Social Justice Usage
Critical consciousness, the core of social justice teaching, is a heightened awareness of the world and the power structures that shape it.
A level of sociopolitical awareness through which a person understands their positionality in the world.
Critical consciousness (CC) describes how oppressed or marginalized people learn to critically analyze their social conditions and act to change them.
In our view, [critical consciousness] is composed of three components—critical reﬂection, political efﬁcacy, and critical action. Knowledge of [critical consciousness] and its component parts helps youth practitioners and scholars facilitate the process and expand understanding of the concept. Critical reﬂection refers to a social analysis and moral rejection of societal inequities, such as social, economic, racial/ethnic, and gender inequities that constrain well-being and human agency. Those who are critically reﬂective view social problems and inequalities in systemic terms. Political efﬁcacy is the perceived capacity to effect social and political change by individual and/or collective activism. It follows that people will be much more likely to engage in critical action if they feel that they can create change. Critical action refers to individual or collective action taken to change aspects of society, such as institutional policies and practices, which are perceived to be unjust. This is a broad view of activism that includes participation in activities such as voting, community organizing, and peaceful protests.
New Discourses Commentary
Critical consciousness is, in short, having adopted a critical mindset, in the sense of critical theories. It is to have taken on a worldview that sees society in terms of systems of power, privilege, dominance, oppression, and marginalization, and that has taken up an intention to become an activist against these problematics. To have developed a critical consciousness is to have become aware, in light of this worldview, that you are either oppressed or an oppressor—or, at least, complicit in oppression as a result of your socialization into an oppressive system. To have a critical consciousness is to be aware of—and generally unhappy about—your positionality in society, i.e., your relationship to systemic and institutional power as determined by Theory and based mostly on facts concerning what demographic groups you are a part of.
Critical theories see the world as being constructed in terms of power dynamics that oppress certain people (minoritized groups) to the benefit of the dominant group(s). They advocate awareness of this purported fact (see also, consciousness raising and false consciousness) and radical activism to change it (see also, antiracism, for example). Gaining a critical consciousness means achieving this awareness, realizing this awareness must be spread to others, and understanding that radical or revolutionary activism is needed (usually urgently) to change the system to end its injustices.
The term originated in the Portuguese as conscientização from the post-Marxist Brazilian activist and educator Paulo Freire, usually deemed the father of critical pedagogy (that is, the application of critical theories to the theory of education). This Freire seems to have derived from the French psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon’s concept of conscienciser in his early anti-colonialism book, Black Skin, White Masks. The “consciousness” that Fanon discussed mostly applies to the racial consciousness and consciousness of the colonized that would make people oppressed within colonial contexts seek to rebel and overthrow their oppressors. Freire, working mostly to achieve improvements in literacy in a postcolonial setting in Brazil while approaching the topic from a communist perspective, considered critical consciousness in a similar light, though less openly revolutionary than Fanon and more interested in reform.
Critical theories, not least in education, have evolved considerably since the 1960s and 1970s when Freire developed these ideas, and, now, critical consciousness is typically reserved to mean the same kind of critical awareness or awakening, though with regard to issues of identity—like racism, sexism, and so on (see also, neo-Marxist)—and not so much through Marxist or Marxian analysis of economics or the systems that exist and/or support capitalism. (See: The Critical Turn in Education: From Marxist Critique to Poststructuralist Feminism to Critical Theories by Isaac Gottesman.) In that sense, a critical consciousness, sometimes referred to as “critical literacy” or “social justice literacy” now (see examples below), refers essentially to assuming that society is constructed by systems of power that manifest dominance and oppression mostly in terms of “intersecting” demographic group identities. The slang term for this specific type of critical consciousness, arising since the Black Lives Matter movement propelled it to a widespread meme, is “wokeness.”
When someone has adopted a “critical consciousness,” they are likely to be hypersensitive to issues surrounding race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability status, weight, national origin, and economic class, and they are expected to share this awareness (consciousness raising), often by attempting to expose the “hidden biases,” “unexamined assumptions,” or “inherent contradictions” in the system in order expose its injustices and thus lead to its deconstruction, dismantling, or subversion, i.e., a social revolution. This is most often done by problematizing things, which is to say finding issues (like potential offense or hidden racism—see also, code and mask) wherever they can be found. This mindset begins by rejecting questions like “did racism occur?” and replacing them with “how has racism manifested in this situation?”
See also, Woke/Wokeness
Antiracism; Bias; Code; Colonialism; Complicit; Consciousness raising; Critical; Critical pedagogy; Critical Theory; Deconstruction; Dismantle; Dominance; False consciousness; Gender; Identity; Institutional racism; Intersectionality; Justice; Marginalization; Marxian; Marxism; Mask; Minoritize; Neo-Marxism; Oppression; Position; Postcolonial; Post-Marxism; Power (systemic); Privilege; Race; Racism (systemic); Radical; Revolution; Sex; Sexism (systemic); Sexuality; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Socialization; Subversion; System, the; Theory; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Sensoy, Özlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 6.
Critical Theory’s analysis of how society works continues to expand and deepen as theorists from indigenous, postcolonial, racialized, and other marginalized perspectives add layers to our collective understanding. Thus, to engage in a study of society from a critical perspective, one must move beyond common sense-based opinions and begin to grapple with all the layers that these various, complex, and sometimes divergent traditions offer. Our goal, rooted in Critical Theory, is to increase our readers’ understanding of the:
- Different levels of thinking: opinion versus critical thinking, layperson versus scholarly
- Political nature of knowledge production and validation
- Historical context of current social processes and institutions
- Process of socialization and its relationship to social stratification
- Inequitable distribution of power and resources among social groups
Source: Sensoy, Özlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 162.
Developing critical social justice literacy requires a lifelong commitment to an ongoing process. This process challenges our worldview and our relationships to others. It asks us to connect ourselves to uncomfortable concepts such as prejudice, privilege, and oppression. It challenges simplistic dos-and-don’ts approaches such as “do treat everyone equally” and “don’t see Color.” Of course, it’s so much easier when we believe that attaining social justice is as simple as a list of dos and don’ts. We wouldn’t have to take account of the history of oppression in our nation states or trace that history into our present lives. We wouldn’t have to think deeply, engage in uncomfortable self-reflection, admit to our prejudices and investments in inequality, strive for humility in the face of the unknown, and build relationships with people that we have been taught are valuable. We would have to acknowledge our achievements are not simply or solely the result of merit and hard work, for within a society that is socially stratified, most of us benefit in some aspect of our lives from the disadvantages of others. And finally, we would have to take risks, make mistakes, and act.
Source: Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (Myra Bergman Ramos, trans.). New York: Continuum, 2005, p. 174, note 49.
For someone to achieve critical consciousness of his status as an oppressed man requires recognition of his reality as an oppressive reality.
Source: Francisco Weffort, in the preface to Paulo Freire, Educação como Prática da Liberdade (Rio de Janeiro, 1967), in Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (Myra Bergman Ramos, trans.). New York: Continuum, 2005, p. 36.
The awakening of critical consciousness leads the way to the expression of social discontents precisely because these discontents are real components of an oppressive situation.
Revision date: 7/8/20