Critical Theory: The Multiple Dimensions of Social Justice
by Maha Bali
I came across Feminist Frequency and the great work of Anita Sarkeesian by coincidence when I found out about #gamergate, given my interest in educational games. Since then, I have been addicted to her work.
But, this post is not about her or about #gamergate, not really. It is about the multiple sides of social justice. We as critical pedagogues, and even educators who do not necessarily label ourselves as such, often refer to social justice—that we advocate for it, that we would like our students to fight for it—as if social justice were black and white. We know it is not. We just sometimes fall into a trap of talking about it as if it was non-controversial.
Let’s take Anita’s videos on LEGO. I agree completely with her assessment of the gender stereotypes in LEGO games and ads. However, I have noticed a few other things not included in the video.
Those games with ancient Egyptian themes—where they blow up things—they are blowing up my national heritage as an Egyptian! Can you even begin to imagine how that feels? What kind of messages are people portraying when they teach kids in school about ancient Egypt, and then play games where they destroy those monuments? And besides, my postcolonial self would like to remind Westerners that they often have stolen and destroyed our “stuff,” as simulated in these games.
Granted, Anita is against violence in boys’ games in general, and I know she would understand my specific complaint as an Egyptian, maybe even say it someday. But she wouldn’t feel it how I am feeling it now.
Additionally, I noticed almost all the people in the LEGO ads are White (I actually don’t remember any non-Whites, but I might have missed something). LEGO’s “Friends” theme for girls has a token Black girl and a token Latina. I’m not seeing girls like that in the ads. I am seeing just one of each in the midst of many White girls. And by the way, where is the token Muslim girl with a headscarf?
You see where I am going with this discussion, right? Critical theorists approach things with lenses, and our lenses are always incomplete. As an Egyptian, Muslim, headscarf-wearing woman, I see the world in a different way; I see injustice upon women, postcolonials, etc. more clearly from my personal experiences than I see injustice against, say, homosexuals or African Americans. I can try to understand it from their perspective, extrapolating from my own experiences of oppression, but it is not the same. I have never experienced poverty, and without firsthand grassroots experiences, I would have been ignorant of the extent of it in my own country. And yet I have not lived it; I cannot speak for them.
I once posted the hashtag #ineeddiversegames. I said I needed diverse games so I could find characters that represent me. Someone responded with a list of games centered around Muslim females. How does he know I meant me, as a Muslim woman, rather than me as a university professor? Or me as a mom? Oh, right. He looked at my twitter photo, and did not read my profile.
But, it was a fair guess. I actually partially meant it as he took it. I do feel uncomfortable with lack of avatars who cover their hair. Playing a Muslim-designed game does not solve this issue. However, regularly having such avatars in all games would—but I don’t think he got it.
I am reminded of a South Park episode about racism where Token (the implied “funny” name for the token black kid) tells Stan he just “doesn’t get it.” Near the end of the episode, Stan said, “Now I get it. I just don’t get it,” to which Token responds, “Now you get it, Stan.”
So here are two important situations where I just don’t get it. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict looks to me, as an Arab Muslim, to be a clear case of oppression of the Palestinian people. But, I am sure there is a moral ground upon which Israelis justify their existence. Not being one of them, I cannot possibly understand the Holocaust or other oppressions Jews have historically suffered. Knowing about them does not help me understand why the Palestinian people are suffering because of them.
I don’t know enough about the history and politics of this conflict, but I sense it is not a matter of knowledge, but of perspective. That justice there might be more complex than I can imagine. I get that the Israeli need to protect their citizens and allow them to live in peace. However, I don’t get how killing tens or hundreds of Palestinians for each one or two Israelis is going to help achieve that goal.
Another issue even closer to home is the ousting of Egyptian president Morsi in 2013. I get why many Egyptians wanted him out. But I also get that the way it has been done has created more instability and violence. What I don’t get is why people supporting either side can’t see the oppression and injustice that has occurred to the other.
