Nicholas Chan

Bio: Nick Chan is a Houston native and proud Texan. He is a first generation Chinese American and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin where he studied Government and Asian Studies. He finds passion in the intersections of racial justice, gender equity, and global LGBTQ protections. In 2014, Nick worked at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute developing curriculum for ESL language learning programs and spent his summer at UC Berkeley as a PPIA Fellow. During his senior year, he was a White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders E3 Ambassador and YP4 Fellow, centering his blueprint project around an Asian American student conference in Austin. He currently works as a legal assistant for a Chinese telecommunications company managing international business markets that cater to Asian immigrant populations in the US. During his free time, he enjoys binge watching Rupaul’s Drag Race reruns, playing board games, and cuddling with his cat Jovi.

Details

Location: Austin, TX, United States

    Issues Areas:
  • Racial Justice

Campus: University of Texas at Austin - Austin, TX

Fellowship Class Year: 2014

    Fellow Groups:
  • Alumni Board

Nicholas Chan's Blog Posts

3 Reasons to be a YP4 Femtor/Mentor

The Femtor/Mentor application is closing this coming Monday, 9/5! Don’t miss out on your chance to work closely with members of the current Fellowship class and continue your personal development as a member of the YP4 Alumni Network.

Femtor/Mentorship is a crucial aspect of YP4’s Fellowship program, and we need your help to make it a success.  Check out 3 simple reasons why you should apply to serve our Network as a fem/mentor this weekend.

  1. There is still a lot to learn. YP4’s Fellowship program was created to foster the leadership and power of youth in the collective liberation movement. A femtor/mentor relationship is a two-way street, and the learning process is always reciprocal. While we as Alumni have a lot of knowledge to impart to our fem/mentees, it’s important to remember just how amazing our Fellows are. Many of the folks we’ll get to work with as fem/mentors bring strong analyses of the movement with them to the Fellowship. They certainly will push us to think deeper and harder about the approaches to social change we employ and the issues we concentrate on. Working with Fellows reenergizes Alumni in our network and refocuses them as to why they engage in social justice work to begin with. With an exchange of ideas, sharing of resources, and a continuously growing network, the femtor/mentorship program has so much potential to advance your growth as a leader.
  2. Refining your leadership role. As Alumni who have completed blueprints for social justice or have tremendous life experience doing this work, there is a level of expertise each femtor/mentor can provide to their Fellow. Although the benefits can be reciprocal, the Fellow will look to your style of leadership and seek advice on being an agent of social change. For most Fellows, they will look to you for affirmation of their hard work. They will come to you for that validation that they are not alone in this work and can depend on your guidance.
  3. Collective liberation requires collective participation. As Alumni in the YP4 family, we have tapped into a vast network of resources and leaders in the collective liberation movement. Our analysis of social injustices and intersectional frameworks has improved from learning from other Fellows, trainers, and possibly femtors/mentors we met during the Fellowship year. Our healing and support does not have to be done alone, either. In this work, we are humbled by leaders who invested their time and resources in us, while recognizing there comes a responsibility to continue passing on our knowledge and resources for an innovative new cohort of leaders. We have to be the person our younger selves needed. We have to reach back and pull up others while we climb our way up. Showing up for our fellows, not only as alumni, but as femtor/mentors is integral to our collective liberation.

There are so many enriching reasons to pay it forward and become a femtor/mentor to YP4’s cohort of fellows this year. Get your applications in now!

Don’t Be a Drag: Fat, Femme and Asian Representation

The first drag show I ever attended was in a Houston club where a queen performing to a Britney Spear’s number had the crowd going wild. Honestly, I was mesmerized, but also a little uneasy. I just didn’t understand why a man would want to dress up as a woman. I was afraid of something I didn’t understand and angry from not knowing. After many years of processing my own internalized homophobia and transphobia, I’ve come to appreciate and love drag culture.

