You might know the type: the social justice warrior on your Facebook feed, posting provocative articles about white privilege, gentrification or the death of yet another black person killed by a police officer. If you’re anything like me, you might assume that these warriors would probably be one of those humanities or social science major. They take classes with really long titles about race, gender or nationality and use words like “intersectional” and “problematic” more than your average B.S.E. major.
Of course, these are all stereotypes and surely there must be warriors on your Facebook and Twitter feeds that do not fit the aforementioned descriptions. After the protest I can only wonder: what role does an academic discipline have in “wokeness”?
In case you’re unfamiliar with the term “woke,” a Blavity article writes that it is a state of being that “provides us with a basic understanding of the why and how come aspect of societies’ social and systemic functions.” Regardless of the name we give it, such a state of being has existed throughout the decades in similar forms. This consciousness gives many in this country the needed fire to fight for something that may not even affect them. My own “wokeness” was activated less by my own experiences and more by articles, literary works and University courses that made me question our social order.
I participated in the walkout because I both agreed with nearly all of the original demands of the Black Justice League and, as many of the non-black participants did, I felt the need to support my fellow students in alleviating their feelings of oppression. However, as I walked out of my philosophy class on the day of the protest, I wondered how many people would be walking out of their classes. How many people would be walking out of their chemistry class? Their engineering class? History? African American studies? In the frenzy of the two days of protest, I saw a post on Yik Yak about how student protesters could not be engineers because they seemed to have so much time on their hands. Later, I saw that several Yakkers had doubts that racism currently plays much of a role on Princeton’s campus.
At some point, I looked around me as I sat on the damp floor of Nassau Hall and wondered how many of my fellow protesters were engineers or in the “hard sciences.” Of the fellow protesters I recognized, many were current or prospective members of the english, politics, sociology departments, or the Wilson School. A great number also were or had been in my African American studies courses. I thought about my friends not in those disciplines — STEM majors — and many of them were not there. Was it that students in the “hard sciences” genuinely did not agree with the Black Justice League, or was there something more?
As my observational skills are not proper investigational tools, I conducted a survey gauging how participation in the Black Justice League protests was linked to academic department. I hoped to understand whether humanities students are more prone to this kind of action. I sent this survey to the Whitman College listserv, a pool of random University students (as residential colleges are randomly assorted at the underclassman level) as well as posting it on my own Facebook page and that of the Black Justice League. I asked five questions, only two of which I believe have quantifiable relevance here: “Were you involved in the walk out, sit-in and/or general protest in solidarity with the Black Justice League?” and “If you are affiliated with the University, which [academic] department(s) do you belong to?”. I received 48 responses from undergraduates who clearly indicated academic department affiliation. After splitting the responders’ academic disciplines into the sections of B.S.E and A.B., the aggregate data indeed showed a relationship between participation in the protests and that of academic discipline, where a p-value of 0.03389 at a significance level of 0.05 percent indicated that the relationship is unlikely due to chance. Compared to the 50% of A.B. students who participated, only 16% of B.S.E. students surveyed were involved.
Perhaps one of the greatest things this survey called to mind was how certain academic requirements could play a role in what many would call the “wokeness” within an academic department. For example, a chemical and biological engineering concentrator is required to take seven distribution requirements, but this does not necessarily require that a CBE major take a class pertaining to Social Analysis, classes that often focus on the diversity of identities and cultural norms. While this is not to imply that CBE majors and those in similar fields are entirely uninterested in such courses, we must ask how course requirements in social analysis (or lack thereof) play a role in the correlation between academic discipline and participation in on-campus protests.
Our “wokeness” does not have to agree with others’, nor must it be binary. I challenge the campus community to rethink the ways it understands activism on campus and the role academic discipline has in whether we are indeed “woke” enough to note the concerns of our fellow peers.
Imani Thornton is a sophomore from Matteson, Ill. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.