Whiteness in student politics and activism

Interviews with twelve student activists.

To any newcomer to USyd student politics or student activism, it is immediately apparent that these spaces are extremely white. While left-wing movements have broadly come a long way in terms of intersectional politics, with anti-racism and decolonisation part and parcel with popular movements, anti-racist work is never finished.

To unpack the ways in which whiteness is experienced by people of colour within student politics and activist collectives, we spoke to twelve PoC students who have worked in organising spaces. We do not argue that the campus left is racist — rather, we investigate how whiteness interacts with other salient social inequalities like class and locality, and affects our lives at university and in the broader world.

Experiences of whiteness 

There was a consensus that whiteness remains prevalent in student politics and activism. SRC President Swapnik Sanagavarapu and Anie Kandya, former Autonomous Collective against Racism (ACAR) Convenor, note that several spaces consist largely of white students.

Swapnik Sanagavarapu: It’s obviously true [that] student activism is predominantly white, disproportionately, compared to the general cross-section of campus… [but] there’s not an insignificant amount of people of colour in student politics and student activism, especially over the past few years.

Anie Kandya: Looking at the track record of the people that really rise to prominence [in activism], they are both white and affluent. 

The fact that student politics and activism are naturally social environments that largely consist of white people influences how people of colour engage with these organising spaces. Women’s Officer Amelia Mertha describes the feeling as “stifling.”

Anie Kandya: There’s a kind of thinking that being active, well-known and well-liked in these spaces means that you’re a good activist. While I don’t want to invalidate the hard work that people are putting in, you have to fit a certain criteria in order to get any kind of standing.

Amelia Mertha: If you’re a person of colour you have to prove yourself more for some reason… I honestly don’t feel comfortable opening my mouth sometimes, I don’t feel like I’m going to be taken seriously. 

Several interviewees talked about the way white people take up space. Misbah Ansari, a long-term member of activist collectives on campus, and Kandya pointed out that white activists’ engagement with people of colour can be tokenistic.

Misbah Ansari: White people in these spaces read a lot of writing by PoC authors, especially black authors. Then they start coaching other people on these radical concepts. But then when people of colour point out flaws in their activism, they will dismiss us — which completely misses the point these authors are making.

Anie Kandya: A lot of times, people of colour are perceived as only operating from an “ethnic” perspective. When people of colour would raise certain issues, others didn’t really feel like those were issues they took onto their own.

Burnout affects people of colour and white people in different ways, notes Mertha and Mahmoud Al-Rifai, SULS Ethnocultural Officer.

Mahmoud Al-Rifai: There’s a very interesting phenomenon in which white activists actually contribute to the activist burnout of people of colour … you could sometimes be even undermining or invalidating the racial justice work of activists of colour.

Amelia Mertha: [Toxicity in the left] usually ends up affecting women of colour the most; they’re the ones who are going to be pushed out.

Barriers to activism

In non-white communities, activism is often looked down upon. Almost all our interviewees experienced pushback from parents and peers with different cultural ideals.

X*: For a lot of people from brown upper-middle class families, their concern is getting a good job and getting out of here. It’s been hammered into them since they were children.

Anie Kandya: We’re tasked with survival, above all… providing for our families with no safety net. I organised and spoke at rallies, and my parents don’t know a single part of it because they would think that it’s bullshit.

Mahmoud Al-Rifai: My parents don’t like me [protesting]. They’ve come from police states, where you shouldn’t be going against the government. The intelligence agencies will knock on your door. I have to tell my mother Australia’s not like that. 

Locality is another barrier to involvement in student activism. For former ACAR Convenor Kowther Qashou and Kandya, living in Western Sydney made it difficult to be involved in  important discussions and work that occurred on campus.

Kowther Qashou: Getting involved in student activism is a lot harder when you have to commute for hours every day. Many of us can’t stay past nine or ten o’clock at night to wheat paste or do other work.

Anie Kandya: I constantly felt that I was missing out, as all of the important stuff happens when people are just hanging out at the pub or some Wilson Street house. At caucuses, I often felt that all of the important discussions and decisions had already been made beforehand. 

The role of class

While recognising the intrinsic relationship between race, class and locality, several interviewees believed that class was instead the more salient feature within student politics.

Swapnik Sanagavarapu: The left on campus and elsewhere is dominated by privately educated people or people that went to selective schools. They live in a generally upper-middle class with all of the cultural and intellectual sensibilities of the professional-managerial class. 

X: More than anything, I saw a class divide when I first entered stupol. I immediately noticed the brands of clothing these people were wearing. That was more of a jarring experience because I’ve never seen that kind of stuff in my life. 

Former Honi editor Ranuka Tandan and ACAR member Khanh Tran pointed out how involvement requires significant work for little to no pay, which shuts out many people of low-income backgrounds.

Ranuka Tandan: Editing Honi requires twenty-plus hour weeks, which makes it difficult to work in other paid jobs. We only get paid around $220 a fortnight. That wouldn’t cover much more than your UberEats and late-night Ubers home. 

Khanh Tran: Activism is a constant cycle of organising and building protests. At the end of the day, the people who are organising at the core tend to be those who can commit the most time.

