Appropriation of a Different Kind: Social Justice as a Means to Social Capital

To preface, we accept that the language of this article may present us as hypocritical in our active intellectualization of the subject matter. We also accept that this article may come across as “holier than thou;” however, we recognize that we too are implicated in these behaviors. We think that it is imperative to explore these issues in relation to ourselves as individuals and as components of the larger Vassar community. The way in which Vassar students opt to value voices and opinions reinforces pre-existing hierarchies of forms of self-expression and articulation necessitates our admittedly academic tone.

At Vassar, vocabulary like “mass incarceration,” “prison industrial complex,” “privatization,” and “intersectionality” are valuable resources for facilitating conversations within the realm of academia and for gaining understanding of structural systems that control prisons in America. We see this as a form of social capital within the competitively driven atmosphere that Vassar constructs; one’s capability to convincingly contribute to discussions of societal inequality reflects one’s commitment to radically “liberal” ideals. As Dr. Kathy Boudin, current director of the Criminal Justice Initiative at Columbia School of Social Work stated in her lecture on Women in New York State Prison, “mass incarceration is a hot topic right now.” This is true, and is apparent on Vassar’s campus. With this in mind, opportunities to showcase one’s theoretically acquired understanding of the deeply pervasive inequalities of the United States’ prison system are becoming more commonplace, but ultimately serve as exchanges and measurements of aforementioned social capital.

This vocabulary, should it fall into the wrong hands, facilitates the intellectualization of damaging and oppressive lived experiences of those whose lives will forever be tangibly impacted by our criminal justice system. This process is demeaning and silencing of already forcibly speechless individuals. Our increasing comfort in discussions of the “prison industrial complex” often neglects the narratives of humans that this system disadvantages and forcibly removes from our visible society. In an effort to combat this very natural inclination toward desensitization, Vassar’s Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics and the Vassar Prison Initiative hosted two vastly different speakers to discuss their personal experiences with incarceration.

Ira McKinley is an Air Force veteran, activist, and filmmaker. His film, The Throwaways, documents McKinley’s past experience with incarceration and police brutality, as he seeks to address these issues in Albany, NY. McKinley’s narrative is not an anomaly—his father was shot and killed by police when McKinley was fourteen, he was arrested for robbing bodegas to fund his narcotic addiction, and, once released, found himself homeless in his own community. We’ve heard this before. Every day, Black Americans are forcibly uprooted from their homes, leaving behind a wake of devastation with no means for their families to contend this inequality. McKinley’s story is unique in that we are able to hear it; it is notable in its very existence. We were excited by the opportunity to personify our generally highly conceptualized understanding of the prison industrial complex. We were surprised by the minimal attendance given the “hot topic” nature of the subject, which leaves us to wonder: was his experience “too real”? Was his identity too foreign for Vassar student solidarity? Or simply was his lack of prestige not enough to legitimize his story?

These questions seemed to be answered by the incredible turnout to hear Dr. Boudin lecture about women in New York state prisons from her lived experience. The dichotomy we present is not meant to devalue her experience, or to deem it “less real” than McKinley’s. We only seek to illuminate the way in which Vassar students pursue the acquisition of knowledge. Boudin’s lecture was laudable and effectively addressed the misrepresentations and the largely disregarded conditions of women in prison. Boudin, a historically visible far-left political activist, served twenty years in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York for felony murder in an act of civil disobedience that went awry and resulted in the death of two police officers and a security guard. What seems imperative to note is the level of autonomy and choice Boudin had in breaking the law. Her decisions were a reflection of a political statement, and her tale is thrilling and admirable for the commonly “liberal-minded” Vassar population. Her history of activism is dreamy to the average Sociology major, and her academic successes both within and outside of prison made her presentation accessible to the intellectualistic minds of the audience.

We urge you to question what this variation in attendance says about whose voices are privileged enough to receive the full attention of the average Vassar student—why was Boudin’s story more palatable? How do we perceive Vassar students’ hesitancy in discomfort? Our personal perception of this discomfort is as a very natural manifestation of elitism, white supremacy, intellectual superiority, and privilege. Vassar does not provide adequate spaces to combat these so deeply ingrained inclinations and institutionally affirmed sentiments.

There is a serious perversion of our intellectual pursuits as they pertain to addressing them in real time, with palpable lived experiences available to us. Both McKinley and Boudin made themselves vulnerable and accessible to Vassar students who claim to desperately seek opportunities to perhaps selfishly expand their knowledge. Why are our politics so disconnected from our actions? How can we say we are “attending” these events on Facebook, and within the week post photos of insensitive parody of the same societal epidemic in the form of a Halloween costume? How can we request transparency from Vassar when we are fervently unwilling to practice it within our own lives? The prison industrial complex is not just an area of study or a correlate; it is a profoundly unjust and damaging reality of an already dramatically underserved facet of our population—a population that the majority of us have the privilege to ignore outside the confines of a classroom. We’ve easily accepted that Iggy Azalea is wrong in her appropriation of Black Culture for capital consumption, but can we see the appropriation of issues of social justice in development of our intellectual and social capital on campus?

