The Culture of Campus Social Justice Elitism by Amer F. Ahmed

In recent years, I’ve increasingly been noticing a dynamic that I’ve been coming across more and more often on college campuses.  More specifically, it is something I’ve observed amongst the social justice communities within campuses (the groups/offices, etc. that use the language of social justice).  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.

Over the years, I have met more and more people who feel intimidated by the culture surrounding campus social justice work.  It is for this reason that I think this issue is important.  I’m not trying to say that this issue is as important as the issues we seek to challenge and address in our work, but rather acknowledge two main issues related to this.  First, we lose the energy, creativity and investment that come from potential allies to marginalized communities who otherwise could have important contributions to make (we need as many people as possible y’all).  And just as importantly, how messed up is it that people who say they’re about social justice often act like they’re better than people who don’t?  Kind of a problem don’t you think?  How can we create inclusive and respectful communities that empower marginalized people in a manner that enfranchises everyone if we are perpetuating that type of elitism in the process?

In witnessing this dynamic, I’ve also come to notice ‘allies’ who can be so vocal and visible that the group being marginalized aren’t even being seen or heard.  For example, I have seen more and more white people serving as the face of anti-racism efforts as related to racist incidences on campuses.  I think it’s great that they want to stand publicly against racism, but being an ally means leveraging one’s privilege to empower the marginalized.  I’ve seen examples in which most people of color’s interpretation of an incident was not even the same as the white folks but they’re out there making assumptions that everyone else sees it the way they do.  My sense is that they’re trying to ‘prove’ their social justice chops but end up perpetuating the very dynamic that they are standing against. All the while, I end up hearing all the big inaccessible words in the process that most of the general public don’t even understand.

Although I’m certainly not the first person to talk about social justice elitism, I think it is important that we continue to talk about this issue in our work.  This dynamic has led me to experience what should be a false-dichotomy in social justice work.  I feel like I’ve been experienced a dynamic of ‘campus social justice’ versus ‘community social justice’ efforts.  I’m not saying that non-campus social justice efforts are not capable of similar dynamics, but I see it far less than I see it on campus.  In addition, many campus social justice efforts operate in a vacuum of campus issues often disconnected from broader community dynamics in the very communities and regions in which their campuses sit.

It is always so surreal for me to experience the contrast between places like University of Michigan and Detroit.  The way the conversation and action occurs is dramatically different.  But I see that same dynamic in the Bay, Chicago, the East Coast and many other places around the country.  The reality is that, as we know, this work needs to emerge from community and we need to have authentic relationships that focus on empowering voices of the marginalized.  There is nothing wrong with us knowing the big words and understanding the concepts, or even addressing the issues within the vacuum of campus life (because we need to incubate examples and models of what we’re talking about); but if we are not recognizing that we on campuses need to remain focused on how we’re leveraging our agency, privilege and access to resources for the broader society, we are missing the point of why we’re here and simply perpetuating an ongoing dynamic of elitism while acting like that’s not what we’re actually doing.

Amer F. Ahmed serves as Associate Director of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, Associate Faculty at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication and a member of SpeakOut: Institute for Democratic Leadership and Culture. He is a Hip Hop activist, spoken word poet, diversity consultant and college administrator, and a Doctoral Candidate  in Adult and Higher Education at the University of South Dakota. Email: amahmed@umich.edu  Twitter:@dawahpoet

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16 thoughts on “The Culture of Campus Social Justice Elitism by Amer F. Ahmed

  1. Oscar Collins says:

    I wanted to reach out to you to say THANK YOU for the article, “The Culture of Campus Social Justice Elitism” that you posted on the Commission for Social Justice Educators Blog. It was so on point and truly spoke to discussions and thoughts I’ve been having. “All the while, I end up hearing all the big inaccessible words in the process that most of the general public don’t even understand.” Preach!!!! This!!!! I was having a conversation yesterday with a colleague talking about my frustrations regarding the elitism that is happening in sje circles (usually educated people of color) and by doing so we forgot the marginalized people who we do this work for!

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  2. I’m not really part of the academic social justice movement so feel free to take this worth a grain of salt, but I have always found the focus on big words and complex terminology to be interesting. It can be pretty impenetrable to an outsider like me at times, especially when people tell you that you have to read some big essay to understand one of the terms.

