On Wednesday, September 16, noted author and feminist scholar Roxane Gay addressed the Barnard community, in the first of three lectures in the new “Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020” series. 

The live stream Zoom event began with an introduction from Barnard Provost and Dean of Faculty, Linda A. Bell. Provost Bell first explained the genesis of the “Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020” lecture series as part of a new course in Barnard’s First Year Experience` curriculum. FYE classes seek to introduce first-year students to academia and to teach them how to write, discuss and think critically at the college level. This fall, the curricula have been revamped to provide space for students to discuss and answer some of the “big questions” brought up by the events of this year, including, “What are existing power structures, value systems, and institutions that uphold them?” and  “How do we care for and center communities that face the most pain and injustice?” 

With these questions being discussed in classes, FYE has been expanded this fall to also include the  “Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020” lecture series, to hear writers, activists, and scholars discuss our present and our future. In her introduction, Provost Bell thanked the FYE team (Pam Cobrin, Cecelia Lie-Spahn, Laurie Postlewate, and Wendy Schorr-Haim), for their work in revamping the curricula and bringing this series to life. 

Roxane Gay is an author and cultural critic, focusing on topics of feminism and modern culture. Her books include Bad Feminist (one of NPR’s best books of the year), and Hunger: A Memoir of My Body. Alongside Tressie McMillan Cottom, Gay produces a podcast called “Here to Slay”. She is a New York Times Contributing Op-Ed Writer and has contributed to numerous other publications, including Time, The Guardian, and McSweeney’s.

Gay began her lecture with a contradiction, saying that it was a pleasure to be here at Barnard, but “also kind of not a pleasure”: to be speaking remotely and about injustices that have persisted for generations. She posed two questions to the audience regarding the Covid-19 pandemic and widescale social upheaval about deep-seated injustices, asking “How did we get to this place?” and “How do we move beyond it?” She conceded that she might not have any wisdom on this matter, but expressed willingness to share what she knows. 

She first discussed student-led movements against injustices on university campuses and denounced the superficial gestures made by university administrators to quell these movements. She described a familiar pattern when she is asked to speak at universities. She eats lunch with a pre-selected group of students, largely composed of queer students and/or students of color, who speak to her about the issues they face on campus: biased grading, tokenization, and a lack of institutional support, which Gay said were many of the same issues she faced as a college student 25 years ago. Gay recognized that she is at a key point in her career, where she can do these meet-and-greets at universities, but she can also help students hold their universities accountable. She underscored that universities and non-profits understand what they need to do to create positive changes, but they also know that they don’t have to make these changes because marginalized students do not have the power nor cultural capital to hold them accountable in the long run. 

Gay discussed the international wave of protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder this May. She mentioned that particular pain she felt upon learning of  Floyd’s murder, as he was only one year older than her. In these protests, she sees the potential for change. “Hope has never been my ministry,” she confessed, “(but) the world as we knew it has broken wide open.” This facet of the pandemic and the protests, to Gay, presents an opportunity to rebuild the world in a different way.

After Gay’s speech, Provost Bell proceeded to ask her a number of questions collected from first-year students, who have recently read two of Gay’s books as part of the new FYE curriculum.

One student asked if Gay believed that a cultural shift away from individualism is required in order to end systematic racism. Gay ardently agreed, claiming that “we need to be less individualistic to combat all bigotries.” She expressed doubt about the possibility of this change, citing the recent issues with “anti-maskers” who are not only willing the risk the lives of others but risk their own lives for their own sense of individuality. Gay expressed concern about the people who are unwilling to think of the collective to save their own lives in a pandemic: how do we get those individualistic people to think about the collective in an effort to end racism?

With regard to Gay’s 2018 NYT article “No One Is Coming to Save Us From Trump’s Racism”, one student asked “How do we sit with this? How do we embrace discomfort? How do I find hope while recognizing that no one is coming to save us?” Gay stressed that the article’s title is a call to action, that “we have to do that work ourselves.” She condemned people waxing nostalgic for President Obama, as an idolized figure who could fix everything, and the “bizarre revisionist histories” of both Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, “who are war criminals.” She also called on people to abandon the hypothetical thought experiments in which a super-rich individual such as Jeff Bezos gives $100 to each Amazon employee and still has ludicrous amounts of wealth. Gay recommended to “pick a problem and start working on it, without worrying about the end game.” She further added, “Instead of telling me about your racist relative, why don’t you have a conversation with a racist relative?”

To this end, she referenced a community initiative in LA which provides food, tents, medical supplies, and clean water to the unhoused community in Echo Park. Gay’s assistant works with this initiative, which is led by young people doing the work that the LA city government is not.

Another student brought up the topic of performative activism, especially as it happens online, asking “What are the next steps to truly implement social change?” Gay expressed that “you have to walk the walk… you have to do more than make your Instagram avatar a black square”, a recent trend which she denounced as “fucking ludicrous.” She recommended that people donate to bail or mutual aid funds, if they have the means, or donate their time to local action groups, adding that what might be a small gesture to you could be a huge gesture to someone else. 

Another student asked, “Can you be an activist and not vote in the coming presidential election?” Gay expressed her belief that it is a “betrayal” to not vote. She acknowledged that it might feel useless, and predicted that Joe Biden might win the popular vote, but not the election, in a similar manner to Hillary Clinton in 2016. With this in mind, Gay underscored the importance of voting for down-ballot tickets, particularly in blue states where the presidential election appear solid, and that people must be politically engaged in their own communities, and know who is running for positions as judges, district attorneys, or members of the school board.

One student asked how to approach racists, and how to effectively engage with them if not with reason. Gay answered that it is by and large, not possible to change the minds of racists, that “for every skinhead who found the light there are 500 who are happy to stay in the dark.” She stated that racists cannot unlearn this behavior, as they do not see people of color as human.  She did however note that there are less racist people that might be able to be reached by trying to understand how their viewpoints might have been formed, and by not belittling or shaming them in the process. 

There will be two more speakers in the“Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020” lecture series. 

Linda Villarosa, Author and New York Times Magazine Contributing Writer

Wednesday, Oct. 14, 6:30-7:30 pm ET

Roberta Schwartz ’91, Executive Vice President, Chief Innovation Officer, & Chief Executive Officer of Houston Methodist Hospital

Wednesday, Nov. 11, 6:30-7:30 pm ET
These events are open to the entire Barnard community, and registration is required.

Roxane Gay via barnard.edu