As someone born and raised with a lot of privilege, I struggle to find a place for myself in the social justice sphere. How I act around peers and friends at school is very different from how I act family and acquaintances back in Beverly, Massachusetts. At school, I am expected to be informed and aware of social justice issues; I am required to use proper terminology and speak out when people say or do problematic things. In Beverly, “social justice” is a non-issue and social justice warriors are not welcome. People expect me to dismiss their offensive comments and refrain from speaking out. There are unspoken rules that dictate when someone calls Caitlyn Jenner “a man”, or uses the word “retarded” that I’m supposed to find it funny or keep my shut. “It was a joke”, “Lighten up”, “Why are you making this into such a big deal?” I’m supposed to understand that they weren’t trying to be offensive, that our society has simply become too politically correct, or that their opinions on certain subjects shouldn’t matter given how long we’ve known each other. The last one is the trickiest; it’s very difficult to call out people for saying bad things when you know they’re good people at heart.
I can see how it’d be tempting to avoid engaging in social justice conversations. No one wants to be labeled a “social justice warrior.” I certainly don’t want to be seen as standing on a soapbox, or attacking people simply to raise my own reputation. Being socially aware is a type of privilege in and of itself, one that many people don’t have. As a college student, I have the time and opportunity to participate in roundtable conversations about social issues. I have the time to read, to learn, and to engage; other people don’t have those kinds of opportunities. They spend their days working, or taking care of their families. They don’t have the time, energy, or access to engage in social justice issues that don’t pertain to them, and I can’t expect the real world to operate like my college because I know how difficult it will be to motivate myself to care once I enter the real world.
I never want to use my academic privilege to shame, police, or silence people for not being as informed as I am on a certain topic. I don’t want to engage in roundtable conversations about social justice issues purely for show. The cynic in me often can’t help but feel that some social justice kids are nothing more than reboot hippies latching onto a trend; they are people who exist in a privileged bubble where political correctness is social capital to be accrued by asserting intelligence and social awareness of others. And the incredibly cynical cynic in me can’t help but think that some of these SJW’s do not truly care about the people a cause affects, but rather simply want ownership of a cause and recognition. I don’t want to be that. There is no point in talking a good game if you don’t have the empathy or motivation to actually act and create change.
More often than not I keep my mouth shut. I tell myself that it’s not worth engaging, that I couldn’t possibly change a bigoted person’s mind, or that it would just cause unnecessary conflict. I’m starting to learn though that I have to speak out. I don’t need to publicly embarrass the person, nor do I need to criticize them for their language. I don’t want the person to walk away from the conversation feeling angry or embarrassed; I want them to leave thinking about what I had to say and how it fits in with their views. Speaking out becomes easier when you realize it is less about making someone feel bad than it is about giving them something to grasp onto. It can be easy to make fun of Caitlyn Jenner if you’ve never met or know nothing about trans people, but I believe deep down the more we can show people the reality of these issues the more empathetic they will become. If I can tell someone about my trans friend, or tell them about how difficult life can be for a trans person, I think I can help them on the path toward realizing that social justice isn’t simply just some PC nightmare; it is empathy and equity. It isn’t about privilege shaming; it is about acknowledgment and positive change.
We all say and do problematic things from time to time. Hell, I probably do something problematic five times a day (unintentionally or intentionally). People all have varying levels of knowledge on different issues, and language is constantly changing, so it is nearly impossible to keep up with the lingo and schools of thought. Social justice isn’t like a math class or science class where you are supposed to walk in having crammed four textbook chapters into your head. Social justice is a lot more like a theater class. You just got to come in “ready to move.”