I learned about social justice during my senior year at NYU.
Before then, I knew about racism, sexism, and homophobia. These things were bad and I was against them completely. I knew that white supremacy and white privilege existed, and white folks historically enjoyed benefits in nearly all aspects of their lives solely based on their skin color. This was unfair and infuriating at times. And I knew that because of white supremacy, sexism, and homophobia, other people got the shit-end of the stick because of their skin color or gender or sexual orientation or religious affiliation. Yes, I knew these things, but I did not understand them or how to contextualize them.
But during my senior year at NYU, I was able to connect all of those things together and name them as social justice issues. I took a class called Lyrics on Lockdown, where we discussed how the systems of power and oppression work in the U.S. as they relate to the prison industrial complex. We learned about how race, gender, and class often intersect, and that you really can’t address one without placing it within the context of the others. We had difficult conversations where we reflected on our own privilege, experiences, and identities. And then we designed arts-based workshops based on what we learned and discussed for the incarcerated youth at Riker’s Island Correctional Facility. We facilitated four workshops with about 30 young men at Riker’s Island. We made sure we our workshops upheld their whole identities and stories, without reducing them to the stigma of being “criminals.” To this day, Lyrics on Lockdown is one of the best, most rewarding, and most difficult experiences I’ve ever had.
It was a catalyst.
Since then, I have held social justice close to my heart. Social justice has provided the principles for how to live my life in ways that make sense. Social justice asks the hard questions that I often don’t have the answers to, but it makes me mindful of my own thoughts, actions, and behaviors. It has taught me to be more patient. It has taught me to be more compassionate and open-minded. It has taught me to be deliberate with my language and intentions, as best as I can. It has taught me that we all come up short. It has taught me that the world is complex—and so are people who live in it—and everything is interconnected. It has taught me that learning and liberation are interdependent, life-long processes, and I’m an asshole if I ever believe any different. And more than anything, it has taught me that I have a lot to be grateful for… but I also have a lot to be angry about.
It is easy for us believers in social justice to never move beyond the point of our anger. We are content to talk, because open dialogue is important when it comes to addressing issues of oppression. We are content to call out people who are not being their social justice-y best, even though we know damn well we all perpetuate oppression in some way or another. And we are content to be mad and stay mad and let everyone else know we’re mad. Yes, I believe anger is natural and deserves to be expressed. I also believe anger is an important part of the healing process. (And so much of social justice is about healing and rectifying what has harmed us.) But also, anger is an emotion. Anger is not an action, and it is not a plan. Being angry is not a way to be of service to the world.
These days, I have a hard time calling myself a “social justice activist,” because that seems disingenuous. For me to say that I am an activist would imply that I am in the regular practice of doing something concrete with this knowledge and anger I have. But most days, I am just angry… and comfortable. I am angry, because I know the world is an unfair place—made unfair by systems of power that only work if they dehumanize and make invisible real people and their experiences. But I am comfortable, because I know that I will never experience most forms of this dehumanization. I know this because I am an upper-middle class, educated, U.S.-born citizen who grew up in one of the wealthiest states. I do not encounter most forms of oppression in my day-to-day life. Because I am perceived as heterosexual, I am fine. Because I am assumed to be Christian, I am fine. Because I am cisgendered and able-bodied, I am fine. Yes, I am Black. Yes, I am Woman. Yes, I am fat. But the way my privilege is set up and intersects, it acts as a buffer to any real hostility or violence I would encounter otherwise. For me, oppression is experienced as a few moments of annoyance throughout my day. It is the white girl who crosses the street when she sees me walking behind her. It is the stares I get because my hair is big and curly and in its natural state. It is when strangers make assumptions about me, because my body is large and I take up a lot of space.
But I know my home is never going to be bombed and my entire family killed. I will never be persecuted for my religious beliefs. I will never have to keep my love locked away, hidden in shame. I will never have to worry about how I will keep my lights on or the water running or where my next meal will come from. I know my body may be an inconvenience to some, or an object to others—but it will never be seen as criminal, dangerous, worthy of eradication. This knowledge, this safety is something my privilege affords me. And so, I get to be comfortable. I get to be angry from a distance. I get to post my Facebook updates and make my witty remarks, and feel good about myself.
That is not activism. That is not action. That is not social justice.
When I was leading youth development programs, it was easier to call myself an activist. For so many, education is a means to liberation. I know that my education is why I’m seen as one specific type of Black, and not another. So, when I was teaching youth about reproductive health through a social justice framework, it was easy to call myself an activist. It was easy to feel good about what I did, what contributions I was making to the world. Now that I am not currently working with youth, it is much harder to feel like I’m really doing something.
But in not doing, I have a lot of time to observe. And what I’ve observed is, a lot of my friends ain’t really about that social justice life either. Do they care about the issues? Yes, of course. But many of them are content with sharing posts and commenting… and not much else. I don’t see solutions. I don’t even see deliberate articulation of why they are upset or what they want from the world. And it bothers me, because they are not being critical. They are perpetuating the violence. They are making it easy to see these images of dead Black men in the street, hear these stories of Black women being murdered, and continuing on with our day without doing anything to prevent the next death. And I wonder if they understand.
To be fair, It is easy to not understand it. Our world really does have a sickness. It is easy these days to devalue human life, to believe that so-and-so over there does not deserve the same compassion, decency, or rights as you do because they are not like you. It is easy to accept violence as the norm, and to answer the violence with more violence. It is easy to be disconnected from our humanity, because technology has changed our definition of what it means to be “connected.” But at some point, we have to hold ourselves accountable. We have to hold up the mirror and look harder, deeper. We have to accept that our anger has limits, and our anger does not move. We have to recognize that there is still more to this life and this world and our humanity.
At some point, we have to recognize that there is also still joy to be found in the world. There is love. There is progress. There are victories. We have to move beyond anger, because anger is not always the most productive state to act from. As a matter of fact, I think anger works in pretty destructive ways.
And isn’t social justice all about building something better?