In my two examples above, I am talking about individual citizens, not governments. Governments have different calculations, which I doubt have social justice factored into them. But I tend to assume that citizens strive towards social justice. And yet we have a long way to go, especially if we keep talking about social justice as if the goal was clear, and all the difficulty was in the battle.
Maha Bali is an Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at American University in Cairo, Egypt (AUC). She teaches and researches a variety of things related to education and ed tech. She runs a blog: http://blog.mahabali.me; Twitter: @bali_maha), and is co-facilitator of www.edcontexts.org.
This post was inspired by:
Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297-324.
Shape Shifting and Kamala Khan:
How the New Ms. Marvel Can Be a Role Model to Teenage Girls
by Margaret Robbins
Teenagers often have to manage dual identities. On one hand, they have to do well in school to please their parents and teachers; on the other, they have to wear the right clothes, drive the right cars, and go to the right parties to please their friends.
Teenage girls often have the added pressure to look a certain way in order to conform and gain popularity among their peers.
As a result, teenagers often look at celebrities as role models, even though their teachers try and encourage other role models, like the characters of classic literature. Yet, Marvel’s new comic series has a strong female protagonist who is worthy of recognition as well: Kamala Khan.
As a teenage superhero, Kamala struggles to balance her family’s expectations with fitting in at school and fighting the bad guys, yet through it all, she gains a better sense of her true self and her sense of right and wrong.
The new Ms. Marvel, also known as Kamala Khan, who first gained her own comic book series in February 2014 (after an appearance in Captain Marvel in August 2013), has many dualities within her identity.
First of all, she has the typical teenage girl issue of trying to please both her family and peers; her identity as a Pakistani American girl intensifies this challenge. She tries to find a balance between respecting her family’s cultural values and fitting in with American teenagers.
Kamala soon discovers that she has a larger destiny awaiting her. At the end of the first volume, Kamala’s transformation into a superhero begins, and Captain America, Iron Man, and Captain Marvel come to assist with the transition. Captain Marvel warns, her, though, “it’s not going to turn out the way you think.” In other words, sometimes, having superpowers is a little bit more than one bargained for.
In my opinion, Kamala’s story is a good example of how minority women are gaining more of a stronghold in leadership roles, especially in stories for young people and in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and comics/graphica. Since these genres are sometimes marginalized due to readers not viewing them as serious literature, it seems almost fitting that these stories are the places for female protagonists and minority women to surface as prominent characters.
Kamala is among the first minority teenage female superheroes to have a lead role in a comic, and hopefully, more will follow. Her story is one worthy of study in classrooms, as her struggles are relatable, and her perseverance makes her a strong role model for teenagers.
However, when Kamala first becomes a superhero, she “shapeshifts,” or changes form, into Captain Marvel (also known as Carol Danvers). Initially, there seems to be no logical reason for Kamala’s ability to shapeshift. However, in volume 3, she comments, “everybody’s expecting Ms. Marvel. Ms. Marvel from the news, with the hair and the spandex and the Avenger’s swag, not a sixteen-year-old brown girl with a 9:00 p.m. curfew.”
It’s interesting that Kamala’s commentary reflects on other people’s expectation not only on the numerical age of female superheroes, but also of their physical appearance. However, she begins to realize that even as a teenager, she has agency and can make changes in her life and in how other people perceive her.
In volume 4 of Ms. Marvel, Kamala’s friend Bruce encourages her by saying, “Who cares what people expect? Maybe they expect some perfect blonde, what I need—I mean, what we need—is you.” Only gradually does Kamala realize that she should be her own kind of superhero, rather than the one people are expecting. Therefore, she gains a greater respect for her true identity.
By the time volume five comes along, the hero transformation is complete, but Kamala’s struggles at home intensify. Her father asks more questions about her late hours, her clothing, etc. However, after they argue, Kamala’s father tells her, “You don’t have to be someone else to impress anybody. You are perfect just the way you are.”
Although Kamala doesn’t always see eye to eye with her father, she realizes that she needs to fight for what she feels is right and also to be true to herself and her sense of morality. As she comments, “Abu is right. Bruno was right. I’m not here to be a watered down version of some other hero.”
