Learning is Continuous. Class is Always in Session

Hurry Up and Wait: On Social Justice Elitism and Eagerness for Change

Learning is Continuous. Class is Always in Session

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



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Written by

I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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7 Responses

  1. Judith says:

    Thank you for this, Relando. It strikes a nerve with me. My activist peers who are academics (grad students, instructors, or professors) often act with an implicit disdain for the activity of the “non-theoretical” (read: regular folks). Very often this disdain takes the form of a critique of some event or practice, in which statements are made that suggest their utterers would offer more approval for the action *if only it would prove explicitly that it considers itself to undergirded by or springing from X, Y, or Z historico-theoretical text or idealogy*.

    I used to feel there was validity in this (in other words: everyone’s activism would be sharpened by doing as much reading, talking, discussing as street-oriented action); I now feel, on the contrary, that the snide or silent cynicism/disapproval of academics is in fact a self-protective (self-preservative?) shield: “In truth, I am most comfortable when I believe myself to be intellectually superior to my peers, and the only way to maintain that high ground is to do nothing; every act is compromised, and I refuse to let myself be seen as imperfect and capable of making mistakes, therefore I have no choice but to perpetually prepare myself, via study, for my future ability to act faultlessly.”

    • Thank you for your comment Judith,

      I think that theory and practice can influence and inform one another, although in my experience they have sometimes seemed at odds. Language can be liberating. It can give people the words to describe experiences that they could not express previously. Language can create in creased understanding and an increased ability to communicate and advocate with and for others. However, language can also be a tool to exclude, and sometimes in academia, language can be written or used in a way that is inaccessible to the people the research article or paper is really trying to serve.

      It’s also important to note that some folks outside of academia are already intimately familiar with the terminology through personal experience before learning of it in class or hearing it on campus.

      You raise some very important points. We all respond differently to different things, and learn in different ways. Continuing the journey to increase our awareness by having new experiences whether they be reading, having dialogue with others, taking street-oriented action, etc is necessary for us to become better helpers.

      However, doing so in an attempt to “prove” some level of intellectual superiority, or in an attempt to provide some sort of protective shield is ultimately an unsuccessful activity. The more we try to hide those flaws, biases, insecurities, etc the more they come out.

      Even if we’re lying to ourselves, we are sure to be confronted with someone or something that will remind us about just how much we don’t know, or will expose those attempts as fake and and a cover up.

      There’s more to be gained by acknowledging our imperfections and our infallibility than is to be gained by posturing ourselves as an authority. As I said earlier, the moment when I feel as if I have it all figured out is the moment when my mind is most closed.

      Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you return to read and share your thoughts on future notes.

  2. Beautiful article! I recognize that my many identities grant me privileges (White, Male, Heterosexual, Cis-gendered, and christian) and it is a journey that I am continue to learn about and develop awareness to, but, often in my profession, I find myself hesitant to talk about these issues or provide my thoughts because there are others who have presented the Social Justice Elitism that you have written about.

    I would love to hear about how you would respond to those who feel that they cannot be apart of a movement, especially when they are “disregarded” for their privileged identities. For example, I identify as Christian, but also support LGBTQA equality and rights, but have recently experienced “you do not understand because you are christian” or “because of your identity, you are a part of the problem.” This is just a small example of how I have been feeling lately, as I feel that my identities are under attack, not the systems in place. These are from individuals who promote social justice and it makes it hard to feel like I can make a difference. Personally, I believe that an individual’s identities do not make them inherently bad, but the systems in place that enable the privilege of those people are bad, but this is often not what I feel when being involved in conversations with people about identities and social justice. Is this what you would consider Social Justice Elitism?

    • Hi John, thanks for your comment.

      I’m glad to hear that you do recognize that many of your identities grant you privileges in society, and are still engaged in increasing your awareness. It’s true that social justice elitism can shut people down, but from what you described. It sounds like something different is taking place.

      The situation you’ve described sounds more like you’re experiencing a lack of trust from the marginalized communities you might be trying to work with. Their mistrust of you based on your privileged identities is completely understandable, and in many ways, an act of protection and survival. It takes a significant amount of time to build trust with communities whom your privilege is dependent on their oppression. For some, you may never earn their trust.

      In response to your question, I would say that allyhood is more of an action than it is an identity. In fact, an ally is a descriptor that can only truly be given to you by people who are marginalized, whom you might be actively engaged in using your privilege to work with them for their liberation.

      Allies need to be invited in, and should not go where they are unwanted.

      So you’ve been told that you don’t understand, and are a part of the problem because of your privileged identities. In many ways, both of these statements are true.

      It’s important to understand that they don’t owe you anything. Sometimes when we are called out like it sounds like you were, we might resort to trying to prove how “good” we are, or how we’re not one of the “bad” people actively trying to oppress them. In this case, the energy that you might want to put toward trying to prove yourself to members of oppressed groups might better be put to use by you spending your time working directly with the other people who share your privileged identities to increase their awareness, and leverage your privilege to create change in them.

      I encourage you to read the following notes where I’ve touched on this topic before:

      On Being Called Out: Shut Up And Listen, or Resistance Is a Choice

      For Would Be Allies On the Road to Equity: To Move Beyond Misrepresentation, We Must First Acknowledge The Facts

      Non-Religious Belief ≠ Lack of Morality

      Barely Scratching the Surface: Thoughts on Social Identities, Power, Privilege, & Oppression

      For further exploration, check out my allyhood section of the blog.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you, Relando. I got as much out of reading your responses as I did your article. I like the words, Social Justice Elitism, as a descriptor for something I have been naming “one-upping,” or “I’m a better white person than you,” which comes up a lot in conversations I have had among people who want to be allies, but can’t help but jump all over someone when they notice that person is less informed about something. It is painful to be on the receiving end of that, and your reminder to have humility and allow the vulnerability in myself is a helpful answer to my own avoidance of continued dialogues at times. Your thoughts about language being liberating and a tool, is also very helpful for me–Listening to someone share his/her experience with humility is so central to a productive dialogue. I appreciate your
    consistent willingness to be vulnerable in your blog, to share your wisdom, questions and thoughts with consistency and respect. Thank you.

  1. May 29, 2017

    […] Hurry Up and Wait: On Social Justice Elitism and Eagerness for Change–September 2nd, 2015. […]

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