Drag is art. Drag is subversive. Drag is disruptive and healing and historical. It is a direct push back against what is deemed “natural” or “real.” Gender lines are blurred and creativity is nurtured. I learned all of this from a drag competition on television,  Rupauls’ Drag Race, which is currently finishing up it’s 8th season. Over the years, over 100 drag queens have competed on the show hoping to carry on Rupaul’s fierce legacy. The show aims to promote the “tenacity of the human spirit” and has been a great platform for queer narratives. Since it’s inception, contestants have shared personal stories about abuse in the home, fears of coming out, being incarcerated, and struggles with their gender identity. I have found parts of myself in their stories, which in turn, made me feel less alone.

A fan favorite this season is a Korean-American contestant who goes by Kim Chi. She describes herself as a high fashion anime character with amazing looks. I find myself pulling out my phones to show off pictures of her, and always double tap her images on Instagram. As the first Korean drag queen to appear on TV, she takes pride in her Korean heritage. Throughout her time on the show, Kim talks about struggling with her weight throughout her life, talking with a lisp, and being an artsy and shy Asian kid growing up.  She reveals to Rupaul that her own mother doesn’t know about her drag career. Kim discusses family pressure in Asian households, and how it dramatically impacts how immigrant children perceive their talents and success. She explains how controversial topics are rarely talked about in Asian families, and how children often bury parts of themselves in order to not disappoint their parents. Besides these struggles, Kim’s mother instilled a strong sense of pride in their cultural heritage. For one of the final runway challenges, Kim dedicated her performance to her mother, wearing a traditional Korean hanbok encapsulating her mother. She uses her identities and pride in her cultural background to truly excel in the competition.

In another challenge about making political campaign ads, Kim talks about “No Fats, No Femmes, and No Asians” in her video. A highly recognizable phrase from gay dating apps, she truly surprises judge Michelle Visage when talking about the racism within the gay community. Identifying herself as a fat, femme, Asian, she proudly represents an overlooked population. She struggles with her intersecting identities which can sometimes pull her in different directions.

Seeing Kim Chi on television owning her truth is empowering and inspiring to all the fat, femme Asians who never felt as though they fit in. As a kid, I was told only monsters don’t have reflections. Being able to see that kind of representation and our stories being reflected through the media is the kind of representation some of us really need in this world.

Lessons I Should Have Learned

College– a strange and new territory. A fresh start. A new chapter. A place of self-discovery, cramming for midterms in the library, and trying to drown out your pounding hangover with a professor’s monotonous lecture. We can learn a lot about ourselves along the way, and at our own pace. Since entering the “real world” and leaving behind the security of a college campus, I wish I had learned these lessons, not only about formal education spaces but about life, earlier.

 

1.        Find space for yourself on campus.

In my years at school, I often spent more time on campus than I did at home. As it became my second home, I felt a growing need to feel safe and protected at school. Having a safe space on campus became crucial for my physical and mental well-being throughout college. A space for yourself can be anywhere — an ethnic studies center, the LGBTQ resource center, or a random isolated corner of campus where you can escape the business of campus life. It is a place you can go in between your classes to squeeze in a quick nap or where you can eat your lunch in peace without feeling lonely. After a cruddy grade on a research paper or an argument with another member in a student organization, everyone should have a place for themselves on campus. I simply could not thrive as a student if I did not first feel safe and secure as a queer student of color at a state college in Texas. My little space was my home away from home, my charging station, and my own little protective bubble I could rely on while navigating my time through college.

 

2.        Stop dreaming. Start doing.

College is supposed to be this magical life changing journey of self-discovery. I spent so much of my time dreaming about the perfect college experience that I was letting it all pass by. My favorite television producer and TV writer, Shonda Rhimes, puts it best in her commencement speech to a graduating class at Dartmouth:

 

“Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.”