Kamala still retains her superhero powers, but she stops shapeshifting into Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel). Instead, she keeps her superhero costume on, yet remains in her true bodily form.
Young women often feel that they have to fit a certain mold to please others, to get what they want out of life, and to succeed. However, Kamala realizes that she can help others the most simply by being herself and by fighting the battles she believes to be important.
Kamala learns to fight against oppressive forces and to be authentic, both valuable lessons to teenage girls. I hope teachers will consider studying this comic in the classroom, in conjunction with other literature, to discuss the roles of women in society and the portrayal of female minority characters.
Margaret Robbins is a second year doctoral student in the Language and Literacy Education department at the University of Georgia. She is a Graduate Assistant for both the Red Clay Writing Project and the English Education department. She also has done work with the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project. Margaret taught high school English for three years and middle school reading and language arts for seven years. Currently, she is the Poetry and Arts Editor for the Journal of Language and Literacy Education. She has been an avid reader of YA literature for many years, and her research interests include children’s/YA literature, multicultural education, critical literacy, critical media literacy, and pop culture.
The Things We Carry: Questioning Systems of Injustice
A Guest Post by Megan Adams
There are two stories that I carry with me each day. I tell them to countless teachers and students; I have used them for training purposes as well as instructional tools. Yet what drives me to be a better educator and a better person is the memory of the two young men who are the main characters of those stories.
One, Ced, should have graduated in 2008. Ced was motivated, driven, and athletic. He had several scholarship opportunities. However, he took the Georgia High School Graduation tests for the first time in 2007 and failed all five of them. He tried a second time, and passed the writing and science portions of the test. He tried a third time, and did not pass any additional tests.
The fourth time was the spring of his senior year. By now he was panicked. We worked after school each day before football practice. That spring, he passed mathematics. However, failing the social studies and language arts portions for the fourth time meant that he could not graduate with his class.
By May most of his teachers were deeply concerned. Ced had lost interest, and felt that he was not capable of passing the tests. He said, “if I can’t pass the tests, ain’t no way college will work for me.” Yet he tried again that summer.
He managed to pass English Language Arts, but failed Social Studies for the fifth time. His score dropped so dramatically that all of his teachers were at a loss. Yet once the fall of 2008 came, he was back again. He gave a shy smile, and said, “I’m not going to quit, yet.” He came back for two weeks to review for the test.
The weekend before he would have tried to pass the Social Studies portion of the Georgia High School Graduation test for the sixth time, he got into an argument with his father about chopping wood.
His father shot and killed him.
Ced, a child who made good grades and did everything right in his early years of high school had all of his hopes stripped from him by testing, the failure of a school system to prepare him, and the environment in which he was raised and never escaped.
Soon after Ced’s death, however, another young man, Rico, came into my classroom. He was another football player, and was a junior in high school. The death of his former teammate shook him into reality. He asked me to calculate his academic grade point average (GPA) in order to calculate his National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) eligibility.
He was a complacent student during his freshman and sophomore years of high school, and was far more interested in popularity than grades. His GPA was a 1.7 out of 4.0. He asked what he could do. “How will I get out of here?” I told him that as a junior, his only option would be to make all As.
He scoffed, but there was a look I couldn’t place in his eyes. Over the course of the school year, he indeed made all As. I was shocked. His GPA continued to climb, and his scores on the ACT were high enough to get into college. Rico passed all portions of his graduation test by the end of his junior year.
What is the point here? As teachers, what can we take from these stories?
It is easy to blame the system; it is no secret that the state of Georgia has changed our education standards and assessment measurements too many times over the past fifteen years – something teachers across the nation can relate to, despite where they live. The teachers can barely keep up. Clearly the system is not working for students.
It is also easy to blame the difference in students’ home lives. But, is that it?
I think there is a deeper, darker issue at play in these stories about social justice. The high school these boys attended was predominantly Black and one hundred percent free and reduced lunch.
There was neither a regional outcry brought on by the first story nor regional shouts of victory brought on by the second. They are just two more students, struggling to overcome a system that is not designed to support them. That system might work, but it might also end in tragedy as in the case of the first child.
