2022 UCLA Gender Studies Commencement Keynote Address by Professor Safiya Noble
I am grateful for such a prestigious invitation to speak some words of encouragement to you, the UCLA Gender Studies graduates of 2022. There are a broad array of Tik~Tok influencers you could have invited to speak instead, so thank you Sherene for that kind introduction and the generous invitation to share in the celebration of this year’s graduates. It’s an honor to be your colleague.
There is nothing that compares to the honor of preparing a commencement address for the brightest minds in the world—people graduating in an era of grotesque power imbalances, where your choices and voices are so profoundly important to the world. You, graduates, are facing intense challenges, but I know with certainty that you are in the right place, right now, and you are uniquely qualified to meet the moment.
I come to you here today as a humble Gen X professor who is just young enough to relate to you, and just old enough to have some good advice you need to hear. I bring this message to you today as a big sister, an older friend, a mother, a partner in crime, an ally, and as a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage. [Admittedly, this regalia is giving powerful “sage” energy].
Sandwiched between two larger generations, as a quintessential Gen Xer, let me offer some words for your consideration. I am Black woman who came of age during a time similar to yours, a time marked by wars and militarization—both abroad and in our neighborhoods. Like you, I am attuned to the imbalances of power and the problems of global warming, financial crisis, political corruption, structural racism, sexism, and the disheartening resistance to gender and sexual diversity. The crushing rollbacks of civil and human rights are many. Even the fight for reproductive rights and bodlily autonomy seems impossible to win and protect.
If ever there were a moment in history when we need the power and knowledge that students of gender studies can use to positively impact the world, it is now. Today is not just an incredible day because you are graduating either. Today, in Los Angeles, is the celebration of Dyke Day, an annual day of celebration during Pride Month that honors the struggles, sacrifices, and transformatiive power of LGBTQI+ people in this world. Pride Month is a reminder that the struggle for self-determination for all oppressed people can never end, nor be taken for granted.
We are living in a time where poicymakers want to limit our ability to discuss systemic racism, sexism, gender and sexuality, and LGBTQIA+ histories, realities, and contributions to our humanity. Fifteen states have passed legislation that outlaws discussions of the violent and racist history of the United States—a history we must reckon with in order to create a better future—over the past year, and 26 others have introduced bills attempting to restrict talking about who we are and who we can become.
Your time here has prepared you to speak truth to power. You’ve learned about a range of issues that must be attended to and rigorously addressed, and you are the ones to do it. You can generate the change we need that transforms and empowers, rather than diminishes, denies, or neglects the pressing issues of our times. Your ability to apply intersectionality. transnational feminist studies, Black feminism, Queer and Trans studies, critical disability studies, and critical digital media studies to protect and enhance civil, human and sovereign rights is right on time.
The problems, they are many. But your graduation from the UCLA Department of Gender Studie has uniquely prepared you to develop nuanced strategies for complex problems. Together, we can solve them. Indeed, together, we must.
The stakes are too high for us to ignore or downplay our role as critical thinkers and truth-tellers, as healers and as storytellers, as theorists and community organizers, when these are absolutely essential skills for strong, healthy, multi-racial democracies to flourish.
Commencement speakers often talk about the future. The future you will inherit. The future you will lead. But graduates, you are_not_the future of this country nor of this world.
You, graduates, are THE PRESENT. I invite you to reorient your sense of time.
When I was younger, I thought time was unlimited, and I felt pressure to make something of myself before I turned 40, when my life would essentially be over. (I have of course moved that goalpost to 90 to buy myself more time). But THAT sense of time robs us.
We have been taught to believe when we are young that the moment for our impact is later. But, the future is not later.
In fact, the future is made up of an infinite number of everyday decisions, choices, thoughts, and actions that we are all making together, right now. It is driven by our collective organizing, by our silences, and even by our unwillingness to take action. The future is driven by the space we take up in the world. It’s made up of the space we hold on to for too long when we don’t make space for others; and it is made up of the spaces we cede when we don’t have the courage to speak truth to power.