Somewhere along the line, I stopped letting an education get in the way of my learning. I began applying for internships and attending student conferences. At first, it was merely for my own self-discovery and my desire to understand why I never felt like I fit in. I wanted to learn more about the identities I hold and find a sense of community. Soon, people I would meet at trainings became good friends, and lessons I learned in workshops because useful talking points in class discussion. I was determined to not be afraid to keep learning and to make the best of opportunities that came my way. And when I wasn’t given those opportunities, I actively sought them out. When I stopped waiting around and daydreaming about a perfect ideal college experience, I was able to craft my own personalized experience that I never knew I needed.

3.        Treasure and cherish your network.

The absolute hardest thing to learn since graduating is that making new friends can be really hard. Your co-workers are often much older with families and settled lives of their own, and it seems that nobody is willing to go to Happy Hour with you anymore. The childhood innocence of asking someone to be your friend on the playground is a thing of the past. Even yelling at passersby to attend your event when you are tabling for a student organization isn’t socially acceptable in everyday life. Basically, for a cynical introvert like myself, meeting new people outside of college sucks.

Not that the quantity of your friends should matter at all, but we are no longer given unlimited access to a young and diverse student population with a wealth of knowledge. It’s like getting on Tinder in a desert. Maintaining networks doesn’t extend only to our peers, either. Keep in close contact with your mentors and advisors. Your professors can be great resources outside of the classroom and beyond graduation. Faculty and staff were once young academics in our position.

Some of us are not lucky enough to even call one other person in this world a good friend. We all need support systems throughout college and in the future years to come.

Too often, I have been given advice about the best internships to apply for or which classes to take to prepare for graduate school. Rarely have I been given advice that centers my health as a whole person. Instead, I am often seen as just an student at an academic institution. Whether one has attended college, is in the process, or had chosen other life paths, these lessons can be applied in everyday life. Prioritize your needs and health first. Start doing instead of dreaming, and build a community and network of supportive people.

Three Important Takeaways from the Peter Liang Case

In November of 2014, NYPD officers Peter Liang and Shaun Landau were conducting a vertical patrol in a residential apartment stairwell that resulted in the killing of Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man. This past February, Liang, a Chinese American, was convicted of  second-degree manslaughter and was fired from the New York Police Department. Not long after the conviction, thousands of Asian Americans, the majority of which were Chinese, took to the streets across the U.S. to protest the decision. This has opened a difficult, and long overdue conversation about police accountability and racial relations in the U.S. between  Black and Asian communities. The media has spun both sides of the story, pushing for a mobilized Chinese community, finally vocalizing and amplifying an opinion pertaining to race, while also pitting it against a narrative of wanting to be protected by white supremacy and reaping its benefits at the expense of anti-blackness.

Many of the protests believe that Liang became a “scapegoat” to the Black Lives Matter movement. This conviction would potentially ease racial tensions and temporarily shift accountability. However, many have rallied for a broader approach of dismantling extensions of white supremacy, including the police state, and realizing its disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities. The discussion is confusing, messy, and difficult to process.

 

Looking forward, there are at least 3 key takeaways from the Liang case:

 

1) The Asian American community can and will be mobilized. The model minority myth has been internalized by many Asian Americans and in turn, many believe they have nothing at stake in these issues. I was personally invited to the protest by a coworker, and first considered going after reading corresponding news reports. It felt exciting to organize and protest with fellow Chinese community members. However, talking about the case with other Asian Americans, I realized there was a wide range and variety of opinions on the matter. More so, I was unclear on what people were organizing around, what were the demands and goals of the protests? Although the views differ, I was relieved that they were finally being shared on a large scale.

It seems the last time a group of Asian Americans showed out in comparable numbers was the 1992 LA Riots where Black and Korean business owners tensions were extremely high. We should still remember lives like Latasha Harlins, who was killed by a Korean store owner back in 1991, which highlights the long history of complex racial tensions and the police state in the United States.

Asian Americans have opinions. Asian Americans are not apolitical. The narrative of the quiet, submissive, and “keeping our heads down” Asian American’ can no longer suffice. Decade after decade, communities of color face huge challenges. These difficult conversations are crucial and necessary to be educated on social justice issues. We must learn, and then we must show up and stand up. It does no good to be a slacktivist. Meetings are being had. Protests are being organized. Organizations and spaces are being created. Get involved.

