30 June 2014

Paradoxes of social justice activism

Freddie at L'Hôte has a rant — bullshit social climber faux-antiracism — about a paradox in contemporary social justice activism.

Nothing could be more indicative of the state of American social liberalism than the divide between the graduate classes I take and the undergraduate classes I teach. The students in the graduate classes are endlessly careful to check their privilege. That's good. Privilege is real, it's better to think about it than not to. But the obsessive focus on privilege checking is the epitome of how people misunderstand social change. People of the world, I implore you: what is privilege checking doing for anyone? Is anyone in the world going to materially benefit from someone in some grad seminar checking their privilege? Has all the privilege checking in every cultural studies class in the history of creation ever put clothes on someone's back or food in their belly? Ever stopped a single cop from beating a black man senseless? Don't mistake your purification rituals for progress, please.

Meanwhile, my undergrads are mostly good kids. But they are absolutely repulsed by what they take organized social liberalism to be. I talk about politics with them and they seem generally to be on the side of the angels. But you mention the word feminism, and they recoil. It's visceral. And the young women are even worse than the men. They aren't racist, mostly. But in large majorities, they are skeptical to outright hostile towards organized antiracism. Why? In part, because of ignorance and privilege and apathy. But in part, because they have grown into a world where social liberals are more interested in demonstrating their superiority over them than in educating them. Because they perceive, correctly, that white antiracism is dominated by people who are more interested in being right than in doing right.


The fundamental conditions on the ground are a social liberalism that speaks to and for a smaller and smaller group of self-selected people, utterly unable to create material change, but endlessly self-congratulatory and aggressive, in a way that expels precisely the people who need to be educated.

We are in a moment in which social justice culture is doing worthy things that may be strategically counterproductive, and there's neither a clear vision of a different course nor a way to make it happen if we had one.

I have no idea what to do about this.

1 comment:

Amy said...

This is a huge problem for me, especially living in the Bay Area bubble and teaching underprivileged folks throughout the country. While our hearts are in the right place, I find that many of us are woefully out of touch with many of the actual, real issues that many of these people face, which are supposed to be the concerns we are devoting our energies to. For instance, I think it is interesting that I see more concern in my FB feed about gender pronouns than domestic violence by a wide margin.