You, graduates, must take the space.
We don’t need your brilliance, your empathy, and your ideas tomorrow–somewhere out in the distant future, we need your voices, your talents, your knowledge and your power NOW, TODAY.
I hope you will stay attuned to the personal, quiet challenges you faced to earn your degree today. When I was earning my PhD it was during the recession where jobs and homes collapsed right out from under us. In the first year, my father died and I couldn’t afford to bury him. I had a very difficult pregnancy and gave birth to my son in the second year of my PhD program. I was in the throes of learning how to become a supportive stepmom. My husband did a lot of heavy lifting for us to get me through and it was hard for him too. And at the time, despite the accolades and awards now, my work on algorithmic discrimination and racism and sexism embedded in digital technologies was unpopular and I was scrutinized and many time left feeling dejected about my work. My friends provided a lot of emotional support and laughter to pull me through, but it was tough.
To those who don’t know you, maybe your journey looked easy, but I know that for most of us, it is not. It’s the ruthless facade of perfection and ease that we must reject, because being great in your life and in this incredible, joyous moment is always relative to the hard work and struggle it took to climb these mountains.
Let us remember the 6.2 million people who died from Covid-19 while you were on this journey. No one with a heart has not been affected by the challenges of the times.
Some of you, your ancestors, your families, your partners, and your children made tremendous sacrifices for you to achieve this goal. You may never see or feel the sacrifices they made for you to get you to this moment. But I hope you will ask them if you can, and learn more about what they did and why they did it to see you through to this day.
This exercise is not to make you feel guilty [family, don’t make the graduates feel guilty–that is not the assignment]. The purpose of knowing about our collective sacrifices is so that we are in touch, and not taking for granted these impeccable moments. Remembering orients us to a deeper gratitude, and gratitude can make this moment even more meaningful.
To you family members and caregivers who got us here, we salute you. Let’s take a moment to applaud the families, the chosen families, the partners, the faculty, the staff, the administrators, the friends, the frenemies, the haters, and even those who tried to stop you and failed. …
You might be the first in your family to graduate from college and earn a graduate degree. You might have raised children, or cared for people who were sick. You may have been sick yourself.
Let us savor what it took. Let us feel the feelings of gratitude for a moment.
Let us take a minute to breathe in this moment. Let’s applaud them all.
For many people, the pursuit of money and prestigious job titles becomes a measure of worth. Even colleges and universities measure these things to determine their value and prestige. You are graduating today from the number one ranked public research university in the United States. But do not let that be the sole barometer of your worth and how you feel about yourself.
Let the distance between where you started and where you are today be the evidence of your achievement.
We didn’t all start in the same place – some started much further behind to arrive at this exact same moment. Some people walk for miles with very little, while others simply walk across the street with a lot; yet both arrive in the same place. Remember that.
Have compassion, and give respect for hard work and struggle. Remember this when you are in meetings at work with peers, and as you move about in the world. Always be mindful of power–who has it, who doesn’t, and who needs it. Use your power for good, grasshopper. [That’s a Karate Kid reference, for the over 40 crowd].
Now, with your degree from this prestigious school, give back. Remember that to whom much is given, much is required. Your education needs to be put to use to make the world better! The assignment is to invest in each other, locally and globally.
You did the work.
Celebrate the time you gave to this wonderful pursuit that we are so privileged to experience.
We live in a time where education has been profoundly devalued and defunded. But education is still a powerful equalizer. Investing our time in learning about the world – about science and society – protects us and leaves us less vulnerable to manipulation or the harms of propaganda and disinformation.
The last ten years of my life have been dedicated to talking about how dangerous and anti-democratic the world will become if multinational advertising technology companies come to replace schools, colleges, libraries, journalism, and knowledge. Search engines can never be a replacement for what you have been taught by your professors and instructors. Today’s social media can never help us find the shared values we need to create a more just world. Artificial intelligence will never be a replacement for true intelligence, which requires empathy and values, and reconciliation and repair from long histories of harm.