X and Tran also noticed that social circles tend to be divided along class lines:

Khanh Tran: There’s a lot of vibe checking that occurs when you first get involved in student politics. The high school you went to plays a significant role in determining which social group you belong to. These factors are not immediately apparent, rather, they form a less tangible part of socialising within stupol.

X: Within activist spaces, the people who tend to be friends are often of the same class more than the same race. You see people from extremely privileged upbringings forming friendship groups — most of them are white, but there are a couple that aren’t.

ACAR as an organising space

Interviewees described the Autonomous Collective Against Racism (ACAR) as a safe, welcoming space for people of colour to begin getting involved in activism – there’s a certain energy that doesn’t exist in other student activist spaces. 

Khanh Tran: I think ACAR is the bridge between [political newcomers] and the institutional body of activist knowledge. There’s more of an understanding of the obstacles facing our community when it comes to being involved in activism.

Misbah Ansari: This year, since the Convenors are relatively new to student politics, it’s a more comfortable and welcoming space. It’s a lot more accessible to people who don’t know about left-wing, grassroots politics. 

Swapnik Sanagavarapu: I think it serves a very important function of giving people of colour a place to organise around particular issues that might not get much priority into spaces with different orientations.

However, some felt that campaigns organised by ACAR — save for last year’s Black Lives Matter protests — have received less support compared to other collectives.

Kowther Qashou: When I entered spaces like Enviro and WoCo, it was very evident that more white people tended to take up leadership positions … so [in my experience,] ACAR definitely got less support from those spaces.

Anie Kandya: The way that I see it is, if white people can’t use a space to prove to themselves and others how woke they are or how much they care, then it’s not [prioritised]. Not to say that their efforts aren’t genuine, but I think often they see spaces and collectives as what they can get from it.

International students

2019 Honi editor Baopu He and Y* say that the bigger divide in student politics is between domestic and international students.

Y: I don’t think local students really understand the needs of international students because they’ve never experienced it. Our need is understanding and an unbiased view. I think there is a long [history of] division between the two groups. … The only time [domestic students engage] is [when] they want me to translate something or help them with campaigning, getting votes, that’s all.

Baopu He: [I didn’t really consider] the binary between whiteness, and POC, because it just so happened that we were a POC-majority ticket. … I was thinking, when observing student politics, a lot more about the dynamics between international students and non-international students.

International students often don’t have the privilege of being as “visible” as domestic students, due to their more precarious status.

Khanh Tran: The reason why [international students are] not as involved is that sociocultural gap, a very different starting point in terms of political awareness. And then, after getting past that entry barrier, how that commitment is maintained.

Importantly, Y thinks that domestic students often exclude international students and exhibit whiteness, which “is deeply rooted in Australian culture.”

Y: The game is designed for whiteness, without anything changing, because whiteness is the mainstream race in Australia. … Whiteness is more about your culture, not just your skin colour. 

SRC Councillor Ashrika Paruthi says that international students lack information about the SRC, forming a “vicious cycle of under-representation”. They say it’s “imperative” to revive the International Students’ Collective so activists can unite in their experiences.

Ashrika Paruthi: … collective spaces lay the strong foundations required for the recognition of collective experiences – both related to suffering and empowerment.  … [it would facilitate] the preparation of a roadmap to recovery from everything that the community has been through. 

Anti-racism versus identity politics

Interviewees contemplated how to promote anti-racism in activism, without straying into identity politics. Sanagavarapu provides this distinction:

Swapnik Sanagavarapu: Anti-racism is much more material in its outlook. It’s much more focused on instances of structural racism, or political projects that are associated with, or produce, racially biased outcomes. Whereas identity politics is much more focused at the micro level on individual or interpersonal interactions — fixating on the way that people speak, trying to scrutinise covert microaggressions. I don’t think that is really mutually exclusive, but care a lot less about the latter and care a lot more about the former. 

While identity politics is antithetical to left-wing organising, people of colour sometimes feel uncomfortable bringing up race, as they fear they’ll be dismissed:

Anie Kandya: [I have found myself] not wanting to bring up race because you don’t want to seem too idpol. It feels like there needs to be some kind of inherent justification, or case study, or a particular instance I can point to where [racism] manifests for it to be taken seriously. But it’s fucking hard to communicate a feeling.

Misbah Ansari: When white activists dismiss something as identity politics, it’s a very shallow response. They’re saying “our approach is a lot more academically and politically superior than yours” and nothing else. 

X also points out that conversations about class are almost non-existent:

X: I feel like class is more of a sore point for these people than race.  When you mention that their families are wealthy, or that they live in one of the most expensive suburbs in Sydney, most people will say, “I don’t want to talk about this.” They’re so eager to distance themselves from money to fit into these spaces. 

It is important to remember whiteness is not something that can be eliminated or ‘fixed’, but it requires a constant introspection that is perhaps lacking in student political spaces: 

Mahmoud Al-Rifai: Whiteness is something that’s very ingrained, like capitalism. It’s something that really requires a lot of introspection and sometimes people aren’t willing to do that. 

When it comes to addressing whiteness in student activism Mertha perhaps puts it best: 

Amelia Mertha: A lot of people do walk around thinking that they know everything, that they’ve learnt everything, and they don’t sit down and listen, in fact there’s a lot of listening that white people could do still.

*Names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ identities.