The Hollows of Social Justice by Brian Reece

The following are a few of my thoughts on the state of what we refer to as “social justice education,” heavily informed by my own admittedly recent submersion in Native feminist theory. My hope is that I can contribute to a discourse that has the potential to grow and, perhaps more importantly, to diversify its audience.

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I’ll admit that I am a fan of the latest phase of social justice in education, a shift toward “equity and inclusion,” in many ways. My own personal definitions of these words reflect my commitment to the pursuit of a complicated set of radical transformations and change often. Equity could be imagined as an even playing ground—that, all things being equal, each and every person will have the same opportunities. It is the round table. Inclusion is inviting everyone to that table, providing a space and a voice to all. In conjunction, these two principles represent a great deal of progress to be made. Yet the way these words are thrown around on college and university campuses reveals their hollow nature. While I do not want to dismiss the great work being done on campuses, I am convinced that this jargon has become another set of buzzwords that provide a veil of progress covering a truth—stagnation.

What is so hollow about these words (and many others)? What makes them echo throughout our discourse, ringing loud and clear yet devoid of substantive meaning? I believe that we continue to choose and use language that allows us to talk about issues without dealing with their root causes. We throw out words that point us toward actions that get around problems rather than allow us to solve them. I cannot begin to surmise whether this is intentional, but I am aware that our discourses are created within a hegemonic framework that relies on and profits from oppression (Arvin, Tuck, & Morrill, p. 12). As such, we should not be surprised that this shapes our intentions, regardless of our own beliefs. While I have a tremendous amount of respect for social science research, I do believe that those of us engaged in it could benefit from ongoing conversations with those who critique it.

In a letter for the Harvard Educational Review, Native feminist theorist Eve Tuck (2009) writes to call for a moratorium on what she calls a damage-centered approach to research. She critiques ethnographic approaches that view oppressed groups of people as damaged, statically clinging to their identities as abused by a nameless, ahistorical system. While this may seem extreme, Tuck (2009) does an excellent job of rendering the great majority of research as centered around damage, even if it is hidden: “These characterizations frame our communities as sites of disinvestment and dispossession; our communities become spaces in which underresourced health and economic infrastructures are endemic. They become spaces saturated in the fantasies of outsiders” (p. 412). Further, they paint a picture of oppressed people as already and inherently dependent on a system rather than as shaped by the system in such a way.

In response, Tuck (2009) offers a solution in desire-based approaches: “Desire is about longing, about a present that is enriched by both the past and the future. It is integral to our humanness” (p. 417). While damage-centered research draws a rough sketch of individuals from the oppressor’s perspective, desire-based research is more like a film designed and created by the oppressed. As a result, the research takes on more life, allowing individuals and groups to tell multiple, many stories from their own perspectives, which may include but are not limited by damage. This approach is similar to what Kevin Kumashiro (2002) calls antioppressive—that is, approaches that actively work against oppression.  Similar to Tuck, Kumashiro suggests interrupting the processes that contribute to or replicate the dominant framework. This requires a great deal of criticality, as these processes are often deeply hidden.

Upon closer examination, then, equity and inclusion are much less hollow than I first thought. The echoing comes not from a reverberant space within but from the sounding board of dominant views that are replicated from these words, though likely in unintentional ways. While we may invite someone to the table, we do not critically evaluate whether our table is suited for that person. Even when the table itself is questioned, we look toward the invited person and try to change them. We are surprised when the person no longer shows up and tout our attempts at inclusion as successful while the person who no longer shows up just didn’t want to be there. Reminding us of the variety of values held by different cultures, Dian Million (2013) quotes Haudenosaunee Oren Lyons in her introduction to Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Rights: “I do not see a delegation for the fourfooted. I see no seat for the eagles” (p. 16). In our quest for inclusion, we do so often from one particular lens. So it is the lens—the framework—that we need to learn to let go of. Holding a town hall or feedback session on a social justice issue is not helpful if the right people don’t show up. It’s also not helpful if they do show up but don’t participate because town halls and feedback sessions do not jive with their way of seeing and interpreting the world.

While Amer F. Ahmed’s (2014) recent CSJE blog post on social justice elitism offers a number of convincing critiques of campus social justice, I suggest that the focus is somewhat misplaced. While I certainly do not advocate shaming “Cis-gendered, white, straight, male[s]” on the basis of their identities, I do think there is value in calling someone out for transphobia, heterosexism, racism, and so on. Perhaps this language is inaccessible, but is that the root cause, the thing that would be transformative if changed? Instead, it may be the framing of such uses of language as categorizing from a dominant perspective that calls for caution. The placement of the “cisgendered, white, male” perspective and the harm caused by it at the center illustrates an almost invisible damage-centered approach. Indeed, the types of issues Ahmed brings forth are problematic in certain ways, but I would proffer that this so-called “social justice elitism,” which has gained momentum in social justice discourses, is yet another example of the “emptiness” in social justice language. A different response would be to ask ourselves how can we can reframe comments like these to be more desire-based.

I will end with a challenge: actively work against oppression instead of just talking about it or acting around it and see people who aren’t like you as more than damaged. Do not deny an individual or a group of people their right to the future by focusing on aspects of them that are merely focused in the past. Respect who they are and, perhaps more importantly, who they want to be—even if this does not fit into your view of what that should look like. And look for the hidden meanings and unintentional replication of dominant discourses and structures. For the fun of it, I’ll share one of them: “The ‘colonizing trick’—the liberal myth that the United States is founded on democratic principles rather than being built upon the pillars of capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy” (Smith, 2008, pp. 310-311). Using the metaphor of storytelling, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (2009) says, “Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story.” By being critical of not only which stories are told, but also who tells them, how, to whom, and why, we can slowly begin to add layers of meaning back into our language of social justice education.

 References

Adichie, C. N. (2009, October). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

Ahmed, A. F. (2014, February 4). The culture of campus social justice elitism by Amer F. Ahmed [Web log post]. Commission for Social Justice Educators Blog. Retrieved from https://acpacsje.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/the-culture-of-campus-social-justice-elitism-by-amer-ahmed/

Arvin, M., Tuck, E., and Morrill, A. (2013). Decolonizing feminism: Challenging connections between settler colonialism and heteropatriarchy. Feminist Formations, 25(1), 8-34.

Kumashiro, K. (2002). Troubling education: Queer activism and antioppressive pedagogy. NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Million, D. (2013). Therapeutic nations: Healing an age of indigenous human rights. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Smith, A. (2008). American studies without America: Native feminisms and the nation-state. American Quarterly, 60(2), 309-315.

Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), 409-427.

Brian is a graduate student in Counseling, Family and Human Service with a specialization in Prevention Science at the University of Oregon. He holds an Honors B.A. in English and an M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Delaware in addition to a graduate certificate in Nonprofit Management from the University of Oregon. He is also a Vice Chair for the CSJE Directorate, and his research interests include gender and sexuality in literature, psychology, and education and the relationship between language and oppression. Lately, however, he has been trying to figure out how to harness the quirky love between his dog and his cat for the betterment of the world.

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