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Cultural critic Roxane Gay sees hope in recent activism for social justice

'Something is happening,' says Barrett lecturer of protests after killing of George Floyd

September 29, 2020

Author Roxane Gay acknowledged that centuries of racism make it difficult to believe that anything will improve, but she believes that the recent activism for social justice shows that change is possible.

“When something like a global pandemic reshapes the world, the enormity of the work we need to do becomes even more pronounced,” said Gay, who spoke during a livestreamed event to an Arizona State University audience on Sept. 25.

“Still, we’re supposed to have hope despite the overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary.”

Gay, a professor, editor and writer, was the 2020 Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecturer for Barrett, The Honors College at ASU. The author of the essay collection “Bad Feminist,” the novel, “An Untamed State” and the memoir “Hunger,” her talk was titled “Roxane Gay: With one ‘N’”

Having spent much of her adult life on college campuses as a student, faculty member or guest speaker, Gay sees universities as a microcosm of American society — promising to fight racism but never taking action or being held accountable for not doing so.

“In every institution, the students and faculty of color do what they must to get through but most are unhappy, feeling isolated and unwelcome,” she said.

Before the pandemic, when Gay was visiting campuses in person, universities would typically gather several students for her to meet before her talk.

“All of a sudden the glossy brochure has come to life and it seems the campus is so diverse that it’s no problem to gather 10 students of color,” she said.

“The administration is trying to tell me an untrue story, but I love these encounters because I always, always hear the truth.”

Gay said the students’ complaints have not changed since she was an undergraduate — not enough faculty of color, tokenization and lack of support.

“I can call out injustice when someone emails me about what’s going on just before I arrive, and the administrators will look appropriately ashamed in that moment, and then I leave and they return to the status quo,” she said.

Administrators aren’t compelled to make real changes because marginalized groups don’t have the leverage to hold them accountable, Gay said.

And the presidency of Donald Trump has made racism worse, she said.

“In three and a half years, he has dismantled decency and democracy and most political norms. He’s pushed a hate-filled agenda with little resistance,” she said, adding that the pandemic also has exacerbated inequity.

“And because it is Black and brown people who are disproportionately affected, the current administration doesn’t really need to care. They willfully look the other way because they can.”

Amid this “apocalyptic” situation, the May killing of George Floyd by a police officer was captured on video. The response was an “unexpected development.”

“Hope has never been my ministry, mostly because I’m more of a realist than an optimist,” she said.

“But something is happening. There is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ and the world will never again be what it once was.

“I’ve never seen protests like this. I’ve never seen such a broad coalition of people recognizing what is at stake.”

Gay said that on college campuses, as well as the world at large, it can feel like nothing will change.

“And sometimes that’s a version of the truth, but the truth is a complicated story,” she said.

“The goal isn’t utopia but acknowledging that we can do better than we have.

“It’s a question of when, not if, we rise to the occasion.”

Lisa Watrous, an instructor of writing and feminist theory who splits her time between the New College and Barrett, The Honors College, moderated a question-and-answer session with Roxane Gay, with whom she went to grad school. Screen grab by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Gay answered several questions from the ASU community on a variety of topics:

On how social justice activism over the last several months has impacted her: “I’m a Libra and as a Libra I tend to be a bit centrist in a lot of my thinking and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. But as you look at everything happening in the world and the really severe problems that we are facing, we cannot expect that centrism will save us.

“Seeing this social justice movement and how active and energetic and sustained it is, has made me more radical in my thinking. It’s pushed me further left. It’s built into me to think that compromise can be found in the middle. But when we think about Black Lives Matter and that there is so little justice when police murder Black people, it’s time for more radical thinking.”

On her advice to young journalists: “A lot of time you hear them say they want to give the voiceless a voice. Don’t work from that premise. Nobody is voiceless. It’s whether they have access for us to hear their voices. Be a conduit, not a mouthpiece. Let people speak for themselves and make sure to communicate what they say for themselves accurately and honestly.

“And, it’s important to tell the unexpected story. People tend to think that if you’re marginalized or oppressed, that’s the entirety of who you are. And that’s not true.”

On white allies: “I understand the concern about white people gentrifying Black Lives Matter. But we need all hands on deck. White people need to take on the issue of oppression. You don’t need to be an ally, you need to get into the fight as if your life depended on it. You can’t dominate the conversation and think you know what’s best for Black people better than Black people themselves.”

On the book she would recommend that all high school students read: “There’s an essay collection from Toni Morrison called ‘The Source of Self Regard.’ It’s a beautiful book. It’s provocative in its way because she’s so brilliant. It offers a range of thoughts on a range of topics. It’s not only about racism or misogyny. She had a lot of thoughts about everything.”

On burning out while fighting for social justice: “It’s easy to become burned out. There are so many issues to address. If you try to address every one, you won’t get anything done. Pick one issue. I volunteer at a local library to help first-generation students fill out the FAFSA and college applications. It’s a manageable thing that I can get done.

“I try to recognize that I am only one person and I’m not so important that the revolution will stop if I take a day off. Get a personal life, whatever that looks like. That will sustain you.”

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