Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Social Justice is for White People

By: Reagan Jackson

Reagan and Jordan at Eyes to Dream Exhibit
Kicking off week two of Many Voices One Tribe's pre-departure orientation our conversations are getting juicy. We began our exploration of values, identity, oppression, empowerment and social justice. In preparation for this part of the curriculum I reviewed my grad school text books and did some soul searching on how to proceed. I have long struggled with the way social justice is taught.

This morning when I came across a video on the Huffington Post I was reminded of why. The video showed the privilege walk, a core experiential exercise used to provide a visual example of privilege. Participants begin lined up shoulder to shoulder and then a facilitator reads a series of questions requiring participants to step back or forward depending on their answers. Each question forces you to either stand in your privilege or to stand in the absence of it. By the end of the exercise the people with the most privilege are in the front of the room and those with the least are in the back.

The first time I did this my face burned with shame. I knew after the first few questions what the outcome would be and I felt exposed and betrayed by my teacher for using my life and my experiences as a learning tool for others. No one in the back of the room, mostly women of color and a few queer economically disadvantaged white women, learned anything from this exercise. We knew precisely what privileges we had and which we had been denied. This wasn't news. Those left standing in the front of the room, simply turned around to have whole new worlds exposed to them.

From there I spent another semester "learning" about social identity, except really all I learned was that I was expected to be the spokesperson for my race, something I learned in elementary school in Wisconsin. I was responsible for educating the white people in my class. And my classmates, barely acquaintances, felt like they could ask me any and everything. They felt entitled to my experiences because how else were they going to learn...regardless of what it cost me to re-injure myself for their benefit. I was also responsible for proving that racism or any other ism they might not have experienced did exist. They were responsible only for judging whether I had been victimized enough to complain or if it was time for me to "get over it". This took up a lot of time and space, so much so that we never really got to the justice part of social justice.

Fast forward a few years to when I finally became a study abroad program leader and I lead my first pre-departure retreat before our trip to Guatemala. As a part of our social justice curriculum we did the privilege walk. Predictable I found myself at the back of the room. As I looked to the youth standing nearest to me, a collection of black and brown faces, some U.S. born, some first generation immigrants, my heart broke for the rage and shame that played across their features. When the processing discussion began, not one youth of color said a word.

After a long and painful silence I took a deep breath and said: "I'm angry," I was careful to keep my voice calm though I had already broken the cardinal rule. Admitting to my anger in the past has been akin to granting permission for anyone who might not understand my feelings to completely invalidate my opinion. I took the risk of being type cast as angry black woman because in that moment my anger became more important than my silence.

"I'm angry that I'm standing at the back of this room again. I'm angry that after my parents and their parents and their parents have worked their asses off to provide me with a better life, an education and more opportunity than any of them combined have had that I am still so far behind. I'm angry that those standing in the front of the room have the choice never to see how being complicit in these systems and reaping the benefits damages me."

After my confession we proceeded to have a very different conversation than the one the followed the last privilege walk I'd participated in. In granting myself the permission to be angry, the young people of color found voices to discuss their experiences. I still left with mixed feelings. When my boss pulled me aside later to say how great my comments were, rather than feeling the solidarity of two educators co-facilitating a powerful experience, I once again felt used as a tool. The way I was taught social justice was an exploration of oppression that seemed to have little to do with justice, liberation, or change. It was simply an outline of the systems in place.

It made me wonder what was in it for me? What was I supposed to learn? There were other questions I wanted to explore: What can we do with the privileges we have? How can we cultivate allyship and solidarity across identities? How can we begin to bridge the gaps between people of color, deconstructing the internalized oppression that keep us from getting to know one another? How can we truly affect lasting systemic change? How can social justice be taught in a way that people of color get to learn something new too?

Spoiler alert: I don't have all the answers to these questions yet. Sorry. I really wish I did, but in designing my curriculum for these workshops these questions guided me to a different place to start. We began our exploration of our identities with an exercise I adapted from the House of Power activity created by Powerful Voices. I drew a set of circles across the board with a line running through them. Beneath each circle I placed an identity category: race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, body size, etc. Then I marked my first initial in the circle either above or below the line depending on whether I was dominant or non-dominant in that category. I asked the youth to do the same.We went through each circle and people explained their choices.

Then with a different colored marker I went through each category a second time to indicate what I experienced during my visit to Senegal. Though I was the same person, how I was seen changed dramatically. In some categories where I had been non-dominant, I became dominant, and some of my dominant identities took on new meaning. Being a U.S. citizen in the U.S. gives me privilege, though it is tempered by the intersecting identity of being black. However, being a U.S. citizen in Senegal afforded me a status I had never experienced before. By nature of my citizenship, my perceived social class was elevated as well.

All of these identities, these check boxes, these parts of who we are that are supposed to make up a whole are like constellations. They seem constant and unchanging, but the truth is that they are alive and evolving in every moment. If getting on a plane can fundamentally change how I am perceived, who is to say that we are powerless to create a change in perception that might grant us the equal footing we all deserve. We had some excellent conversations after that. And it gave me hope that social justice might be for everyone after all.

Identity Island


Jordan, Eyerusalem, and Zion

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