 

2) The police state and criminal “justice” system are racist and terrible. The vertical patrolling tactics Landau and Liang used, and are trained to use, led to the death of Akai Gurley and many other victims of police profiling communities of color. Vertical patrols and broken window policing are common methods used to patrol communities of color that are thought to be areas of high crime rates. It was no accident Liang and Landau ended up at a city housing residential area, where crimes are thought to happen the most. These assumptions came at a deadly cost, where Akai Gurley had to pay with his life.

Moreover, Liang neglected his duty as a first responder. He did not administer CPR once realizing his mistake. Instead, he panicked and wasted time arguing with Landau about whether or not to report the shot fired. This is clear negligence. As a cop, he should have been trained to safely handle a gun, to adapt quickly to a stressful situation, and to administer help to civilians. He was not trained properly and therefore failed to perform his job as an officer, which should come with a consequence.

Finally, there is an overall consensus that white cops need to be prosecuted and convicted for their crimes too. The police state needs to be held accountable for its violence towards communities of color. The NYPD has abandoned Liang, while they have previously and continue to stand by their fellow police officers in similar cases. It should also be alarming that this is the first time a NYPD officer has been convicted of a crime of this nature in the past 10 years. Instead of a second-degree manslaughter charge, what if Liang had been tried for a first-degree murder charge? There would have been a higher threshold to prove intent and convict. The legal system is normally reliant on plea bargains with underpaid defense attorneys, strict minimum sentencing laws, and policies written to protect the majority. There is clearly a problem with the so-called justice system in this country.

 

3) White supremacy is still a problem. The confusion among the Asian American community is not a surprise, especially with the media prioritizing bait clicks to draw in readers without much attention to its problematic content. Stories have been published highlighting both sides of the story shrouded in misinformation and purposeful omissions. With Liang’s case, details were given in the news, such as his status as a rookie cop, or that the situation was an “accident,” potentially disproving intent. Many sources left out Liang and Landau’s failure to respond with proper medical attention. News media outlets have shifted the conversation to focus on Asian American protesters demanding Liang be let free or to consider his conviction as a concession to Black Lives Matters movements. There must be a universal understanding that the media is biased, often times racist, and many times cares more about drawing in readers than providing factual, objective information.

The media, the legal system, and the police state, can all be considered extensions of white supremacy. In the context of the United States, these extensions have impacted Black communities at an alarming rate. Yes, of course, these systems have negatively impacted many communities of color and marginalized groups. From this case, however, we can see how many in the Chinese community choose to embrace their racial identity when it’s convenient and fits their narrative.

Far too often, Asian Americans have use antiblackness as a way to gain closer proximity to whiteness. Chinese Americans, have a deep history of assimilating to whiteness at the expense of black folks. Fast forward to Liang’s case and Chinese protesters are demanding Peter be prosecuted like all other white cops, all at the expense of a Akai’s death. The Asian American community needs to realize that Black folks do not have a net benefit from oppressing other communities of color. However, there have been countless times where Asian Americans have assimilated to white supremacy in order to benefit at the expense of Black people.

There is no such thing as a “scapegoat’ or a political concession when white supremacy is the root of the problem in our country.. If Liang had not been indicted, would there be the same demand for accountability by the Asian American community? There is a clear difference between being angry with police brutality and being fearful of it. The anger non-Black people of color feel is a privilege in itself. It allows for a distancing to occur, where the community only needs to take to the streets if the community they identify with is under attack. Solidarity can never occur if white supremacy is able to successfully pit communities of color, and other marginalized communities, against one another.

 

Overall, there are varying opinions on the Peter Liang case in the Asian American community. However, there are universal conclusions we can draw. The Gurley family deserves support and justice as they mourn Akai. Moreover, white supremacy and its many ugly heads have negatively impacted communities of color, especially Black communities. This disruption in the Asian American political narrative forces difficult conversations, but should lead to a better understanding of racial politics in the United States. Only through consciousness and commitment, can truly interracial solidarity be achieved.