Is there nothing more we can do to change that?
Megan Adams is currently an Assistant Professor of Reading Education at Kennesaw State University. Her interests are in researching youth identity and perceptions of empowerment, particularly in the rural, southern United States. She is also interested in taking that work and assisting pre-service and in-service teachers as they improve their reflexive practice to foster social justice teaching. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have ever driven on the expressway or a back country road, more than likely you have passed sites of memorial. Peeking up between the blades of overgrown grass, a wooden cross marks the site where someone lost his or her life. There are degrees of grief, ranging from hand painted names to teddy bears. They stand as reminders of life once lived and markers of the place where life failed to reach forward into the next second. Generally, we just drive past these memorials. Workers cut the grass around them, still preserving the respect of what that moment was for somebody in this world.
But, one week ago today, a memorial positioned across the road from where Michael Brown was killed, was reduced to ashes. Rest with that for a moment.
Cards and homemade drawings with expressions of love and forgiveness. Ashes.
Balloons, shaped like hearts and American flags. Ashes.
Flowers, long dead, still preserving hope and justice within their petals. Ashes.
Plainly put: fire destroys. When someone burns a memorial of a deceased human being, they are denying everyone the right to heal. Both the oppressor and the oppressed cannot face the impact of what happened to Michael Brown’s memorial, let alone his body, if we can’t go directly to the infected wounds of police brutality, fear of Black bodies, and the failure to move forward with the protocol of justice.
Along with our inability to heal, fire can destroy memory. Imagine the impact of burning down a sacred memorial in this country and never rebuilding it. Could you imagine Washington D.C. without the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? Or New York without the 9/11 museum? If those memorials fail to exist, the memory won’t either. Forgetting is the consequence of burning.
If you consider yourself to be a teacher of social justice, stop. I need you to BE social justice. Being social justice means that through your teaching, we examine what memorials are being justified, what memorials are being “burned” so that we forget why they are there, and what memorials need to be created so that we can heal and remember.
Being social justice means dismantling structures of oppression, not burning. Being social justice means finding solutions to our problems rather talking endlessly about the problem itself.
Michael Brown’s memorial was rebuilt within a matter of hours. The people of Ferguson and the larger community understood the failure to rebuild would have meant our slow decline in forgetting Michael Brown.
Stephanie P. Jones is graduate teaching assistant and doctoral student at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include literacy practices of Black female youth and teacher education. She taught for six years in an urban high school and is currently working on a project involving teacher education and racial sites of trauma.
The Journal of Language and Literacy Education holds an annual conference each winter at the University of Georgia. The conference theme is almost always related to social justice, and this year, it is specifically themed, “Embodied and/or Participatory Literacies: Inspire, Engage, Create, Transform.” This conference, especially, is important to me (Jenn Whitley, TSJ’s moderator), as it was the first one I attended, and helped inspire me to research social justice issues.
I encourage Teaching Social Justice‘s readers to look into JoLLE’s conference and submit a proposal if it’s something interesting to you, as JoLLE appeals to a wide audience of social justice researchers, educators, and students. This conference is not like others; usually presenters get enough time to work with their audience (instead of merely talking to them for 15 minutes). Proposals are due in a week — by October 5 at 11:59 p.m. EST. I will be there, and I’d love to meet more of you, especially those of you who live so far away.
If you cannot attend or present at this year’s conference, JoLLE also accepts manuscripts related to the conference theme for its Spring 2015 Issue. Feel free to submit your work if it relates to embodied and/or participatory literacies. OR, of course, you can submit other literacy-related manuscripts for a different issue.
Thank you for allowing me to steal some of TSJ’s space to tell you about this conference, as it means a lot to me.
Disclaimer: I know all of this information because I’m on JoLLE’s editorial board. Please direct any questions about the conference or journal to me at: email@example.com.
I am the third grade teacher at a Christian international school.
My students are either very wealthy or they are missionary kids. In my mind, they’re two of the most privileged groups around. One has all the material necessities they could want, while the other usually has an amazing, Godly family.
