Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Social Justice Educators by Cody Charles

I have been struggling with how to do the work many of us call “Social Justice”. I understand the why – at least I believe I do. I am on a journey to understand my role in changing the world, which is no doubt a privilege. It has taken some time to get over the fear of doing the work correctly and instead operate from the heart – continuously challenging my perspective.

As I began to engage this work in a healthier manner, I noticed patterns of bad habits that educators exhibit while being change agents. These habits, in the name of justice and equity, get in the way of making authentic, strategic, and sustaining change. Below are ten counterproductive behaviors of Social Justice educators, all explored from the unique intersections of my privileged and oppressed lens.

1. Shaming our allies instead of educating.
Be careful how we hold others accountable. At times, we fall into this righteous place where we live for the moment to be right, but more so to impose the wrath of our rightness. We lose track of educating and become “Social Justice avengers”. We thrash anyone that makes mistakes or does not acknowledge their privilege, often out of ignorance. When we act this way, we instill fear and frustration in our allies, immobilizing them. Before you respond, ask yourself what do you want the result to be? Proving that you “right” or developing a stronger, more capable ally?

2. Lead with our oppressed identities – forgetting that we have immense privilege as well.
How is it that we are some of the first people to forget that we are privileged? Our maleness, middle class, able-bodied, Christian, age, education, or whatever our privilege, emanates from us. It is our being and colluding is as simple as breathing. Own our privilege. Recognize and acknowledge when we have the wind behind us. Be committed to your growth and allow yourself to be challenged on the identities we often leave unexplored.

3. Create competition around being the best at Social Justice – using language as a way to exclude.
We know individuals that lead conversations with big words and no context. After they are done speaking, most are lost and so is their message. Correct use of rhetoric is important, but we must be careful that it does not become jargon. Additionally, we cannot become upset when we are asked to explain or define a handful of words used or ideas explored. How often do we use language to exclude? How often is it intentional? Does using the “correct” and “smart sounding” language validate our worth or expertise?


4. Leading with emotions instead of thinking and acting strategically.
How often do we sound off? There are moments where we just quite cannot hold ourselves together in the moment. However, this cannot be our response the majority of the time. As Chickering said, we must learn to manage our emotions. This serves as evidence that perhaps we are not as developed as we want to believe. If we are going to engage in this work, we have to do so strategically, keeping the end in mind. Our response needs to produce the results that we would like to see. Sometimes our response will show up as joy, compromise, understanding, and empathy. Other times, it will show up as frustration, anger, and disappointment. However, every response should have a purpose. This can be a fine line with regards to maintaining authenticity. We impede the fight for justice when we act out of thoughtless emotion.

5. Not acknowledging our self-work.
We must acknowledge that we are a work in progress. We challenge the oppressive systems and collude in them simultaneously. At every step we have to understand that we are not the authority, but facilitators of dynamic conversations (and we will often fall short). At times, we are engaging from places with tremendous hurt and an abundance of privilege. It makes sense that we have off-moments, or miss something, because of our privilege. We are not the best at allowing ourselves to be challenged. When we block our self-work it means we are no longer growing and we are role-modeling destructive behavior to others. For example, it is highly problematic to be an expert in gender identity and expression and have no understanding of the intersections of those identities within race and class.

6. Caught in constant surprise that people do not know what we know.
Often times, I see others (myself included) blindsided by the amount of knowledge that my peers, students, and superiors lack in regards to justice and equity. The definition of privilege is unearned, unasked, and often invisible. If someone is oblivious to injustice, chances are they are blinded by their privilege. We know this, yet are surprised or abhorred? This is the work that we have committed our lives to; we must develop thicker skins. This is not to say that we will not be frustrated, shaken, or experience hurt and pain. These moments will happen. Yet, this is our purpose. It is not supposed to be easy. As Social Justice educators, we are supposed to put the cause before ourselves most of the time. Do not misunderstand, self-care is important. However, we need to be in rooms and spaces where we are constantly and strategically raising the temperature. Meet students and colleagues where they are and challenge them to be more.

7. Choosing not to challenge family members and elders.
I notice that quite a few communities give their elders a pass. We choose not to challenge them or set our expectations. However, we have little issue setting colleagues and strangers “straight”. I understand that our elders may choose not to change, but since when are our conversations about changing minds? We should be about expanding thought and creating new questions and I think this transcends age and authority. This work is hard and emotionally draining, however we must be vigilant in all areas.

8. Marginalizing the courage it takes to allow your reality to be dismantled.
Have you experienced a moment where everything that you thought you knew was ripped out of your hands? Perhaps, not just your hands, but your heart and soul? Everything that you hold true being constantly challenged and put on display? The way you viewed your family unit? When your question transitions from who am I, to why am I? We are charged with dismantling the life experiences of many, knocking down the walls of resistance and ignorance, and moving with care and intentionality. Do not forget what we are asking others to do.

9. Refusing to hold multiple truths.
How are we creating dynamic change if we do not allow ourselves to fully explore the pros and cons of ideas? How often are we weighing the greater good? I love film and analyzing movies is certainly one of my favorite hobbies. Actors amaze me. Their gift can be transformative, but I can hold multiple truths. Whoopi Goldberg was excellent in Ghost. However, if you broke down her character you would see that it is a glorified mammy caricature. Julia Roberts is positvely charming in Pretty Woman, but is also led and dominated by the gender role that is “man”. Teach for America provides an experience where the privileged have an opportunity to engage oppressed communities. Many of these students will be policy makers and find themselves in influential positions. However, it also promotes the idea of the “white savior”. We have to be able to engage multiple truths in order to move forward strategically.

10. Challenging others to heal, by erasing their pain.
Phrase this differently. At times, we say this to others as if they should forget their pain and move on. I am certain that this is not the intent of facilitators, however on many occasions it is the impact. We are marginalizing experiences. Rather, we should encourage the exploration of that pain. Understand the origins and the emotions in the now and then figure out how to manage the pain – use it strategically for fuel to both continue in the work and grow in perspective.

My hope is that drawing attention to these behaviors encourages a needed conversation between educators. We have room to grow and can do better holding each other accountable. As social justice educators, we have all agreed to continue to critique and explore the problematic ways in which we show up in spaces. Self-work practices should be encouraged.

“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americana

About the Author:

Cody Charles currently serves as an Associate Director of Multicultural Affairs at the University of Kansas. During his time at KU, he has led diversity trainings for the campus community, including student athletes, student executive boards, staff, faculty, and high school and middle school students and has presented on diversity topics at multiple conferences. Cody was recognized by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) as the Outstanding New Professional in Residence Life in 2008. One of his life goals is to travel the country lecturing on social justice and leadership topics. You can connect with Cody on Twitter@_codykeith_ or his website www.consultcody.com.

*This post was originally posted at http://studentaffairsfeature.com/ten-counterproductive-behaviors-of-social-justice-educators/ on August 11, 2014 and reposted with the author’s permission*

One thought on “Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Social Justice Educators by Cody Charles

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  1. Brilliant, Cody. I love how you’ve summarized. I have more than 20 years’ experience “in the field,” and I am definitely a work in progress. Oh, do I have off-moments. I would like to add a codicil to that point: it doesn’t serve the cause or the interpersonal relationship to shame ourselves and/or “over” apologize in the wake of being informed of an off-moment. Cody, I will check out your website so I can read more from you!


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