The Complexity of #Asians4BlackLives

It is officially Lunar New Year, and I again find myself sitting around the dinner table with my first-generation Chinese family. My grandmother and dad are making traditional dishes that they used to enjoy back in Hong Kong during the Spring Festival. We enjoy one another’s company, updating each other on our lives and discussing the latest current events. However, despite immigrating to this country over two decades ago, there is always a conversation missing from the dinner table chatter–race. These conversations are inevitably hard. Myself, and many of my cousins have grown up in the United States and have seen how the generational divide impacts perceptions of race in our households.

I have been so surrounded by social justice and activist spaces that I can forget the strange feeling of returning home and not constantly having those discussion.. As much as I want to take in being surrounded by family again and celebrating the new fortunes of the new year, my thoughts and mind are often elsewhere. Sometimes, I truly lack the words in my native tongue to effectively articulate my ideas and thoughts. I would never want to be anything but intentional with the words I use when discussing race in the United States. I don’t know what the translation is for white supremacy or cis-heteropatriarchy, but maybe these are just excuses.

This gray space that Asian Americans often fall into is difficult to navigate. The Asian American community has its own laundry list of struggles and oppression that they face with complex and unique narratives. We are often faced with the pressure of the model minority myth, a belief that Asian/Asian Americans set an example for other racial minorities because of their assimilation and positionality towards whiteness. It creates divides where we are not “POC-enough” and leads to rampant internalized racism within our community. However, the long history of Asian American’s have sometimes been at the expense of Black people. With trendy hashtag campaigns like #Asians4BlackLives and #BlackLivesYellowPeril, there needs to be a better understanding of the long history of the Asian American and Black community relations.

First and foremost, there has been a long history of anti-blackness in the Asian American community. The most recent example would be Peter Liang, a Chinese American New York Police officer, who has been convicted of manslaughter for racially profiling a neighborhood resulting in the killing of Akai Gurley. Liang has received support from certain Chinese communities arguing that his trial is embarrassing to Chinese people and demanding that the charges be dropped. These kind of comments about the violent police state make attempts at true solidarity seen as disingenuous.

Anti-blackness in the Asian American community is not a new concept. In 1927, Lum v. Rice was an important case where Martha Lum, who was Chinese, sued to be allowed to attend white schools and to not be classified as “colored” anymore. Asian American’s history of distancing itself from black communities and moving towards assimilating to whiteness is deeply ingrained and institutionalized. This is evidenced by recent and historical events, and anti-blackness has impacted transnational views on black people. The most obvious example is black appropriation in the K-pop industry. In an attempt to appeal to Western, specifically American markets, many K-pop music videos and artists appropriate many parts of black culture to profit off of. This violent representation of black people is exported and imported globally to East Asian countries and essentially the mass K-pop audience. Yet again, Asian/Asian Americans are profiting at the expense of black folks.

So, where could we go from here? Yes, there is undoubtedly a long violent history of Asian American’s anti-blackness, but there have been important pivotal instances of solidarity work. The most well documented is the #BlackLivesYellowPeril movement during the civil rights era. Yellow Peril, which refers to the demonization of specifically East Asians, is rooted in Red Scare sentiment and complex post-war relations with Japan. East Asians in America faced violent racist backlash and were racialized as crooks and criminals. The racialized state violence occurring in both the Asian and Black communities allowed for opportunities to work towards solidarity. Many Asian political groups showed up in solidarity for Huey Newtown, a founder of the Black Panther Party when he was arrested in 1967. Black folks also showed up during the death of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American who was brutally murdered by white factory workers believing that Chin was Japanese and at fault for the problems in the auto industry in Japan. There has also been a history of Asian American activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs working with Black civil rights groups. Asian American liberation will never come without black liberation. Anti-blackness is always going to be the fulcrum of white supremacy and Asian Americans have a huge stake in race relations in America.