Logic and community and love are not binary—and neither are we.
We need new paradigms, and you have what it takes to bring them into existence.
Don’t stop now as you enter professional jobs, as you use what you know to solve inequality and elevate humanity. Your hard work and your voices lifted in speaking truth to power is powerful!
Apply both your mind and your heart to the most pressing issues of the day.
We need you.
You don’t have to be like anyone in this world but yourself, and the sooner you know who you really are, the more time you will have to enjoy being the brightest light you can be, on your own terms, with pride, and with humility and appreciation for all the other bright lights too.
These times we are living in have given us the gift of being joyfully and unapologetically true to ourselves.
Push us to be even more of ourselves than we knew we could be.
Keep going. Let the inner-light of justice and empathy and fairness light your path forward.
When I was a young person, I acted like a class clown to compensate for desperately wanting to be valued for my intelligence. I was a closet nerd who used big vocabulary words at home, but pretended to be average so people would like me.
In my house, like many people, we lived paycheck to paycheck, with eviction notices or the occasional electricity or phone line being cut off. I learned to feel shame about my working-class roots, and my identity. In response, I became a performer so that I didn’t have to have attention brought to my struggles. I was afraid people would want something from me that I could not deliver on, so I kept the bar low for myself.
But the problems of wealth inequality and oppression are typically not of our own making. We can, and should, be in touch with the pain of injustice. And, we can use our personal and collective power to bring love and light to what is wrong, or inhumane, to make it right.
These times have taught us that talking about our mental health, drug addiction, depression, or our well-being should be normal, not a source of shame.
We are learning we can love ourselves and our imperfections and more importantly, ask for help and expect that it should be given, because no one is disposable. These times we are living in have given us body positivity, and have liberated us in so many ways from invisibility.
Thank you for all of this. Thank you for making the world better in so many different ways.
Keep going. Deploy your knowledge into the dark places that need empathy and repair.
Thank you for demanding that the terms of our humanity be broadened and made unapologetically inclusive. Your impact is felt and we are better for it.
And, I want you to know that you don’t have to have it all worked out for the rest of your life. Your dreams should be directional, and vague enough to allow opportunity and a gut feeling to show up and play a part in what you do.
You will rise. You are ready.
You will rise up for George Floyd and Black Lives, for the environment, for refugees of war around the world.
You will stand up for people suffering the terrible inustices of violent, racist massacres, and refuse ideologies of white supremacy that undermine all of us, no matter our ethnicity.
You will rise up for economic justice, for an end to the school to prison pipeline.
You will resist authoritarianism and fight for democracy.
You will rise up and make Silicon Valley accountable for its harmful products.
You will ensure that women, both cis and trans, are paid equal wages.
You will fight for a livable wage, and affordable housing, and to save public education, and to stop voter suppression, or to use science to fight disease or make the world better in so many ways we have yet to imagine.
We must refuse a world of hate in favor or a world of possibility where everyone is valued and loved, and made whole. Seek accountability, but also make space for redemption, for repair, for restoration.
And do the right things in public and in private, not just “for the gram.”
You will make mistakes, have regrets, wish you had made a different choice in a moment. Extend forgiveness, solidarity, and support.
Rather than shut it all down, find ways to bring each other in for reconciliation. Make amends and extend the grace you will want extended to you in your own worst moments.
One of our greatest challenges is that we are building worlds where our worst moments are turned into data that follow us forever and ruin lives. Push back on dangerous technologies and work harder and faster for digital civil rights so that we can live in a society that is more free and more fair, not punishing and predicted for profit at the expense of people and the planet.
And, I recommend you hug, love, and laugh too, because it is love that animates our desire to make the world better.
As I bring these remarks to a close, I want you to know that you will have the mic handed to you many times in life, whether it’s in a meeting on the job, at your kid’s school, as a manager of people, or as a person with the best idea in the room that really must speak up in order to move a conversation along.
Take the mic. Use the mic. Drop the mic.
Go and do all the things this world needs.