Slavery and the Student Debt Movement

30 05 2012

Let me preface this post by sayin that I am an active member of organizations that work to forgive student debt and increase college accessibility for everyone. I shouldn’t have to do this, but given the shitshow that crops up every time anyone tries to bring this up, I feel that I must.

Fellow White student debt activists, it is time to stop appropriating the images of slavery to make your point. It is long past the time, in fact. This should have never been the go to move for us in the first place, but as history demonstrates, Whiteness has no problem stealing from the cultures and histories of oppressed nationalities when it is convenient.

The imagery and rhetoric of this movement has centered around the image of the slave. Students in tens of thousands of dollars in debt are “slaves” to the federal government, to Sallie Mae, to whichever private institution holds their debt. The debt becomes the ball and chain of the person holding it. Pick your problematic slavery imagery and the student debt movement has probably appropriated it in one way or another. It is distasteful at the very least and incredibly offensive and problematic for White students in particular to be using this imagery and rhetoric considering our place in the system of racial privilege and oppression. While none of these White students were slaveholders themselves, White people continue to benefit from the enslavement of Africans centuries ago, and even the most basic comprehension of White privilege should be able to see that we are still very clearly benfitting from slavery, while the descendents of those enslaved Africans are very clearly not.

White privilege, just as any other privilege, clouds one’s ability to fully recognise when they are doing something harmful to an oppressed group. And just like with any other privilege, people do not always react positively to a call out of White privilege. The reactions of anger, dismissal or excuse making I’ve gotten was to be expected (and really, claiming that the imagery is supposed to represent indentured servitude instead of slavery is a terrible cover and embarrassing as an excuse.) If the student debt movement wants to be taken seriously, however, it’s White members need to get over being confronted about their privilege, and they need to do it quickly.

I believe strongly in this movement. I believe we can make a difference, and that a college education can truly be financially accessible for all who seek it. Alienating an entire segment of the population (a segment which is more vulnerable when it comes to student debt) is not how to build a strong movement and certainly not the way to make a difference.