Because this school is so small, I’ve observed that by third grade, the students know who their friends are, and who their friends are not. They know who lies, who punches, who is too aggressive at soccer, and whose parents don’t like each other.
In late August, I walked into a class of students who were full of memories of last year’s fights, disruptions, disagreements, fear, angst, bad language, and even some bullying; all within a class of only 12 students. And within all this nastiness – or perhaps because of it – more than half the parents told me on a beginning of the year survey that their child is upset by “injustice” or “when someone is punished unfairly.”
I quickly wanted to make sure that these students did not think that they were the ones able to define justice in each situation. So, we began our year by defining justice every morning. “Justice is ‘right’ being rewarded, ‘wrong’ being punished.” We discussed how perfect justice doesn’t often happen, only God knows all things, but it is something to strive for. I challenged myself to strive for justice in my classroom.
In teaching justice, though, I soon began to realize how accountable that made me to my own system of behavior management, which gives stars as a reward and takes them as a punishment. Consistency is necessary. If one student decided to blurt out inappropriately and got in trouble, another student exhibiting similar behavior would also need to be “punished.” Another student who forgot a certain procedure must also face the same punishment, no matter what happened at home that day to cause the stress of forgetfulness. All the students saw their classmates’ actions, and each one of them expected to see justice.
I couldn’t do it, though.
I couldn’t bear to see the same four or five kids who struggled so much, always remain at the lowest point of the behavior system. I couldn’t bear to see them believe themselves incapable of earning a star. I couldn’t bear to see the girls “setting the standard,” while the “crazier boys” struggled to reach it, or found it completely unattainable.
However, I could not change our definition of justice. God has set the definition of justice and it cannot be changed. He has set the standard for my life, though, and I constantly fall short of it.
However, there is one marvelous word that changes everything.
Yes, God is just. But He is also full of mercy. And in His mercy, He has forgiven me: “Because of the Lord ’s faithful love we do not perish, for His mercies never end” (Lamentations 3:22).
In light of this idea, I began asking my students some thought-provoking questions:
- “So, do you want me to show you mercy today? Or will you just continue forgetting if I do?”
- “Do you need the punishment? Do you need to lose a star?”
- “What is going to help you do better next time? Can I show you mercy?”
I explained that sometimes people do need the punishment to help them choose the right thing. But sometimes they also need some mercy. I also explained that I would never want to live in a world in which there was only justice and no mercy.
I saw a big change in the classroom.
I began to receive honest answers. I saw students who fought tooth and nail to never lose a star begin to tell me what they did and say, “I think I need to move down.” The stars became a tool, an aid, a way to lead them to growth. They could see their weak points and, instead of being angry whenever they “messed up,” they began to work out more strategies for choosing differently the next time. The punishments became more of a conversation, and less of a fight. I also noticed them forgiving each other genuinely. They even started complimenting one another on the progress of things like being more honest. I was recently told by one boy, “Miss Lawler, no one thinks of [insert name] as a bully anymore at all.”
My students, as rowdy as they are in third grade, will be the leaders of the world in 20 years. I believe they will be leading the fight for social justice. They will be the lawmakers and the people who enforce those laws. I want them to remember those moments of their own weaknesses: when they failed to choose what was right, when they made mistakes, when they messed up and were shown undeserved mercy. I want them to show mercy to the oppressed; and also to help those who have done wrong.
As they grow, I pray they’ll remember God’s mercy for them. I pray they’ll remember their third grade teacher, and even their former classmates, when they see a homeless guy passed out on the corner, or a thief on trial, a child from an orphanage, or a crime-committing teenager – I want them to be critical of the world around them, yet merciful to it as well.
And regardless of whether they come from a privileged or missionary background, I pray they’ll remember how much mercy it took for them to pass third grade.
Faith Lawler is a teacher at the International Christian School of Budapest. She graduated from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, IL in 2011. Having an adopted younger sister, she planned to work at an orphanage after graduating from college, but has instead worked with upper or middle class children who have their own set of needs and challenges. She finds it difficult to leave her home in Atlanta, but cannot bear the thought of moving away from Europe.