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Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Performative activism at UW-Madison

Early in my freshman year I was in a friend's dorm when a boy walked in, invited himself to sit down and began playing “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” He strummed the guitar with no discernible rhythm and sang off-key in a contrived 1960s twang.

The last chord hung in the air as he looked around the room with a melancholic expression and confessed — with the utmost seriousness — how sad he was that racism existed  but how happy he was that his hero Bob Dylan is not racist. 

This seemed to be a vaguely strange and obvious thing to say — was there anyone on campus who openly admitted to enjoying racism? Yet, everyone in the room agreed that they too were saddened by its existence. They could not believe people were still racist. The term was used conclusively, as in you could either have it or not, like chlamydia or colon cancer. 

That night introduced me to a popular scene at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: groups of predominantly white liberals gather and brush the surface of political or social issues with an excitement equivalent to game day. Yet, when the opportunity arises for real-life application, to materialize their words in the face of disagreement, even blatant bigotry, the line between performance and personal, becomes uncomfortably thin.

Like most universities, UW-Madison fosters free thinking. Higher education gives incoming freshmen the opportunity to understand their own beliefs and values — ones they might not have been able to explore previously, especially given the upbringing of many students. 

In 2021, 45.6% of freshmen were from 71 of the 72 Wisconsin counties. While 49.6% of Wisconsinites voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 while Madison’s possessive Dane County had  75.7% of constituents vote Democratic. So, it’s not surprising that this is the first time many students are exposed to an intensely liberal atmosphere. 

For many students coming from predominantly conservative counties, ‘liberal’ is enough of an identifier. The label leaves no room for error and no room for improvement. It is an all-inclusive, all-encompassing signifier of one's stance on every matter. 

When speaking with peers at UW-Madison, one can replace the word “liberal” with “generous” or “intelligent” or “kindhearted,” and the conversation still makes sense. “My boyfriend? He’s great. He’s also liberal.” The word points towards an explicit, established depiction of character. 

It comes in the form of  “Hey, I’m a good person. I love NPR and astrology. Just don’t talk too loudly about the protests in front of my roommate. She’ll get weirded out. It’s not her fault. Just how she was raised.” 

Beliefs are tucked away when there is the possibility of a negative outcome. This means those beliefs are not intrinsic to identity or core values. Rather, they reside in self-perception or overall image.

When you mention the hypocrisy in the situation they invariably take the defense. They show discomfort, hurt even, that you would suggest their complicity is not innocuous and is, in fact, a large reason why change is stagnant. 

That is the luxury of choice: the choice to care, the choice to push back. 

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If you care, care consistently, not conditionally. Contingent activism debases movements upheld by those willing to see themselves as cogs — not pulleys. These movements are used as stepping stones to further personal agendas. This is dangerous in its detraction from tangible work performed by many on campus who are the first to notice these inconsistencies. 

It is remarkably easy to have an us versus them mentality. Oftentimes when we decide we are a part of the us we conclude that all progress can cease, that we are granted the authority to speak with equal confidence as those who never had the option of silence. The problem there is the implication that ignorance is something we have the capability of being exempt from. 

On college campuses where ideology stops at application, mass struggle can become an individualized accomplishment. It instills the feeling of change when all that has occurred is self-congratulation.

Not only is the constant American struggle toward progression a looming presence, but now there is the increasing precariousness of what so many believed to be fundamental protection. 

However, with the proximity and connectedness UW-Madison’s community provides, the ability to recognize points of improvement is useful not just on an institutional level but on a personal one. 

Self-reflection on our own intents and our own capacity for harm is the gateway to change. Listening to those around us who have lived experiences rather than centering ourselves in conversations is the key to creating a more empathetic campus. Remembering not everyone has the option of silence is allyship in its rawest form. 

I still believe in those old proverbs: “Practice what you preach” and “Your friends are a reflection of you.” Now, more than ever, that’s not just general life advice but a necessity for ground-level change. We can’t hold hands and try to sympathize with hatred when the foundation — if there ever was one — is crumbling. 

Priyanka Vasavan is a sophomore studying Marketing and English. Do you agree that performative activism is a problem at UW-Madison? Send all comments to  

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