Social Justice Usage
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 120.
“If we are oppressed in one social group membership, we can’t be privileged in another.” Remember that we occupy multiple social groups. One may be oppressed as a female but elevated as White; oppressed as a person with a disability but elevated as male; and so on. Consider the oppression of sexism. While all women experience sexism, they experience it differently based on its interaction with their other social group identities.
The experiences of a woman will vary greatly if she is heterosexual or a lesbian. Further, imagine this woman is heterosexual and has a disability. Perhaps she is living with a disability and is Muslim; or living with a disability and is Asian, Muslim, and a nonnative English speaker. In these ways, her experiences are determined not simply by her gender, but also by her ability status and racial, religious, and sexual identity. Thus we can be oppressed in one axis of life and still experience privilege in another. Intersectional analysis requires that we consider how these various social group identities interact with one another.
New Discourses Commentary
Overwhelmingly, the central topic of interest in Critical Social Justice is identity. Indeed, it is obsessed with identity both in Theory and in activism—and for a good reason. Because Critical Social Justice can be best understood as the fusion of critical theory and postmodern Theory for the purposes of achieving “Social Justice” through identity politics, identity must be central to all of the thought and activism of the Critical Social Justice project.
By “identity,” Critical Social Justice thought means “social identity,” which implies “political identity” in a universe that is only concerned with identity politics. That is, “identity” in Critical Social Justice refers to one’s social group identity, where one’s social group is defined by “intersecting” socially constructed group categories that are defined in terms of (mostly) immutable demographic characteristics that have, by this point, become numbingly familiar. These categories are nevertheless frequently forwarded explicitly in the literature of Critical Social Justice in exhausting (but not exhaustive) lists that tend to end in what noted queer Theorist Judith Butler referred to as the “exasperated etc.” (so that no unintentional exclusion can be divined even upon a close reading). These categories include race, sex, gender, sexuality, dis/ability status, fat status, age, class, national origin and indigeneity, religion, and (sigh) just about anything else one can imagine, though typically it’s only those among these that are believed somehow to have significant cultural relevance under socially constructed categories (read: those particularly useful for doing identity politics) that count. For example, class and age, which are both highly relevant in many regards, tend to be mostly ignored.
This restriction to politically inflammatory identity categories isn’t entirely cynical. It also arises due to the social constructivist assumptions at the heart of Critical Social Justice Theory (see also, blank slatism and anti-essentialism), as one has to be socialized into one’s identity under these assumptions. Key to this project is the idea that anything that has been socially constructed can be deconstructed and thus made otherwise, providing “liberation” for those constrained by it (expanding “potentialities of being,” as Michel Foucault might have it). In this sense, Critical Social Justice does not seek to achieve social justice for people but rather “Social Justice” for social constructions: these being the politically useful identity categories to which it assigns people.
Of note, because “poor” isn’t usually seen as being a socially constructed category with a unique cultural designation, so much as it is an economic one, this tends to lead Critical Social Justice to ignore economic class. The exception, which is exploited frequently, is in exploiting it by paid lip-service to use it as a prop for its core identity politics project (usually under a heading of diversity or equity). For example, the statistical poverty of some minoritized races will not be used to discuss the conditions of being poor or to advocate for politics on behalf of the poor; it will instead be used to claim that the relative poverty of these groups is proof of systemic racism.
Taking a step back, in general, one’s identity is some description or understanding of who one is. In liberal theories of identity, which see people as individuals who share a common humanity and belong to social groups (see also, individualism and universalism), there is much opportunity to define one’s identity for oneself through character development and action. There is also an ethos that this is the best way to understand one’s identity—judgment by the content of one’s character, and perhaps what one does with that character (see also, meritocracy), rather than the color of one’s skin or other (mostly) immutable demographic markers or the cultural features associated with them. (We hasten to note that locating identity in characteristics like race is a fraught concept that liberalism has sought to get away from with approaches such as colorblindness, which Critical Social Justice finds problematic. While the rest of the world seeks to get away from these foundations of racism and other bigotries, Critical Social Justice intentionally maintains them under identity-first approaches to political consciousness, beliefs in multiculturalism over pluralism, and ideas like “racial knowledges” – see also, episteme.)
In the Theory of Critical Social Justice, one’s identity is understood in terms of the social groups one inhabits and, more particularly, how one has been socialized to view those groups and thus oneself. That is, one’s identity is not who one is. It is who one society has made one become (see also, false consciousness), at least until one discovers the inherently political “realities” of identity (see also, critical consciousness, consciousness raising, and woke). These, by definition, will seek to disrupt these systems of socialization and replace them with something more “ideal” that exists on the other side of a social and cultural revolution.