Although East Asians have a contextualized complex history in relation to solidarity with black communities, many other groups, as part of the larger Asian American umbrella, are making strides to work together. Many Muslim organizations made donations and fundraised for black churches during the aftermath of the Charleston massacre. Blacks make up 23% of the Muslim population and these intersections are crucial to solidarity work. The queer/trans South Asian poetry duo, Dark Matter, has shared space with CeCe McDonald and Joshua Allen on trans(*) and gender nonconforming issues related to racialized state violence. Oftentimes, these collaborations within our communities are the best starting points in finding common ground between our different struggles and realizing that our liberation is interwoven.

Solidarity is cautiously optimistic. It requires a deep trust and an understanding of our history in order to work towards a liberated tomorrow. As immigrants to this country, my family and relatives have yet to realize that their position in this country and opportunities that they have, can all be credited to Black people. The racism that they have learned and their assimilation to white supremacy is evident from our dinner table conversations. However, it is never too late, and it is our responsibility to work within our own communities. Our family members are our community too, and their humanity and livelihood will only be affirmed in a world where #BlackLivesMatter.

Picture of blog author Nicolas Chan's mother.

Not Your Model Minority

That’s my mom. I snuck the snapshot of her when I said I had to pee really badly waiting to pick her up after work. She is usually really private about her work and her jobs, but had no choice but to let me inside to use the restroom. She’s a seamstress at two different locations five days a week, and then a food sample lady in the Chinese markets on the weekends. My mom honestly has no reason to work seven days a week anymore, but she says she likes it. She gets to meet so many people in the Chinatown markets and says as long as she has the ability to work, she wants to. No English. No education. Just tough skin and an even tougher spirit.

My parents immigrated to the United States in the late 80’s, making me a first-generation Asian American. It’s also taken me quite a while to identify as that — an Asian American. It’s definitely a political term. We are a rapidly growing demographic in the United States. Some Asian Americans have been able to obtain high levels of education and income levels, even outperforming Whites. However, the “model minority myth” could not be further from the truth. Sure, if you don’t disaggregate the data, the numbers might be convincing. However, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) represent a dizzying array of ethnicities, languages, cultures, religions, foods, and fashions. Any catchall data that attempts to reduce this diversity to a single common denominator cannot hope to reflect what AAPI folks deal on a day-to-day basis.

A perfect example of the model minority myth is the affirmative action debate. Opponents of affirmative action often use Asian Americans to drive a wedge between other racial minorities on the issue. They argue that Asian Americans are negatively impacted by admissions when race is considered since their test scores are, on average, very high. However, an ethnic breakdown reveals that affirmative action benefits a number of communities under the AAPI umbrella; Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans have some of the lowest rates of educational attainment and only 61% of Hmong Americans hold a high school diploma. For the Pacific Islander community, the cultural emphasis on an American education is quite different, reflecting a much different narrative than that of other communities under the AAPI umbrella. A friend shares her lived experience, “being a child to immigrant parents meant taking on the duties and responsibilities of a ta’ahine Tonga – young Tongan girl – while ignoring the “American-ness” that materialized all around me. Nonetheless, I was conditioned to believe that excelling in school was not a value indigenous to my Tongan culture but rather something that I had assimilated into.” Education means something different to each of personally, to our family, and to our community. There is no singular narrative when AAPI’s navigate higher education, or this country even, nor should there ever be.

Too often, AAPI’s have been wedged between racial minorities and whiteness. Our families leave behind relatives, their language, their culture, and their comfort when sacrificing so much. As first generation Asian Americans, we aim to provide comfort for our parents in recognition of the hardships they endured on our behalf. However, this “success” often comes at the expense of black and brown communities. The model minority myth comes with many privileges. Overall, Asian Americans have greater access to education and higher levels of wealth. Our parents have always taught us to never cause rifts or stick out from the crowd in order to assimilate. Moving closer towards whiteness, meant moving further away from solidarity with communities of color and continuously overlooking the legacy of black and brown activism making it possible for Asian Americans to “succeed”. We can no longer be mystified by the American Dream promised to immigrants and instead must work towards dismantling the larger institutions and systems preventing our communities from surviving and thriving.

