By Ose Arheghan
When I was in high school I recognized the power of youth voices. Only some voices seem to be naturally louder than other due to the natural amplification privilege seems to afford some. When I look at what’s happening nationally with the recent wave of student-led activism, I’m thrilled! I see activists like Emma Gonzalez, and I’m filled with a sense of pride that queer people of color are spearheading these fights for justice and people are listening. It’s empowering to know that while I’m fighting for the rights of queer students like Emma, Emma fights for my safety as a student.
Looking at Emma, I see how the fights for gun reform, LGBTQ rights, and minority rights all intersect. That, however, hasn’t been reflected in the response to student-led efforts I see closer to home.
As an activist, I see it as my obligation to draw attention to inequities that exist and try my best to effect positive change. When police officers killed Tamir Rice, an unarmed 12-year-old child, in my town, the only people who spoke out were, by enlarge, mostly black people, like myself. I heard students debating over whether or not the killing was justified. The idea that a defenseless child may have deserved a death sentence because he had a toy gun compared to this unified fight against gun violence in the wake of the Parkland Massacre is day and night.
Two years ago, at my school, we planned a Black History Month spirit week that culminated with a “Hoods Up” day to commemorate the killing of Trayvon Martin. The administration quickly made announcements canceling the spirit day and informing students that anyone wearing a hood would be issued disciplinary action citing “security reasons,” this is the same school where students wear full-blown Teletubby suits for sport-related spirit days with no regard for “security,” so we protested anyway.
The response to our protest was swift and was met with in-school suspensions, disapproval from the majority of the student body, and criticism from the faculty. Up until the day I graduated, I still had teachers tell me, to my face, they didn’t understand why I made such a big deal “out of nothing.”
In stark contrast, a group of mostly white students organized a walkout in April on a day we were scheduled to have state-mandated ‘End of Course’ exams, and our school administration has rescheduled them for another day. The district also released a public statement endorsing and “strongly supporting” a walkout in March and applauding students for their activism. The teacher association, school board, and superintendent’s statement went as far as saying they “encourage students to get involved in issues about which they are passionate.” In comparison, it’s striking the lengths to which this administration went to stifle the voices of black students.
When a group of mostly black kids at my school protested against gun violence, the district comes out against our efforts and citing “safety concerns,” which my school deems as an appropriate response. However, when a group of mostly white students does the same, they get the full support and backing of not only the school administration but of city officials, the police department, fire department and parent-teacher organization. At first, I felt a mix of what I can only describe as frustration and jealousy, but I understand that isn’t productive. What I wish the adults in my life understood was our fights are the same, are tactics for activism are the same, and our passion is the same. We should receive the same support from our administration and peers.
Differential treatment wasn’t just an issue at my school and is not limited to just high schools. Colleges and universities all across the nation are coming forward reassuring students that they will not hold disciplinary action resulting from a protest against them during the college admissions process. No such statements were made when black youth, like myself, all across the country organized despite consequences, in honor of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and the seemingly endless number of black bodies lost to gun violence.
It sometimes pains me to think that classmates like me may not matter to the other students. I sometimes ask myself “How come students in my school are quick to rise up and speak out when gun violence happens in a school across the country but not when it’s a school on the other side of town?” “Why now?” “Where was the support and calls for solidarity when black students like myself were staging die-ins or were peacefully protesting with their hands in the air chanting Hands up, Don’t shoot!” Do we not have the right to fear for our lives? What about our safety? Do we not matter?
To be a young person having to eloquently explain to teachers, administrators, and legislators who are supposed to represent and protect you why you matter as a person and deserve the same rights as your peers takes a lot out of you. It’s a feeling that is amplified when you have to do it alone. My heart goes out to peers at Stoneman Douglas as they continue to heal. We must bring an end to gun violence. However, we cannot ignore the essential anti-blackness that has continuously silenced and demonized black student activist fighting for their right not to be murdered. For me, I’m being asked to walkout and ignore the fact that I am still a queer black female-bodied person in a world that is often hostile towards people like me.
I hope this attitude is encouraging young people to speak up and speak out and I hope people continue to support youth-led movements, but I hope it’s extended to all types of youth activism and all kinds of youth. I want to see celebrities publicly supporting queer and transgender youth like Mack Beggs who still has to wrestle on the wrong team because his state won’t recognize his identity as valid. I want to see donors pouring financial support into Black Youth Project 100 so young black activists have the resources to combat racism and spearhead grassroots efforts. I want to see my school administration publically state that they don’t tolerate racism, homophobia, and transphobia and they’re going to work to make their policies and practices reflect that.
When people look at me, I want them to see a person who isn’t afraid to speak out when they see unequal treatment for students who look and identify like them, even when, especially when it’s not popular to do so.
In being that person, I couldn’t in good faith bring myself to participate in the walkouts. But I hope my choice and the choices of people like me all around this globe spark more intersectional work so we can truly have collective liberation.