I have been struggling with how to do the work so many of us call “social justice.” I understand the why, or I at least think I do. I am on a journey to understand my role in changing the world, which is no doubt a privilege. It has taken me quite a while to get over the fear of doing the work correctly and instead, to begin operating from the heart and continuously challenge my perspective.
As I began to engage this work in a healthier manner, I noticed patterns of bad habits that we educators exhibit while actively being change agents. These habits, in the name of justice and equity, get in the way of making authentic, strategic, and sustaining change. Below are 10 counterproductive behaviors of social justice educators, all explored from the unique intersections of my privileged and oppressed lens.
1) Shaming our allies – Instead lets educate
It is important to be careful about how we hold others accountable. At times, we as educators fall into a righteous place, where we live in the moment to be right, but more so to impose the wrath of our rightness. We lose track of educating and become “social justice avengers.” We thrash anyone that makes mistakes or do not acknowledge their privilege, mostly out of ignorance. When we act like such, we instill fear and frustration in our allies, effectively immobilizing them. Before you respond or react, ask yourself what you want the result to be: proving that you are closer to “right,” or developing a stronger, more capable ally?
2) Lead with our oppressed identities – Forget that we have immense privilege too
How is it that we are some of the first people to forget that we are amazingly privileged? Our maleness, middle class, able bodies, Christianity, age, education, etc. oozes from our pores. It is our very being. And colluding is as simple as breathing in the gift of air. Let’s own our stuff – recognize and acknowledge when we have the wind behind us. Be committed to your growth and allow yourself to be challenged on the identities we often leave unexplored.
3) Create competition around being the best at “Social Justice” – Using language as a way to exclude
We all know individuals that lead conversations with big words and no context. After they are done speaking, most people are completely lost, and so is the message. Correct use of rhetoric is important, but we must be careful that it doesn’t become jargon. Additionally, we cannot become upset when we are asked to explain or define a handful of the words used or ideas explored. How often do we use language to exclude? How often is it intentional or unintentional? Does using the right and “smart sounding” language validate our being someway?
4) Leading with emotions, instead of thinking and acting strategically
How often do we sound off? For some of us, we lose our darn minds. There are moments where we can’t quite hold ourselves together; however, that cannot be our response most of the time (see self-healing below). As Arthur Chickering said, we must learn to manage our emotions. If we do not, it serves as more proof that we are not as developed as we would love to think we are. If we are going to do this work, we have to engage strategically with the end in mind. Our response needs to produce the results that we would like to see. Sometimes our response will show up as joy, compromise, understanding, and empathy. Other times, it will show up as frustration, anger, and disappointment. However, every response should have a purpose, which is a fine line between maintaining authenticity. We impede the fight for justice when we act out of thoughtless emotion.
5) Not acknowledging our self-work
We must acknowledge that we are a work in progress; we both challenge the oppressive systems and collude in them simultaneously. At every step, we have to understand that we are not the authority, but facilitators of dynamic conversations. We will often fall short. We are at times engaging from places with tremendous hurt and an abundance of privilege. It makes sense that we have off moments or are flat out missing something because of our privilege. We are not the best at allowing ourselves to be challenged. When we block our self-work, it means that we are no longer growing and we are modeling destructive behavior to others. For example, it is highly problematic to be an expert in gender identity and expression and have no understanding of the intersections of those identities within race and class.
6) Caught in constant surprise that people don’t know what we know – cultivate allies
This issue is something I see all the time, and often participate in: being absolutely blindsided by the amount of knowledge that my peers, students, and even superiors lack in regards to justice and equity. The definition of privilege is unearned, unasked for, and often invisible. If someone is oblivious to injustice, chances are they are blinded by their privilege. We know this, so why are we so surprised and disgusted when it happens? This is the work that we have committed our lives to. We have to develop thicker skins – not to say that we won’t ever be frustrated, shaken up, or even experience immense hurt and pain. These moments will happen, but this activism is our calling. It is not supposed to be easy. At times, we are supposed to put the cause before ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, self-care is important; however we need to be in rooms and spaces where we are constantly and strategically raising the temperature. Meet students and colleagues where they are and challenge them to be more.
7) Choosing not to challenge family members and elders
This is just a Cody observation, but I noticed that quite a few communities give their elders a pass. We choose not to challenge them or set our expectations of them higher. However, we have absolutely no problem setting colleagues and strangers “straight.” Hypocrite, much? Yes, I understand that our elders may choose not to change, but since when are our conversations about changing minds? We should be about expanding thought and creating new questions, and I think this argument transcends age and authority. This work is hard and emotionally draining; however, we must be vigilant in all areas.
8) Marginalizing the courage it takes to allow your reality to be dismantled
Have you experienced that moment where everything that you thought you knew was ripped out of your hands? Scratch that – not hands, but your heart and soul? Everything that you hold true being constantly challenged and put on display? The way you viewed your family unit? When you discover your mother’s truth was just that: her truth? When your question transitions from who am I, to why am I? We are charged with dismantling the life experiences of many, knocking down the walls of resistance and ignorance, but additionally, moving with care and intentionality. Let’s never forget what we are asking people to do.
9) Refusing to hold multiple truths
How are we creating dynamic change if we do not allow ourselves to fully think through the pros and cons of ideas? How often are we truly weighing the greater good? I love film; watching and analyzing movies is certainly one of my favorite hobbies. Actors amaze me. Their gift can be mystically transformative, but I can hold multiple truths. Whoopi Goldberg is great in Ghost, and deserved an Oscar for her acting; however, if you broke down her character, you would see that it is a glorified Mammy caricature. Julia Roberts is absolutely charming in Pretty Woman, but is also led and dominated by the gender role that is “man.” Teach for America provides an experience where the privileged have an opportunity to engage oppressed communities. Many of these students will be policy makers and fall into influential positions. However, it also promotes the idea of the white savior (oops). We have to be able to engage multiple truths in order to move forward strategically.
10) Challenging others to heal by “erasing their pain”
Stop! Please phrase this action differently. At times, we say this phrase to others as if they should forget their pain and move on. I’m certain that this is not our intent; however, on many occasions, it is the impact. We are effectively marginalizing their experiences. What I think we really want to encourage is exploring that pain – understanding the origins and the emotions in the now, and then figure out how to manage the pain and use it strategically for fuel to both continue the work, and grow in perspective.
This list is not exhaustive of behaviors, or meant to be a list that everyone agrees with. My hope is that it starts a much-needed conversation between educators. I think we have a lot of room to grow, and can do a better job of holding each other accountable. As social justice educators, we have all agreed to continue, to critique, and explore the problematic ways in which we show up into spaces. This post is to help start that conversation, and perhaps explore self-work practices.
“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Cody Charles currently serves as an Associate Director of Multicultural Affairs at the University of Kansas. During his time at KU, he has led diversity and social justice trainings for much of the campus community, including student athletes, student executive boards, staff, faculty, and high school students. Cody was recognized by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) as the Outstanding New Professional in Residence Life in 2008. One of his life goals is to travel the country lecturing on topics of social justice and leadership. You can connect with Cody on Twitter: @_codykeith_ or at consultcody.com.
Note: a version of this piece first appeared on Thought Catalog here.