Hurry Up and Wait: On Social Justice Elitism and Eagerness for Change
Fall is coming, and with that students will be returning to class. I’m finalizing items on my syllabuses, putting the last touches on slides, and curating video content and experiential activities that can offer students opportunities to make a personal, real-world connections from what they will learn in the text and in the classroom.
In a lot of ways, I found my voice as a social work student in undergrad, and after additional transformative experiences in grad school, I gained a deeper sense of direction in terms of where I feel I can best serve in the world.
The significance isn’t lost on me. In addition to the personal and historical significance and implications that come with being a person of color teaching at predominantly white institutions, returning to teach at the places where I once studied, and reflecting on what it took to get to this place is especially fulfilling.
Some time ago on an interview panel, I was asked how I would respond to students whose approach in working with others may participate in a dynamic that has been called social justice elitism.
In The Culture of Social Justice Elitism, Amer Ahmed writes
“It’s a dynamic that I believe is even more acute in the more competitive campus cultures in higher education. Am I the only one who has noticed that there is a culture of ‘out-social-justicing’ others? (Yes I’m aware that I completely made up that word/phrase; be warned this will be the last time)
I increasingly have been hearing conversations, particularly amongst students, who seem to duel each other with language that proves that they’re more social justice-ey than someone else. It might involve someone who might say something to the effect of, “Like, he’s such a Cis-gendered, white, straight male who is obviously transphobic without a feminist lens that considers the intersectionality or racism, heterosexism and gender spectrum that queer people of color spaces address.” (This is hyperbole, but not by much!)
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that students as well as others in our campus communities are becoming more deeply engaged in social justice issues. However, I think this elitism is increasingly making the work seem less accessible and approachable to others who might otherwise want to get involved and enact meaningful change in the world around them. The worst thing about it is that I often see people justifying superficial judgments on others based on what they think someone else doesn’t know or understand about social justice issues. We have to remember that a large portion of social justice work is EDUCATION; meaning that there is a process of learning that everyone is undergoing to better learn about these issues.”
Have you ever witnessed that before? I have. Not only have I witnessed this in others, I am constantly resisting this tendency within myself as well.
One way I respond to social justice elitism is to model vulnerability by sharing my own mistakes. I’ve found, and have been able to participate in fostering some really healing and restorative spaces in social work classrooms. I’ve been able to give and receive lots of help in those spaces. However, I have also had really harmful experiences in those spaces, and at times, my own efforts have been harmful as well.
I talk with students about times when I experience my own righteous anger, times when the weight of my own oppression becomes too heavy to bear, the frustrations that come with the invalidation I receive when I come into contact with people who “don’t get it”, particularly because they don’t have to.
I let them know that the anger they experience, is ok. It’s alright to be angry. Too often, particularly people who are marginalized are asked to be “objective”; to respond to oppressive conditions “calmly”, or “rationally”. I recognize that the pressure to monitor the tone of someone responding to their own marginalization is a silencing tactic, and a derailing tactic in an attempt to focus on the hurt feelings of a perpetrator, instead of the harm that they have done.
It’s important to acknowledge those feelings because they are so often met with invalidation.
If we are engaging in intersectional and transformative social justice work, whether we are engaged in working for the liberation of our own marginalized identities, or in collaboration with others to work toward their liberation, it is also important to acknowledge that multiple realities exist and can be held and examined simultaneously.
It is important to internalize that the marginalization we experience because of the systematic, societal devaluation of some of our identities does not exclude, diminish, or erase the privilege we receive because of the unearned value placed on other parts of our identities, and our complicity and participation in systems that are predicated on the marginalization of others. This is true in reverse as well. Our privilege in some areas does not erase the reality of our marginalization in other areas.
In keeping this in mind, the hope is that we approach learning, growing, and working together with a deeper sense of humility and responsiveness upon learning new information; that we have all learned a degree of misinformation about ourselves, and about other people, and that we may all be in similar or different places on our journey to unlearn that misinformation.
In keeping this in mind, particularly in an educational environment, the hope is that we are able to remember that the same level of frustration, or surprise that we might experience because someone doesn’t know a certain term or a certain aspect related to things that we are knowledgeable about, can also be directed at us by others whose experiences we aren’t aware of, or as knowledgeable about, in many instances due to our privilege.
In keeping this in mind, the hope is that we are always in a state of learning and growing, and that each of us should continuously be engaged in doing our own work, because the times when we may feel as if we have it all figured out, are the times when our minds are most closed.
Advice I also share with students; particularly those attending schools that are considered “elite” institutions, is that degrees are not the final say, and while they do offer a certain level of access, I encourage them to consider the act of obtaining degrees, particularly if they are passionate about social justice work, as the beginning of continuous development, instead of as a sign that one knows all there is to know.
Hurry Up And Wait
On that same panel I was also asked how I would respond to “eager” students who want conflict related to campus climate to change within the semester.
I appreciated the question because it came to me at a time where I was feeling pretty burned out myself. Having an opportunity to pause and think about my response was affirming. I thought it was an important question for students, and professionals to consider because learning is continuous.
The phrase that came to my mind at the time was “hurry up and wait”. When I say hurry up and wait, I do not mean be complacent, I do not mean do not act.
I mean go boldly. I mean be brave. I mean act with urgency. I mean be great. I mean work with others, and build coalitions. I mean all of these things and more. Because some things can change quickly.
Hurry up, but also wait. In your passionate haste, take care of yourselves and your comrades. Recognize that you will encounter things that may shake your very core, and that in order to keep going you’ll need to remember where you were before you started, how far you’ve come, and why you chose to start.
Know that seeking support and taking time away to recover is necessary for your own survival.
Hurry up, but also wait. Whatever your area of practice and passion might be, situate yourself as being a part of a long continuum of folks who’ve dedicated their lives to pushing the needle for justice a bit further than it was before, and remember that the work towards transformational change is more of a sprint than a marathon. Consistency is key.
Those are a few of my thoughts, but I am always in need of the perspectives of others to provide a more complete picture.
What are your thoughts on social justice elitism and eagerness for change?
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW