Guest Post: Cody Charles on the Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Well-Intentioned People

Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Well-Intentioned People

by Cody Charles

This is a follow-up to my previous piece entitled, Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Social Justice Educators. The latter was written for folks who consider equity work as their core life purpose. I wrote Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Well-Intentioned People for the folks who consider themselves good people invested in social justice and conversations around equity, but who may show up in the ally role most often. Well-intentioned people make mistakes, lots of them. Mistakes must be expected, and being held accountable has to be expected as well. The points below outline some of the common behaviors that show up often in social justice conversations. I want to be clear that we all participate in some of the following counterproductive acts. We are not all privileged or all oppressed. We are complex people with complex identities that intersect in complex ways. Therefore, we all show up in problematic ways with our privilege. I own that my background is from the higher education setting, but I think the points below can be useful for all folks interested in creating dynamic change in the communities around them. Moreover, this piece was written in the midst of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner non-indictments (many more people could be listed), so some of it may feel specific to race. However, these rules apply beyond the identity of race; in fact these rules only exist in the dynamic of intersections. Below are ten counterproductive behaviors that people who want to do “good” commit and must actively work to correct:

  1. Quick to marginalize someone else’s experience

I was walking through a hotel lobby with colleagues. We were headed to a conference social, wearing business attire. There were quite a few conference attendees roaming around the lobby area at that time, all wearing business attire as well. It was a fairly loud, mingling setting. An older white woman walked up to me and asked if I knew where she could get fresh towels. I was puzzled for a moment, which then indicated to the woman that I probably could not help her.

After the exchange, I looked at my friend in disbelief. Not utter disbelief or shock, because it was not my first time experiencing this marginalized view on the identities that I hold, but it did catch me off guard at my professional organization’s national conference; a place where we exchange ideas on how to better serve, educate, and develop the students that we work with. I remember telling a few colleagues later at dinner and getting this response, “I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that.”

When someone shares an experience like this with you, please STOP yourself from analyzing the situation. Listen, observe, connect with the emotion and experience how real it is to the other person, which should in turn make it real to you. No questions, just listen and learn. Hold on to your questions, which are the manifestation of your wanting the world to be a kind, good-hearted place. It is because you see yourself in that older white woman. Get past that. Be there for your friend, colleague, and mentor/mentee. And maybe ask questions later.

  1. Choose not to speak up

You choosing not to speak up has either to do with the fear of your oppressed identity being pounced on or the presence of your blinding privilege. Regardless, too often, the courageous few are tasked alone with holding the integrity of inclusiveness in spaces. Too often, the oppressed have to make a dynamic choice to either speak or stay silent. To stay silent comes with making peace with your inferiority to dominate culture, self-hatred, and finding comfort in the status quo. To speak is to risk not being a team player, being identified as overly sensitive, pulling the race/gender/orientation card, to not be asked to Happy Hour, to not being considered for promotion, and to fall into a simplified caricature of your already watered-down self. Do your work! Consider perspective as you enter and claim space. Pay attention, observe, and always consider that the ideas being explored in any space you enter are based on whiteness, heteronormative, gender binary (specifically cis-male), able-bodied, middle-upper class perspective. Speak up. Do not allow your colleagues and friends to take on the sole responsibility of shifting culture from “normal” to dynamic.

  1. Respond poorly when held accountable or challenged

You are entitled to your feelings. Really, you are, and you are responsible for your self-development. Here is a secret: the oppressed often fear the response of the privileged around identity conflict. The oppressed often lose in these encounters and historically have lost their lives. You often respond without thinking critically about the information or feedback being given because of your privilege and ego. We all fall victim to this dynamic, generally around our salient identities. Acting purely out of emotion and in defense is not only dangerous to the livelihood of the oppressed, but directly conflicts with your goal of creating a more just and equitable world.

  1. Do not take the time to do your own research (Expect the oppressed to educate)

There is nothing worse than identifying as oppressed, and having to not only explain but convince people that your oppression is valid. Pick up a book! Google it. Read some Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, bell hooks, Janet Mock, Malala Yousafzai and Gloria Anzaldua. Do your work. Do not expect all of your education to come from your Hispanic friend, friend with a mental illness, or favorite trans+ personality/activist (LaVerne Cox & Janet Mock). Take a true interest in this crucial conversation, beyond when it is convenient for you. This is not to say that you can never reach out to your “oppressed” relationships, but be prepared before you approach them. Be well read and make Google your friend. It will make the world of difference to your friend that you took the time to educate yourself. In the future, when you ask your friend questions, be prepared for a “no” or “not at this time.” The oppressed are continuously asked to defend their experience, so your question may be too much in that single moment.

  1. See themselves as either good or bad…

We often will not fess up to marginalizing someone else’s identity or creating a space that is exclusive in nature. For some reason, we have in our minds that if we take responsibility for this exclusion, then we are admitting to being a bad person. Instead, we must see ourselves as good people who will make mistakes. Good people create spaces of exclusion all the time. That is reality. Even if the intent was good-hearted, the impact is what matters most. Often, when challenged on their privilege, people love to default to their marginalized identities in hopes of subconsciously (or consciously) garnering sympathy. Stop giving yourself limited choices once a mistake is made. Let go of not wanting to be seen as a “bad person.” Take responsibility, apologize, learn, and do better in the future.