    In that sense it’s really quite different from the “new urbanism” or “build more tall buildings” social movement that I do consider myself marginally attached to. Matt Yglesias, a big thought leader in this movement, specifically writes for people not already inside the movement and so when criticizing zoning codes that make it hard to increase urban density he sounds like this:

    “So are developers working on responding to the high demand by building taller buildings? Of course not! Taller buildings are illegal in Washington DC.

    Consequently, instead of building up real estate developers in the DC area build “out,” putting more and more jobs in the suburbs.

    I know many people enjoy the aesthetic results of this policy. I disagree, but leaving that aside I think few supporters of the short buildings policy really appreciate the extent of the costs involved. Leave ecological issues aside. If a higher proportion of the area’s office workers were in DC rather than the suburbs, then the volume of retail sales in the city would go up. That’s more service-sector jobs for low-skill DC residents. That, in turn, means less demand for social service expenditures. It also means higher sales and income tax revenue. All of which means that social services could be more generous to those in need, with somewhat lower sales and income tax rates. The lower tax rates would make the city a more attractive place to live or do business, raising property values across the board.”

    http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2010/10/18/198835/the-high-price-of-short-buildings/

    Obviously we are talking about two different groups with different goals, cultures etc. but it is kind of interesting how different the discussions around each are on a practical level.

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  3. Victoria says:

    Daughter relayed conversations from her campus. It sounds like imperialism with a new bicycle. Icons have been swapped out, but it’s still the same operating system. Is it me, or is it a bit fascist in nature? Perfect, maybe even more so ‘good perfect,’ comes a bit too close to ‘purity.’

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  4. Alex Cb says:

    I think you’re right that the knowledge tied to “social justice” is creating the very inequality that “social justice” attempts to mitigate. But is this not the nature of schooling, student affairs included? Insofar as knowledge is legitimated by the institution of schooling, it has capital (whether in the form of social networks, credentials, or high-brow cultural commodities). The capital that “social justice” knowledge possesses can never function, by its very definition, to create equality of means. We can even go one step further: the functional purpose of student affairs is to shepherd students towards a particular way of behaving, way of knowing right and wrong, way of forming their subjectivity. Student affairs, in its very nature, is different from other administrative apparatuses in that it is about population-level control. So should we be surprised to find that those who are the most successful at adjusting themselves to such technologies of control instituted by divisions of student affairs become (1) high-horse in their relationship to those who are less successful and (2) most rewarded within our schools and in the larger division of labor? Through the latter, the truths we teach about social justice are directly and indirectly fungible into economic capital, thereby creating more inequality. To put it bluntly, the problem is not that some of us are elitist. It’s that institutionalized schooling functions to legitimate some truths over others.

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  5. It’s another form of meritocracy, which is already an issue on campus (with credential inflation and divides between faculty and students). This particular form of meritocracy makes social justice allyship another credential that students, faculty and staff can earn that “makes them better” than others. I’ve noticed this commodification of social justice happening in trainings that I’ve been fortunate enough to attend, where people ask how many other trainings people have and what terms they are familiar with, etc., like they are merit badges. This form of elitism makes social justice a more intellectual than pragmatic pursuit, and serves to further divide us. Not everyone can and should have a complex intellectual understanding of social justice issues, and it’s not necessary to possess that knowledge to make meaningful change. Thanks for your post – very thought-provoking!

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  6. RB says:

    Hear, hear!

    I’ve always been on the left. I’m pro-equality, pro-gay rights, progressive taxation, etc. But I CAN’T STAND social justice warriors and their hysteria, ironic bigotry toward straight white males, and yes, the constant arrogance and pretentiousness. I think they’re a great embarrassment. I briefly toyed with the idea of starting a blog called “Embarrassed on the Left” to talk about this.

    I think it’s gotten so bad – with the social justice warrior special snow flakes on Tumblr, being the height of it – that it’s giving cultural conservatives an amazing opportunity to come to be seen as The Adults In The Room. Who can take these hysterical outrage mongers seriously?

    Is otherkins a thing on campuses, or is that mainly a Tumblr thing?

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