It is important to recognize, however, that Critical Social Justice is vigorously anti-essentialist—at least nominally and by intention (see also, impact versus intent)—and thus does not see intrinsic characteristics that would be ascribable to people (say, white people, black people, people of color, or other kinds of people – see also, folks) as properties of their being white, being black, etc. (see also, biological essentialism). It is instead the intrinsically political identity that one is socialized into that matter, and this arises not from some essential properties of one’s being but from the allegedly true nature (cf. false consciousness) of one’s lived experience in that identity category within a society filled with unjust power dynamics.
Thus, one’s identity, according to Critical Social Justice, is inherently political and results from encountering a society Theorized to be invested in the social constructions of the various identity categories. Ultimately, one’s identity—who one is—is defined according to whether one accepts, rejects, challenges, deconstructs, disrupts, dismantles, subverts, or internalizes these categories and/or the systems of power, structures, assumptions and patterns that create and maintain them. One’s political stance in this regard defines one’s identity in Critical Social Justice thought (see also, false consciousness, internalized dominance, internalized oppression, strategic resistance, performativity, gender performativity, strategic essentialism, acting white, and authentic).
That is, one’s identity in the thought of Critical Social Justice is a political identity, in the active sense of doing identity politics. Understanding that Critical Social Justice thinks about identity in this way clarifies many seemingly mysterious features of the worldview. For example, Kanye West, a black man, was declared “no longer black” after donning a “Make America Great Again” hat and saying he had much in common with President Donald Trump. This is because West’s political identity didn’t align with capital-B Black identity politics as Critical Social Justice defines them (see also, black liberationism and critical race Theory). Similar concerns arise around LGBT individuals who do not adopt a politically active queer identity. They will be considered not authentically lesbian, gay, bi, or transgender (by which is meant not authentically queer). This status may only be understood in terms of how queer identities are meant to do identity politics, which is delineated by queer Theory (see also, queering).
In fact, identity in Critical Social Justice therefore must be considered intersectionally, and the need to declare one’s positionality within an intersectional paradigm becomes absolute. This means that one must always interrogate one’s identity, one’s society, and the ways that socialization into the various socially constructed identity categories that apply have all shaped not just how one thinks but who one is—as an inherently political entity. That is, one must be a critical theorist or suffer some form of false consciousness or willful opposition to liberation.
By the same token, when addressing others, one must declare the results of these self-interrogations with statements that clearly declare one’s positionality, e.g., “as a black man, I speak from a position of understanding systemic racism but with the limitations that result from the privileges conferred by patriarchy and complicity in misogyny.” As critical whiteness educator Robin DiAngelo indicates, within Critical Social Justice paradigms, this is not optional; positionality must be intentionally (and critically) engaged (see also, critical consciousness and wokeness). This results in using an intersectional form of standpoint epistemology in all knowledge-production activities.
Under this conception of identity as a means to politics, it also becomes imperative to adopt an “identity-first” approach. This means that one must center (group) identity rather than universal humanity or one’s individual ideas, expertise, or accomplishments. A person is a Black person, a Black feminist, or a Black scholar, not a person, feminist, or scholar who happens to be black (see also, blackness). One is a Deaf person, not a person who cannot hear. That is, the identity status is put first, and the intention in doing so is expressly for the purposes of making one’s identity into a tool for doing identity politics and, perhaps, asserting multiculturalism as a political agenda. This demand follows directly from the scholars who originally outlined what has become Critical Social Justice, most notably Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks within intersectional thought. Thus, we have “people of color,” “teachers of color,” “scholars of color,” “students of color,” even “settlers of color”—and the relevant portion of these phrases is “of color,” as it marks the identity and makes it central to whatever is on the table.
This broadly identity-first approach to identity isn’t just an incidental part of Critical Social Justice thought; it is central to its entire project. It therefore isn’t only relevant within critical race Theory and the related field of whiteness studies (which focuses on problematizing whiteness and white identity while seeking to get white people to accept their racial identity as white – see also antiracism, anti-blackness, white comfort, white equilibrium, white fragility, white ignorance, white innocence, white silence, white solidarity, white talk, colortalk, and racial contract). It also features prominently—if not centrally—in fat studies (fat identity), disability studies (various dis/abled identities, including crippled identities in crip Theory), queer Theory (queer identity), gender studies (various gender identities – see also, gender, non-binary, gender non-conforming, transgender, genderfluid, and genderqueer), and various strains of postcolonial Theory (colonized, subaltern, and indigenous identities).