The acquisition of this social capital does not appear to foster a sentiment of responsibility to embody our politics—or to be thoughtful as to how we actually intend to use what we acquire for personal enactment of consciousness. What we see as the natural progression of this thought process is the consideration of our drug use on campus. It is astounding that Vassar students are able to recreationally abuse narcotics, with little to no acknowledgement of our incomprehensible privilege to do so. There is minimal policing of privileged, white drug use. And even more alarmingly, there is an absence of understanding that substance abuse literally costs the lives of human beings. How can we make such a concerted effort to be cognizant of how food makes it to our plates when we give little to no thought as to how a line of coke made it to our desks? How can we claim to be thoughtful, progressive Liberal Arts students, but selective in what troubles us? Beyond our walls, Black and Brown bodies are brutalized and surveilled; smoking a spliff on the street is absolutely not an option for People of Color outside of the protective perimeters of Vassar College. Every weekend, we as Vassar students risk our physical and psychological security at the chance of experimentation and entertainment. This is not an attack on the Vassar population; it is an effort to articulate our discomfort with harmful discrepancies between a climate of activism and thoughtless privileged practices. With this in mind, we do not aim to protect ourselves from implication, but rather to illuminate a series of conflicts that we see permeating our social and intellectual activity.

6 Comments

  • it's not that I don't appreciate what you're trying to do says:

    You’ve written an article about how academic jargon becomes social capital on the Vassar campus. I agree this is a huge problem. One aspect of this problem which you have not explored is the role jargon plays in creating barriers to higher education for people with disabilities. At a lot of liberal arts colleges, everyone is required to speak, read, write, and think fluently in a specific complex style, master an advanced vocabulary, and communicate in abstract concepts. There is no instruction in doing these things – it’s just assumed that if you don’t have the capacity to pick it all up on your own, you’re not worthy of being a student in an environment like that. This obviously harms many students from working-class families or for whom English is not a first language, as well as students with disabilities.

    I am a Vassar graduate. I have a developmental disability. I struggled throughout college with the understanding that people like me, who can’t understand Butler and Foucault, aren’t supposed to gain access to Vassar, aren’t welcome there, aren’t meant to succeed. You’ve written an article about the oppressive uses of academic language. I don’t understand the article you have written.

  • Anonymous says:

    This rocks. Thank you.

  • Anonymous says:

    As a Vassar student I found this to be incredibly inaccessible, specifically due to of all of the jargon utilized in this piece. More difficult to read than most of my readings here, and no, that is not a compliment. It is unfortunate that a piece with a meaningful message could become much less effective because of the elitism and way the message was portrayed. Please keep in this in mind when further pursuing writing. I am not recommending you “dumb down” your message, but realize the way it perpetuates the structures that you seek to challenge. Perhaps instead of inserting a ‘disclaimer,’ you actively work against such systems instead of pontificating about it.

  • Lol18 says:

    Lol. The main reason why people didn’t attend the McKinley lecture is because it wasn’t publicized. At all. I heard about it a few hours before on the day of when a classmate (who was part of the organization that sponsored the event) mentioned it to me. On the other hand, there were fliers about the Boudin lecture literally everywhere- taped to stall doors in the bathrooms, in the deece, on doors etc. weeks before the event took place. I would have planned to attend the McKinley lecture (and I imagine many of my classmates would have as well) had I known about it earlier. Virtually none of the people I talked to about it knew it happened, and I didn’t see a single flier for it. Also lol at the fact that you are criticizing those who use jargon yet your article is basically unreadable due to the same phenomenon..?

  • T says:

    It is appalling to me that Kathy Boudin can be seen as anything other than a murderer. To say that her story is something that young students should aspire to is sickening. Murder is not a form of civil disobedience. This canonization of Boudin should end. She spent twenty years in prison for three reasons. Edward O’Grady. Waverly Brown. Peter Paige. Those are the names of her victims.

  • Kali & Caitlin Kali & Caitlin says:

    @LOL18 — We are sorry that you did not feel as though there was adequate advertising for the Throwaways screening and that it did not reach you until the day of the event. However, there were flyers posted in every residence hall, the retreat, the deece, the library, and Rocky (where the event was held). There was a Facebook event hosted by VPI, the same group that facilitated the Boudin lecture. Vassar academic department heads also sent out e-mails reminding people of the event, and this advertising began weeks before the screening took place. If you have suggestions as to how to sufficiently promote future events, we would love to hear your thoughts.

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