The words ‘social justice’ and ‘social justice warriors’ are constantly being thrown around on (social) media, without people knowing exactly what they mean, and what social justice advocates are actually trying to achieve. The expression ‘social justice warrior’ was mostly made up by anti-feminists and other anti-’movements’ in order to mock social justice advocates. What is it that social justice advocates are trying to achieve, and why are so many people umcomfortable with it?
First things first: what is the definition of ‘social justice’?
- “[Social justice is] a status in society where all people, regardless
of their individual identities and social group memberships,
have an equitable shot at achieving success.” (Sam Killermann, The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender, 2013 p. 9)
The focus is on achieving equity instead of equality, why is that? As Sam Killermann puts it:
- “Social equity is all about creating access to success (wealth, education, happiness, etc.), whereas social equality focuses more on possession of success (everyone gets an equal level of wealth, education, happiness, etc.).” (Killerman 2013, p. 10)
The difference is subtle but important. By saying that you try to achieve social equity, you acknowledge that our societies are inherently socially unjust. That means that not everybody is on the same ‘level’.
Picture the following scenario: an adult, a teenager and a child go to see a sports game, but they have to stand behind a fence that only the adult can look over. Equality would be giving all of them equally sized crates to stand on. Now the adult and teenager can see the game, but the child still can’t. Equity would be giving the teenager one crate, and the child two crates to stand on. Now everyone can see the game and nobody loses.
Then, what’s standing in the way of achieving social justice? That would be oppression.
- “Oppression is the exercise of authority or power in an unjust
manner. Oppression plays out between social groups when one
group has power and limits another group’s access to that power.” (Killermann 2013, p. 13)
Generally speaking, oppression is a systemic, perpetual cycle of prejudice and discrimination in which social, economical and political power play a crucial role. Social justice advocates try to actively dismantle oppression. However, in order to do so, you have to understand what oppression and privilege are, and how power dynamics work. This is where a lot of people disagree.
In order to speak out against oppression, it is therefore important to acknowledge in which ways you are oppressed or privileged (or both). Intersectional feminism (see recommended reading) would be a great place to start to learn more about this particular subject. It is important to note that privilege, too, is systemic. We’ll elaborate on this point in a different post.
In short, privileged people hold power whereas oppressed people do not. Before you can appropriately speak out against social injustice, it is crucial to check your privilege. In Western societies, you can have white-, heterosexual-, cisgender-, male-, class-, and/or ablebodied privilege for example. This (partial) privilege can still be used to fight for social justice, which brings me to the next point:
What can you actually do to achieve social equity?
- You can use your privilege to help oppressed people.
- Constantly educate yourself (and others) on subjects/topics you’re not familiar with or have little knowlegde of.
- Know that unlearning (internalized) oppressive behaviour and thoughts will last for the rest of your life.
- Always try to be more inclusive. This is not the same as “political correctness” (more on this soon).
- Refrain from using stereotypes, even if they’re “good stereotypes”, like the “Asian model minority” trope. They are just as harmful as negative stereotypes, because they uphold impossible and unrealistic standards!
- Know that there is not one absolute ‘truth’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. There are multiple ways to tackle social issues.
Killermann, Sam. The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender. Austin: Impetus Books, 2013)
Everyday Feminism. Daily articles that help readers apply intersectional feminism in their lives. http://everydayfeminism.com
It’s Pronounced Metrosexual. Articles and graphics about gender,
sexuality, and social justice. http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com
Reason, Robert D.. Developing social justice allies. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, 2005.