Opinions, Op-Ed

Only the Personal is Political—White Supremacy Culture, Free Speech, and Individualism at Boston College

During my six years at Boston College, a lot has changed. 

The student body has continuously grown in diversity, BC began participating in Questbridge, and LGBTQ+ students now have their own dedicated staff member integrated into the Bowman AHANA Intercultural Center (BAIC).

During my six years at BC, a lot has stayed the same.

Racially biased incidents have remained a consistent occurrence on campus. Queer and trans students still feel unsafe and undersupported on campus. Safe sex supplies are not allowed to be distributed on campus, and sex is still prohibited on campus. Protests are few and far between, and speech is often stifled.

I have seen tireless advocacy from students—especially students of color and queer students—for representation, care, and meaningful support. Most of this advocacy comes from marginalized students themselves, through working in UGBC, writing articles for The Heights, or starting important conversations on social media.

However, the less common an identity is on our campus, the less likely students are to advocate—disabled students, Palestinian students, and Jewish students, to name a few, are often left out of the fight for social justice at BC. The University has had the privilege of keeping mostly quiet during a time of broad unrest on campuses across the country because of the minimal number of Jewish or Israeli students and Muslim or Palestinian students.

While some students care about issues that don’t affect them personally, BC’s restrictions on organizing, demonstrating, and speech dissuade students from participating in louder activism or community organizing. These restrictions demonstrate the overarching issue of white supremacy culture, individualism, and its manifestation in the student body.

Most recently, a protest against the United States’ continued support for genocide in  Palestine and urging for BC to divest from companies that support Israel occurred on Feb. 15. Though the protest was publicized by the Muslim Student Association on their Instagram page, only around 25 students walked from Carney to the grass on Lower Campus outside of St. Ignatius Church. Dozens walked by and stared as they sipped their Starbucks beverages (a common boycott target). 

Calling for divestment from those who monetarily support Israel is a common campaign across campuses today, and has proven successful at some institutions, such as UC Davis. Yet, outside of the vigils held on campus in October, this February demonstration was the sole public opposition to the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Primarily students of color and queer students participated in the event.

It is no shock to anyone that BC is entrenched in and born from whiteness. In Tema Okun’s enduring work White Supremacy Culture, she outlines characteristics of white supremacy culture that “describe the norms of white middle-class and owning class culture, a culture we are all required to navigate regardless of our multiple identities.” Paramount to this culture is the characteristic of individualism. Further reflecting on individualism at BC can help guide an understanding of our institution’s attitudes toward student engagement with identities, political events, and global issues.

These individualist ideas come from a culture of white supremacy, in which individuals are deemed bad actors, and cultural or institutional racism is often ignored. Competition is valued, and there are clear hierarchies related to programs of study, living conditions, and student-organization affiliations. Students are not encouraged to organize or be in collectives, despite a constant emphasis on Jesuit teachings that call for community. 

Certain types of communities are valued over others. Communities expressing peace of prayer are given favor over communities expressing anger or frustration. Protest rules make student organizers, specifically students of color, sources of blame and shame when they act to solve problems or raise their voices without support from administrators.

Conflict is feared on campus. Politeness is insisted upon, and protests must not disrupt the campus. Social justice work and activism do not happen without consent from the administration. Even the location of the BAIC itself—steps away from the Office of the VP of Student Affairs—reflects this. There are hardly any places on campus where students can express their ideas, identities, and emotions, good or bad. The only designated collective space where students can organize is the BAIC, where the needs of all marginalized students are concentrated in a space smaller than many classrooms on campus.

Our spaces aren’t designed to be radical. Big ideas are tampered down until they become fiscally and socially acceptable for BC to include and consider the needs of marginalized individuals. Our diversified staff and increased resources for marginalized students came after years of protest, years of “no,” until, societally, a point was reached where there was enough mounting pressure to act.

Ways Forward

While BC may not be newsworthy amid current national campus tensions, the administration should ask themselves, “Why?” Why are students not organizing? How are we engaging in this conversation? How are our processes built to dissuade student leadership in the form of organizing?

Further, how do we self-reflect? How are our biases reflected in our policies on student behavior and student support? How do we confront the characteristics of white supremacy that permeate our processes? How can we create collective accountability rather than individual accountability? How can we work toward collective thinking and action outside of issues directly affecting us?

I urge BC administrators, student affairs workers, and students to talk with advocates and students with differing experiences, create new spaces for discussion and community, and disturb the status quo. 

During my six years at BC, a lot has stayed the same. All too frequently, individuals are met with resistance to change because things are “just the way they’ve always been.” Together, we can disturb the individualist culture at BC. Everyone in the community must get uncomfortable, start learning from each other, question systems we have assimilated to, and become accustomed to moving forward.

March 18, 2024