‘passion for social justice’

I hear and read this phrase a lot, particularly from recent graduates and mid-level professionals in student affairs.  It is the parallel to the beauty pageant phrase, ‘I believe in world peace.’

I generally believe in the goodness of people- so when it comes to intentions, I do think that people mean well when they invoke their passion for social justice or their commitment to world peace.  They are both aspirational sentiments- expressions of optimism for a more thoughtful future.

Focusing specifically on the social justice piece, however- here is what I have observed.  I notice that folks often talk about their passion for social justice, and then almost immediately begin to share the ways in which they have experienced marginalization, or ways they have not been part of a dominant group.  So the conversation sounds like the following…

“I have a passion for social justice.  I was a first generation college student, and grew up working class, so I understand the role higher education plays in promoting access and equity…”

“I don’t need social justice training, I have many close friends who are people of color, and as  a woman in a good old boys environment, I know what it’s like.”

Essentially, these phrases translate to, “I fit into the diversity conversation, and I have experienced some form of discrimination.”  What the phrases do NOT say, is “I recognize how my privileged identities situate me to have more access to opportunities than others.’

I hear these kinds of phrases a lot from colleagues and mentees, and I am reminded that I am also someone who made similar comments and had similar thoughts only fifteen-ish years ago (and I probably make the comments now in some coded ways, too), when I claimed that I understood the experiences of members of LGBT* communities because of my own experiences as a person of color.

I have done a lot of personal work since then- and have a lot of work to go.  Almost daily, much like the movie “The Sixth Sense,”  I see my ‘privilege’ everywhere.  My own life changed to truly reflect my ‘passion for social justice’ when I began speaking more about my privilege.  In my case, rather than speaking about or pointing out the racism and sexism that has impacted me, I speak up more about the ways that my actions and inactions in my heterosexist, able-bodied, U.S. citizenship holding, upper middle class (to name a few) spaces have allowed me greater access and opportunities to imagine a better future without barriers.  Naming these does not take away the pain I experience from racism and sexism, but it does give me more compassion towards my own oppressors, because it liberates me to see how hard it is to change in our dominant spaces.

How do you think we get each other to invoke our ‘passion for social justice’ as a personal invitation to name, understand, and dismantle our own privilege? How do we make good on our expressions of optimism so that they are actually blueprints for the ‘world peace’ we say we want?

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