  1. Execute initiatives of change without the oppressed people at the table

In the wake of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, and countless other deaths of black youth, we are seeing more and more rallies, protest, panels, online activism by white people. This is mostly done by well-intentioned white folks that are not inviting or trying hard enough to get black people at the planning table. Generally, what we end up with is a poorly planned event that is offensive or excluding the people it was meant to serve. I chose the recent scenarios as examples, since they are on the forefront of everyone’s mind. This dynamic plays out with all other oppressed identities, which means that more of us than we would like to admit participate in poorly planned initiatives created from our privileged lens.

  1. Create “mystical negro” dynamics (insert any oppressed group)…

This is similar to number four, “expect the oppressed to educate.” However, for the well-intentioned and somewhat in the know group, this idea morphs into something a bit more intense. You utilize your one friend as the absolute expert on the said oppressed identity in addition to having them serve as your educator and moral compass. The conversation around said identity becomes less about making systemic change or a space of support for the oppressed; instead it moves towards helping the privileged figure out their lives around said identity. In turn, the oppressed friend becomes mystical in nature, where their only purpose is to be there to help move you along in a morally correct life. These folks have to carry your education and deal with their pain simultaneously. See number four as a way to improve this one-sided dangerous relationship.

  1. Crying

Your tears take up too much space. They very quickly turn the issue into an exchange about your feelings, your education, and making you feel comfortable in your privilege. Politely tell your tears to have a seat—several seats, a plethora really.

When your eye glands start to well up, STOP or get the hell up and excuse yourself. This point is not saying that your tears or your hurt feelings do not matter; they just do not have space here. Tears rarely worked for the oppressed in stopping the oppressor from beating them, selling them, lynching them, hanging them on a fence, dragging them behind their pick-up truck, shooting them outside their front doors in front of their families, publicly shaming them, and draining every ounce of worth from their souls…so it does not serve any use here!

  1. Giving advice from your place of privilege

I heard Melissa Harris-Perry speak about this point at a keynote and it stuck with me. I began to analyze the truth of it as it applies to me. I found that I indeed offer advice and solutions through my privileged lens. I moved with ease from conversation to conversation with friends, family, and students through my place of privilege. This is something that we all do, mostly without being cognizant of the person and identities that sit in front of us. Now we all can agree that the horrific abuse of Jenay Rice was unacceptable and Ray Rice deserved to be held accountable for his actions. However, we cannot make the leap that Jenay’s only choice in this situation is to leave Ray. Her decision and our decision can be drastically different pending the intersecting identities that we hold. To impose expectations on people through your experiences is to create exclusive and hostile environments that are potentially unsafe. It also places the people you are trying to help in a position to make decisions that are harmful to their interest.

When our privilege is involved, it is quite difficult to name it. I work at a university in support services with a multitude of students and this scenario plays out all the time. I am often not conscious to the inappropriate and sometimes destructive advice I am giving. We must interrogate our privilege to appropriately support the people in our lives.

  1. Believing that being loving and kind is enough…

No matter how kind you are or how much of your heart you share with others, systematic oppression will still exist. You cannot rest on being kind, encouraging, and loving. You have to commit yourself to learning more, becoming conscious of the system, and continually fighting for the cause of equity and justice—while allowing the oppressed to take the lead. Stay away from comments and sentiments that ask for passiveness and harmony, we are more concerned with equity and justice. It is easy to retweet or repost a social justice article on social media and stop there, but that does not mean you are doing anything to end systematic oppression. We have to move away from the niceties and do work.

Let’s break down “do work.” It has already been explored beautifully by Franchesca Ramsey (@chescaleigh), so there is no need for me to find a creative way of saying the exact same thing. I am asking well-intentioned people to do work, such as understand your privilege, listen and do your homework, speak up but not over, apologize when you make mistakes, and remember that being an ally is a verb. Additionally, I have added a sixth point, courtesy of a good friend, which is you do not have to be an expert. While all points are crucial, below are two points I want to explore further.

You do not have to be an expert

Do not allow yourself to be immobilized by your lack of knowledge. You can still do something if you are willing to risk making mistakes. In fact, you will never know it all. How could you? Your privilege will not allow you to take in the full experience of the oppressed. Move past your fear and engage other privileged folk around you and listen to the voices of the oppressed.

Ally is a verb

You actually have to do something! Being an ally is not silently agreeing with the oppressed. You must constantly figure out ways to use your privilege to push forward the voice of the oppressed. The work of an ally should not be an easy journey. You no longer have the luxury of silence. You should feel pain, uncertainty, fear, frustration, and exhaustion. It takes risking yourself, transparency with the oppressed, and calculated action to be an effective ally.

Please know that being active in equity work takes stamina, humility, courage, tough love, a strategic mind, and a forgiving heart.

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.

Note: there is no need to contact Cody Charles for permission to use this content. Feel free to email it, share it, tweet it, Facebook it, pin it, and reprint it with credit. Visit for more information about him.

This piece was printed previously at The Body is not an Apology.

Guest Post: WTF? 10 Counterproductive Behaviors of Social Justice Educators

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

Note: a version of this piece first appeared on Thought Catalog here