This post was published on Saturday the 23rd of February in 2013  /  Permalink

What To Keep In Mind While Doing Social Justice Work

There is no doubt that the work of social justice amongst its many forms and iterations is not only important, but also that it is becoming increasingly visible not just on college campuses, but across the nation and even around the world. There is also no doubt that this line of work is difficult, challenging, uncomfortable at times, as well as very demanding. 

The biggest problem that I have personally come across when it comes to diversity or social justice work is many people’s innate innability to understand another’s humanity. I’ve discussed this in a previous post, which you may like to read, but I now feel like I need to delve significantly deeper into this conversation of one’s humanity and begin to analyze the various roadblocks this line of work faces today.

As I have written about it before, I will not spend too much time on the idea of “understanding other’s humanity,” or conocimiento, but it is always important to discuss and remind people that it is one of the underlying foundations required to move forward. Confrontations in the work of social justice comes when one group offendeds another group by forgetting that they, like themselves, are human and have their own backgrounds, their own life experiences, and there own story that cannot and should not ever be generalized.

The division of these groups is one of the primary problems. By creating and establishing an “us versus them” mentality, we are essentially creating opportunities and spaces where conflict can take place. Granted, this binary system is definitely something that is systematic, institutional, and historical, which is why it is increasingly important for us to be able to begin moving past binary divisions and come together, with an understanding of each other’s humanity, to advance the work of social justice. 

This is the definition of racism taken directly from the corresponding Wikipedia page:

Racism is usually defined as views, practices and actions reflecting the belief that humanity is divided into distinct biological groups called races and that members of a certain race share certain attributes which make that group as a whole less desirable, more desirable, inferior or superior.

It is absolutely essential to point out that racism not only affects minority groups, but that  racism occurs with actions against any one group based on the color of their skin, regardless if they are black, yellow, or white. Anyone has the ability to be racist or say racist things, and if you happen to be a member of the minority, it does not give you the license to make remarks or generalizations about the majority that are offensive and unproductive, ever.

By singling out any one group, no matter the size, by their race and implicating them with certain accusations is innately racist, especially if the claims are false and without grounds. By reverting to the discussion of race when deliberating over issues that are completely unrelated to race, other than the fact that two groups so happen to be divided along racial lines, is absolutely a form of racism.

There is also a very clearly disparate difference between conversations and talks that are uncomfortable, which we should all be when discussing these issues to ensure that they are productive and helpful, and simply offensive and out of line.

There are definitely very important minorities that absolutely exist that are not easily discerned by the naked eye, thus are not apart of the dominant discussion of social justice centered around race, and are unfortunately and wrongly pushed aside. Because someone holds membership in a form of minority that is not prevelant or “popular,” it does not mean that they do not share the same “minority” experiences, namely oppression and discrimination. Just because you are unable to see their struggles, it does not mean that they are not struggling. Just because we cannot be quick to conclude that they are a minority of some form at first sight, does not mean that they do not have their share in a wealth of difficulties that they, similarily, do not deserve to need to deal with.

If the work and goal that we are spending so much time advancing is to stop discrimination and oppression, to expand inclusion and diversity, and to promote allyship, we have to not only actively be agents of change but also learn to avoid being factors in the cycles of discrimination and oppresion ourselves, on all levels. For example, if I want people to stop being quick to judge me to assume that I am smart because I am Asian, I should start by working to stop being so quick to judge others on any front as well. We need to actively work on the stereotypes that have come to define members of this collective community, beginning on the individual level. Do not judge a book by its cover (unless it’s actually a book), especially those who are seemingly members of the majority.

It is also incredibly important to emphasize and highlight that there is really no one to blame, and no one to fault. These problematic issues have been handed down to us, through history, and we need to stop seeking the need to place the blame of such large, overreaching issues on any one group of people, no matter how this group may have operated “in the past.” But guess what? People from the past are dead. They may have left a framework that we are unsatisfied with, but they have no control over what we can do with it. If we choose to overhaul it, as much of the work of social justice is attempting to do, we have that very right and ability to do so. 

It is not anyone’s fault. The discussions about the need for a white person to feel “white guilt” is incredibly problematic. Not that white guilt does not exist to a degree, but why do people find a need to have people feel guilty based on the race that they were born into? Should I be guilty that the color of my skin is yellow, and that I was born into certain privleges that you do not have? Should you be guilty that you hold certain privleges that I definitely do not have?

No.

There is no longer room in this discussion for guilt or blame if we want to progress and move forward. And as absolutely naive, to a degree, to say that we need to come together, as a community, as a society, that is the only way that I could see true progress. If you know of another way that is effective, I will not hesitate to hear you out.

I am a human being. I am on this journey with you to rediscover that humanity that has been loss in this struggle—and to discover the humanites of my peers and the colorful people that are all members of this larger society that we are deserve to have equal footing on.

So do not look down on me because I may hold certain privleges that you do not. Just as I do not look down on you because you hold certain privleges that I lack, I expect, at the very least, the same in return.

On a different note, I will no longer accept anyone telling me that I am not in a position of enough understanding and knowledge to discuss or advance issues of social justice based on the fact that I am young. I am also a human being, an active participant in this community, and have as large of a stake in this society as everyone else does.

It is absolutely crazy to me that as we are trying to break down barriers and to begin to chip away at the structures that perpetuate discrimination, someone would discriminate me based on another part of my identity—my age. 

I have not finished learning and absorbing new thoughts and ideas. In fact, I never will stop—learning about social justice is an ongoing process that I do not think is able to be “finished” in anyone’s lifetime. This is why I try to actively listen and respect what people have to say—because of conocimiento, because I know that you have your humanity—and you should never stop as well.

But the only time where I will have difficultly in listening to anyone or acknowledging their thoughts, no matter if I agree with them or not, is if I find them to be offensive to the very work we are trying to advance. This returns to the fact that it is, indeed, possible to be racist towards white people, apparently contrary to the mindsets of some. I will have difficultly in hearing someone out if they are quick to assume that I do not have my own problems, my own struggles, my own difficulties, and if they are quick to assume that I have not been affected by these cycles of oppresion negatively as well. 

I will have difficultly, but it is my responsibility to sit there and listen. And no matter how difficult it is, I’ll do my best, as you should.

The biggest thing that needs to be reinforced and reiterated over and over again is that not only a single group of people have experienced being “the other.” It is arguable that everyone has, at some point in time. This goes back to assumptions. Do not assume that others have not felt alienated in certain spaces. Do not assume that some do not have any difficulties in life.

The only thing we should be assuming is good intentions in these discussions. 

As I said, I am always learning. Thus I will always participate and listen. I can only expect the same of you. I can only expect you to hear me out, break down the need to be defensive, and to think about what I have had to say instead of dismissing it as wrong. 

This work is a two way street. If there are cars crowding the all lanes on the road and speeding in one direction only, it is nearly impossible for any car to head in the opposite direction. 

So let’s all reach out and head down this street that is social justice, but ensure that it is mutual.