told the Los Angeles Times about the backlash that he faced after questioning aspects of last semester’s protests at his institution.

Many right-leaning journalists and college professors have encountered black, Hispanic, and Asian American students who’ve been subjected to hatefulness because they dared to depart from the political line some expect them to toe. If you’re a white liberal, which is to say, a person those students wouldn’t typically choose to confide in about this particular problem, it would be easy to be totally blind to it.

So I’m glad Mahad Olad is sharing his experience. Others like him are hearing the same slurs and being subject to the same prejudices. They should be aware that they’re not alone.