Do We Talk About Social Justice, Like For Real Talk?

How do we talk about social justice as it relates to our own lives? Are we ever insecure to bring it up? Do we suppress parts of ourselves to talk about it? I was asked two questions that I thought were provocative enough to share.

I decided to update this blog after the racial incidents that happened during the Spring of 2020. Sadly, I am referring to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the racist incident involving Christian Cooper in Central Park. If you work at a predominantly White institution (PWI) and self-identify as White and you and your colleagues aren’t speaking about this incident as it relates to creating an inclusive community on your campus, stop reading this blog and go talk to them right now. Seriously.

I am adamant that White people need to lead the conversation about what you need to do to confront both casual racism and discrimination for people of color. When these incidents feel both common-place and happen without justice, there is no more hand-wringing or impassioned calls for justice from people of color. Because the only way things will change is when White people adopt anti-racist behaviors and hold each other accountable.

Casual Racism Exists and Is Damaging

One of my former students, Jaylyn, now works in higher education. She identifies as a Black woman and recently recounted how two White women who worked in college admissions were surprised by her admonishing them for not understanding how racism impacts college admissions:

The death of George Floyd, at the hands of police in Minneapolis, is the type of explicit racism we can identify and try to hold people accountable for doing. But casual racism, like the example Jaylyn encountered at the college where she works, is much more pervasive and is equally damaging. Because if we have people who lack the understanding about school funding formulas, about the lack of infrastructure to provide literal safe environments, or about students negatively impacted by COVID-19 based on race and ethnicity, but still want to weigh everyone’s academic records based on merit.

I used to be one of those people who would push for merit based recognition without understanding that not everyone had the same access that I did. And without that understanding, I was complicit at the very least in perpetuating this casual racism. Now, like Jaylyn, I point it out because I have nothing left to lose when fighting racism.

I have had a bunch of conflicting emotions lately. Anger, frustration, feelings of loss and sadness. But somewhere in there, I have tried to hold onto my empathy. Because I have to believe that when we look at ourselves and challenge ourselves to do more, we can. And I am here to share what has sometimes held me back when tackling social justice issues at work.

Connecting the Dots

April 2019, I attended a session at the NECPA Summit on Social Justice. I was proud to present on how colleges have a bias against students from lower SES classes. During one of the breakout sessions we were asked to journal about two questions:

Do you feel insecure in conversation about social justice? If so, why?

Are there parts of yourself that suppress to fit in around conversations about social justice? If so, why?

Provocative, right?

Usually I write my remarks in the session and throw out the responses. But the question was provocative enough that I thought I would share my two answers.

What Makes Me Insecure about Social Justice

The first question, ” Do you feel insecure in conversation about social justice? If so, why? ” made me think about my time working in diversity and multicultural programming. Here is what I wrote:

As a diversity educator, I began my career before the current language of social justice began to dominate the higher education landscape. So sometimes my language feels out of touch with how people talk about these issues. Sometimes I feel like I lack the contemporary context to talk about the literature I know, because the words change and I might unintentionally harm someone.

For instance, I think about this a lot when I think about how I would talk about the experiences of trans folks or the undocumented. Or using the written term Latinx. So much of my training, at the start of my career, involved teaching students about the various minority or targeted identities, describing these identities as if they never exercised power or were truly voiceless.

But then I have to continue to look at my blind spots and realise I needed to update my knowledge. I learned I needed to talk about people as empowered in the face of discrimination. For instance, I began center the Stonewall riots on the lives on trans people who initiated the initial police riot in New York City. Trans folks were no longer an incidental participant, but were exercising their voice in the face of discrimination and violence. I have begun to re-think of all of my previous training examples and how I perpetuated a voiceless minority experience, rather than an emboldened community organizing to create and demand change.

Often I have felt speechless when I don’t know how to answer a question with contemporary examples. It’s my true blind spot.

I feel less insecure when I am current on the literature and speaking about experiences from a less condescending way. I have much more to learn but I acknowledge that blind spots are inevitable. But they aren’t unchangeable.

What I Suppress to Fit In as a Social Justice Educator

The second question, ” Are there parts of yourself that suppress to fit in around conversations about social justice? If so, why? ” gave me pause. As an educator I try to champion authenticity. But I do have concerns about how I practice it.

To answer the second question I wonder if my search for authenticity requires that I never harm someone. I try not to suppress any parts of my identity, but if my words can harm others as I explore what I need to learn, then who’s environment am I trying to protect?

Only from a place of arrogance and unresolved privilege would I ever think that my words don’t hurt others. I am reminded of an experience I had working in San Francisco after I graduated from USC, a conversation that lasted with me for over two decades. I moved to San Francisco to organize an LGBT youth leadership conference and worked with an already-existing board made up of local SF young adults.

My manager, Orin, was wonderful. He had no issues telling me what I needed to hear to change my behavior. He brought up that some of the people who identified as women had a problem with my very blatant misogyny.

Of course, I was taken aback. How could I, someone who spoke about feminism and advocating for women, be someone who practiced misogyny. And then I realised that was indeed the case. In being myself, even the best version of myself, I was intentionally or unintentionally speaking over women. Taking ownership of their ideas. Ignoring their leadership. Pretty much everything I would cringe to do now.

My manager couldn’t have been talking about ME! But when I thought about it more, of course he was.

Up until this experience, I never gave one thought to my privileges as a man. And while I will champion authenticity for all my students, now I tell them that being themselves gives no permission to harm others. And we have a responsibility to change when we know to do better.

Capacity to Change

I believe we all have the capacity to change our behavior. Sometimes social justice as a topic is overwhelming. It forces us to examine our behaviors and look at our privileges. Our approach to working with students could come from a place of privilege that causes them harm because we don’t know any other way.

A good example has to do with how we work with students from the working poor background. While they might be able to pay their tuition, they may not have extra money to attend out of class experiences. So the $5.00 charge to go to some off-campus event, that is often described as ‘only $5.00’ might be food for the day. Or two days.

I would challenge people working in student affairs to ask themselves these two questions.

Do you feel insecure in conversation about social justice? If so, why?

Are there parts of yourself that suppress to fit in around conversations about social justice? If so, why?

We all have more to learn about integrating diversity and inclusion in our work. But so much of it starts with where we identify our comfort zone. And then we have to learn to step outside of it to create the change the helps our students. Its not enough to say we value diversity and inclusion. We need to do the hard work to make sure we’re evolving, too.

Career Coaching for the Mid-Level Career Professional

Integrating social justice work into our professional work is a skill we all need to work on. I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.

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