There is a need, more than ever, for solidarity. The success of Asian Americans in this country was built on the backs of black and brown communities. We need to dismantle the model minority myth and recognize that assimilation will never save us. The Yellow Peril movement and leaders like Grace Lee Boggs or Yuri Kochiyama paved a long legacy of Asian American solidarity during the Black Power Movement. We still have tremendous leaders like Jose Antonio Vargas, working on a broken immigration system impacting so many immigrant communities. The legacy is still alive, but we have to keep it going. We must recognize that keeping our heads down and remaining complacent will never be the answer to our liberation.

The Asian America everyone imagines — one characterized by wealth, education, and assimilation, is only a personified extension of white supremacy. We need to begin to reimagine what we think of when we think of an Asian American too. The community is diverse, complex, unique, and ever growing in this country. Founded on the backs of immigrants, our community must stand with other communities of color. It’s funny to think that my mother has no idea of how hard everyday advocates and activists work towards a day where my mom won’t have to clock into work again. Nonetheless, thanks mom.

 

 

Community Agreements

Is the classroom a safe space?

Image from SWANK (Sex Workers Action New York)

Nowadays, social justice norms have become second nature to activists. These hail from conferences and are marked by early mornings with lots of coffee, round after round of challenging conversations, and checking our privilege at the door. These norms, also called community agreements, stick with us. Agreements we set as a community like “what’s shared here stays here, what’s learned here leaves here,” gender inclusive language, and my personal favorite, the snaps of encouragement for agreeing with someone else’s idea create vulnerable, yet possibly very empowering spaces. Creating these safe/brave spaces allow us to unapologetically be ourselves, learn from one another, and engage in critical dialogue on many pervasive social issues. We’re asked to take what we learned back to our communities.
In higher education, we fill lecture halls with peers we barely know and are not guaranteed that same comfort we create in activist spaces. And really, should we always be this critical, even when sitting in our college classrooms? Granted, ethnic studies or gender/sexuality studies courses might be more susceptible to the concept of a brave space, but it often leads to even more heated discussions on these topics. I’ve had numerous experiences where activist friends have struggled to navigate their personal politics within a classroom. Should we correct the professor for their gendered language? What if our classmate makes a comment and uses “illegal” instead of undocumented? What if the reading assigned was heavily transphobic? I’m often left conflicted myself.
If you’re like me you spend a lot of time uncomfortably squirming in your seat internally screaming throughout the lecture. On one hand, critical comments, calling out, language correction, and alternative theories could spark a necessary deep discussion. Students have paid a very expensive tuition to sit in this class. They might have different goals for the class like paying to learn from the professor with credentials. Is it more appropriate to use office hours and email to raise concerns with the professor? Should we save these conversations for a one-on-one with our classmate? If the professor is not prepared for “disruption” will it impact your grade for the class? Sometimes making comments in class labels us automatically and we are then expected to react to all controversial comments. You become tokenized and, if you’re like me, you might struggle knowing what to do. I pay my tuition, I choose to add the course, and I must sit through the lecture but does that mean I can’t hold my professors and classmates accountable?
We need to always be critical in every setting. We deserve to be in a comfortable and safe learning environment. We need to be honest with ourselves and brave when we are called to speak up. We must know our worth, we must demand our education, but we must also remember our energy can sometimes be spent elsewhere. In the end, it’s about picking your battles and knowing a comment, may impact someone else’s path towards a more inclusive education. Ethnic and gender studies cannot be the only places we have courageous conversations because there are necessary conversations to be had about sexism in STEM courses and racism in fine arts. We always take a part of our deeply ingrained activist selves into new learning spaces. It is our duty to create intentional change with who we learn with and learn from.

Snaps to that?