Everyone knows that University activist type – or at least, they think they do. If you’re picturing a skinny white boy with a ‘live, laugh, love’ tattoo, a pointed roman nose, just the right amount of five o’clock shadow to look rugged without looking too poor, and an opinion he considers more important than yours on just about everything, you honestly wouldn’t be far off. Student activism may purport to be all about dismantling the patriarchy and getting rid of the Tories, but all too often the offending party is sitting behind his Macbook Pro with a venti latte in hand, talking over his girlfriend while he makes memes for the June 8 Shitposting Club. Like almost everything in in this world, the white man has stolen the label of ‘activist’, has reduced it to an aesthetic that looks a lot better on his Tinder bio than ‘rich white boy trying his best not to look like one’.
This may be the face of activism, but it is not the substance. The substance is where women of colour and queer activists come in. It’s us – the marginalised – labouring for hours, writing emails, going to meetings, designing posters and writing speeches (all the things that refuse to be glamorous, that activism would not exist without), while your white, or cis, or male society president tells Huffington Post about your work and doesn’t even mention you; gets a job that you won’t get with the same qualifications because his name is John Smith and yours is ‘unpronounceable’; climbs the stage in your Students’ Unions to receive his – your – award. These people claim to fight against ‘the system’, but in reality, they’re feeding into it; they’re exploiting our labour while pretending to care for our liberation. All for an extra bullet point on the old CV.
Being QTIPOC on campus
Being a queer, Asian, Muslim activist on my campus would be of no significance if not for this context. If you are like me, you know that there are countless forces trying to silence you – not just the enemy you know (Tories, homophobes, TERFs, fascists, the names we all recognise), but the one – aforementioned – that pretends to be your friend. The first thing you should know about activism is this: if your voice is not being heard, you are not among friends, no matter how much they smile at you.
When it comes to queer, trans and intersex people of colour (QTIPOC), some themes are indeed consistent across campuses. The first is racism, islamophobia, and anti-blackness in LGBT+ societies; the second is homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in culture and faith societies. The two are connected by similar problems: lack of visibility, lack of education, and language barriers. When you are QTIPOC, there is a particularly unique pressure to be the representation you have never seen; to be the teachers you never had; to teach the straights the language of queers, and to teach the whites the language of your culture, religion, and background. Unfortunately, this takes as much emotional labour as it sounds – a lot – and honestly, it’s too much for one person to bear.
Building a community
A single brick does not make a house. If you are the only queer person of colour you know on your campus, you need to find more. This is easily the most daunting part of the process, but also the most rewarding.
Mandate your Students’ Union to help you with this. If you are an activist on a part-time or voluntary basis, you do not have the resources or the capacity to do this alone, so put your Union to work. Most Unions have a student senate – find out more about how democratic structures work in your SU, and use them to your advantage. Push them to feature QTIPOC widely in LGBT+ and Black history months; push your LGBT+ and culture and faith societies to do this too, if you feel safe doing so. If not, again, this is something you can get your Union to do for you! (See the end of this article for a model policy.)
For more help on this, you can get in touch with active members of the National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT+ and Black Students’ campaigns. The LGBT+ committee has two QTIPOC representatives, and the Black Students’ campaign has an LGBT+ rep. These people are elected to help you build a community on your campus, so that you can advocate for and empower QTIPOC. Chances are, they’ve done it at their own universities, so you can ask as many questions as you’d like. (See the NUS website for more – link at the end of this article.)
In my wider community – Manchester – we are lucky enough to have a group called Rainbow Noir, which caters specifically to QTIPOC, as well. If no such safe spaces exist in your university town or city, get in touch with those that exist nationally or in nearby cities and ask for their help. These include groups such as Hidayah, British Asian LGBTI, and UK Black Pride. They can come to you, and help you get started.
Democratic structures are all well and good, but at the end of the day, the hub of student life is in its societies. The most relevant to myself and other QTIPOC I know are generally LGBT+ societies, and culture and faith societies. You are supposed to feel safe in these spaces, but as a queer person of colour, all too often you are the only brown face in your LGBT+ society, or the only queer person your PoC friends know (if they know at all).
If there are no QTIPOC on your LGBT+ society committee, propose the introduction of at least one QTIPOC representative. In fact, do this anyway to ensure that there is a reserved space. The same can be useful in your culture and faith society – but remember, if you do not feel safe doing this, you can go through your SU, or any of the groups I have previously mentioned, for support.
Take care of yourself
As queer people of colour, we know all too well what it means to feel unsafe almost anywhere we go. It is not only your physical safety, but your emotional wellbeing that is often under threat. If you are someone who is keen to get involved with QTIPOC activism on your campus, it is easy to feel an obligation to do this work, and very easy to end up burning out. Remember this, though: first, that if you are visible, this is in itself an act of revolution, and even if you are simply existing, this is in itself an act of strength.
Model student senate policy – QTIPOC advocacy and inclusion:
NUS Black Students
British Asian LGBTI