Don’t Be a Grumpy Social Justice Advocate by Dr. Paul Shang

In our efforts to be proponents of social justice, I am often reminded of how important it is to be measured in the ways we express ourselves and to maintain our calm and our sense of humor. Why would this be important and why would I even bring this topic up? The reasons are many but to start with just a few, I think communicating effectively can sometimes be challenging, especially around controversial topics with which not everyone may have the same familiarity. Not everyone, even the most fervently committed to social justice, can be an expert on every topic and perspective, or to have experienced every experience which may be the basis for our social justice education and actions; consequently, it is important to be patient and tolerant and avoid being judgmental. Another reason is that in the process of exploring our own identities and our own privileges and areas where we are not privileged— an exercise essential for good social justice practice and developing allies— we can sometimes develop a greater sensitivity which can make us be more vulnerable to being “triggered”. In many student development theories, there is a stage where people become very aware of their own personal circumstances, embrace these circumstances, become prideful and even aggressive in claiming who they are. This is natural but it can be a hindrance when a goal is to encourage a meaningful educational dialogue about difference.

For instance, there are many reasons why I strive to communicate effectively about social justice. I want to be a better student services professional, I want to be ethical, I believe in fairness, I believe in inclusion, I want to be a good ally, I want to be a good person, to name just a few. But another big reason is because I know personally what it is like to have others have conclusions about me which have to do with my appearance and ethnic heritage and nothing else. Many of these conclusions have been unfair and hurtful, a few of them have accorded advantages to me which were unearned, and all of them could probably have been dispelled if the holders of these conclusions would have gotten to know me just a little better. As an Asian American male who grew up in the rural South with no other Asian cultural influences other than those of my immediate family, I experienced a lot of unfounded stereotypical beliefs and attitudes which could only be overcome by people getting to know me, and sometimes not even then. But it became clear very early on that if I was going to influence others’ misperceptions about me, or of other Asian Americans for that matter, then I needed to be willing to educate about my experiences and me. I completely understand the idea that people grow tired of having to be the educators; however, if this is the role which has befallen you as I believe it did to me, then I think it is important to be genuine, patient and gracious about it. After all, through an individual’s effort, regardless of how unfair the burden might seem, there is the opportunity to promote growth and learning and thus help others from experiencing the same unfair stereotyping which seemed so personally unfair and misinformed.

Again, speaking from personal experience, being a member of the so-called “Model Minority” in many people’s eyes, has been insulting for me because it diminishes the sacrifices and accomplishments made by my parents who came as immigrants and the incredible racism they endured and what I experienced too. There are also comical aspects to it as I wish I had the special math and science skills and cunning ways frequently accorded to Asians by the misinformed. Even now people are surprised that I speak English well with no nonwestern accent and that in fact I really am from somewhere in the United States. While these examples probably seem pretty small in comparison to the misunderstandings that some people have to deal with frequently not to mention the downright hostility, these microaggressions, whether intentional or not, are undermining and irritating to me. Ah the snappy comebacks I’ve imagined, and the stories I’ve told to friends or even shared more broadly in educational moments, but my actual retorts were patient and kind even to the point of appearing naïve.

Why? Well, these are my reasons which I have reasoned through a lifetime. I have learned that reacting angrily or indignantly to people who are misinformed presumes that they are not of good will which is quite possibly unfair for me to presume. There are lots of people who will “trigger” you; the trick is to figure who is doing it intentionally and who is doing it because they are insensitive, undereducated, clumsy, but still capable of learning. And even if they are maliciously intended, is there any possibility of causing them to change their perspectives even a little bit? After all, as we all know, prejudices and stereotypes abound and it takes concerted effort to unlearn these through life. Another reason I have is that of self-care. Allowing myself to be triggered and to dwell on hurtful prejudices and stereotypes to which I think I might be subjected takes a lot of energy and probably makes me less effective as a teacher, mentor, colleague and friend. I think it is better to be a model of a good person rather than an angry one even if the anger seems justified. Finally, as student affairs practitioners, we are educators. I believe we are more effective educators when we assist others in learning about themselves and in examining their experiences and perspectives. What we have experienced individually in terms of prejudice, intolerance and discrimination can serve as great examples. They are our personal examples, and hopefully through hard work and patient teaching and sharing, they are examples of what others may never have to experience.

Dr. Paul Shang has extensive experience in student affairs primarily in the areas of serving students of color, academic advising, student satisfaction and retention, first year seminars, student conduct, and orientation. He is a past president of ACPA, College Student Educators International; a recipient of the ACPA Annuit Coeptis award; and an ACPA Diamond Honoree. Paul’s research interests include campus violence, the changing attendance patterns of students, and serving students of color.

Originally published on the CSJE Blog on Tumblr.

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