When I was a junior in college, a group that I was directing, StandOut, decided to throw an event honoring queer artists of color in our community. Taking an intersectional approach, the membership believed that, given the group QPOCA’s (Queer People of Color and Allies) relative lull at the time, that we needed to raise more awareness about the art coming from queer people of color. We had photography from Daniel Butcher, paintings by members, and even a show by Latina rock group Girl in a Coma.
In between arrangements for the event—can Veggie Heaven have vegan food delivered for Girl in a Coma?—I was called into the Gender and Sexuality Center on campus to speak with the director, Ana Ixchel Rosal.
“I’m concerned about your event, Jason” she explained. “Highlighting oppression and contributions isn’t really enough. Awareness isn’t enough.”
I balked. My group had the best intentions. The majority of our membership was QPOC. We had decided after reaching a consensus as a group. It felt as though no one was willing to point out the local talent in our community and see how the unique intersection of being QPOC was influencing their work.
I told her that while I understood her point of view, we were going through with it.
What was the outcome though? Beyond spending 300 dollars of our rapidly dwindling savings, how were the fifteen some-odd people that attended changed? What had our awareness bought us?
Yes, there is a place for consciousness. Many people are sadly misinformed or malinformed—to quote a SavageLove reader on the role of some news networks’ intentionally malicious information—about the nature of our world and the structures that shape it.
However, additional consciousness is not the answer. We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns on this particular strategy.
Additional education is not going to persuade more people to use condoms. People are already aware of the benefits of using condoms and have made their own decisions. Additional awareness of the issues is not going to persuade republican women to stop voting for a party that routinely advocates for policies that prevent them from exercising control over their own bodies. The answer to rising tides and soaring global temperatures is not more awareness. We aren’t going to educate people into narrowing the gender pay gap, lowering our incarceration rate, or bombing other countries.
Awareness isn’t enough.
Moreover, who do we propose to be doing the educating? In a study I conducted, published in The Sociological Quarterly, I talked with young queer people about the burdensome effect of educating on their lives. “It’s exhausting,” they would tell me. Those being crushed by the weight of oppression are expected to also come out and educate others about their oppression. Just making others aware, we tell them, is going to change people’s attitudes towards you.
Yet that isn’t true. It isn’t enough to merely meet, work, or be friends with someone of another group to change your attitudes towards that group. More likely than not, their beliefs about the group as a whole will be solidified by the experience.
The experience of educating is also likely to make the marginalized in that situation feel even more so, as so-called micro aggressions—which I do not consider micro at all—pile up.
To fix the problems in this world, we need less awareness and education and talk about awareness and education and what to do and metrics measuring our success along the way and meetings raising each other’s consciousnesses. We need action. We need more people educating themselves and answering their own questions.
In public health, Thomas Frieden developed the Impact Pyramid to describe the proper way to allocate resources to solve problems. Education is a low impact intervention. It requires enormous effort to change someone’s mind. Only a small number of people can be feasibly educated at any one time. Once we’ve made someone aware, it then takes more effort on their part to change their actions.
Resources are better spent on factors that influence large amounts of people, changing the ‘default state’ of the context in which we live, or on socioeconomic systemic interventions. We end up raising awareness because we aren’t sure how to tackle those bigger factors. Those are what we desperately need though. We don’t need more consciousness raising.
Awareness isn’t enough.