For example, it is not enough that one is a person who happens to be deaf; under disability studies (or deaf studies in particular) one must be a Deaf person (usually capitalized) so as to forward the identity and its social, cultural, and political salience. Because the entire purpose of the identity-first approach to identity is to make one’s identity political (via “the personal is political” – see also, positionality), the point of this form of activism is to make one’s identity not only more interesting but the only relevant feature of one’s existence. (How boring, narcissistic, and solipsistic.)
This peculiarity of Critical Social Justice has deep roots in Theory. It follows because Theory sees one’s inherently political identity as central to understanding which dimensions of identity politics one has the necessary knowledges and proper motivations to engage in (see also, standpoint epistemology, lived experience, ways of knowing, and realities). For example, a white person could not possibly have the right knowledges and motivations for making any claims about black identity politics because in occupying a position of dominance, the white person lacks the lived experience of oppression of being black under whiteness and white supremacy (see also, anti-blackness and systemic racism). Further, a white person’s privilege leads them to a form of internalized dominance and false consciousness that results from “white complicity” (see also, good white, white ignorance, white innocence, white fragility, white silence, white solidarity, white talk, and the racial contract). Thus, white people have nothing of relevance to say in Black identity politics, by definition of “Black” and “white,” which, although consistent grammar demands also capitalizing must stay lowercase to fight the power (see also, do better, shut up and listen, and stay in your lane).
This approach to identity has a number of consequences. For example, it is important to understand that under Critical Social Justice thought, the individual is always just a prop for whatever “liberatory” identity politics that can be done by virtue of that person’s group identities. Members of dominant groups become props for anti-dominant identity politics, like antiracism, alternative masculinities projects, queering, allyship, and solidarity. Members of minoritized groups become props for identity politics as we usually think of them, though these must proceed as informed by the relevant (critical) Theories and studies. Privilege becomes relational under the doctrine of intersectionality, and so anywhere some form of dominance and oppression occurs, these issues gain relevance and the de facto object of relevance in defining one’s identity. Who you are is the groups you belong to and how you act politically as a member of those groups on behalf of oppressed groups.
Consequently, under the thought of Critical Social Justice, the individual is irrelevant (if she even exists). People do not matter in Critical Social Justice; identity groups do. Thus, any given individual (often: “member of a minoritized, marginalized, oppressed, or dominant group”) is, at best, a political representative or diplomat who speaks and acts on behalf of that group (understood ethno-historically) and Theory’s identity-political interests for that group. Thus, no matter how finely the intersectional calculus at hand, the individual is always understood in Critical Social Justice as the intersection of all relevant identity-political groups, not as an individual. This is why intersectionality taken to its logical conclusion does not result in individualism, as is often wrongly believed.
This outlines a unique and complete theory of personhood in Critical Social Justice. A person is only black insofar as she can be used for black liberationist politics. A person is only LGBT insofar as they can be used for radical queer politics. A person is only a woman to the degree that she can be used for feminist politics, and a white woman is only a feminist to the degree that she works in solidarity to black feminism. Thus, you’ll notice, the Theory-defined power dynamic matters completely here. So, a person is only white to the degree she can be held up as a prop for the ravages of whiteness or the virtues of antiracism, which is why critical race educator Robin DiAngelo explains the goal of her own antiracist ideology is “to become less white” (see also, good white). A person is only male—unless trans-male (see also, man and woman)—to the degree he can be held up as a prop for the harms of patriarchy and misogyny or the virtues of more inclusive, non-hegemonic masculinities. An Asian (or Jew) is only a member of a minoritized group to the degree that they are not also a model minority. In general, a person is only who they are at all insofar as the intersections of these politically relevant identity groups confer positional meaning for various identity-political goals outlined as constitutive of “Social Justice” by Theory (see also, authenticity).
Because one’s identity in Critical Social Justice is inherently political (“the personal is political”), it is only the political implications of one’s identity—as the critical theories at the heart of Critical Social Justice Theory sees them—that have any value (indeed, any meaning). These critical theories are always concerned with liberation from oppression, marginalization, exclusion, hegemony, and other forms of injustice that they see as anathema to achieving “Social Justice” (see also, justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion). One’s orientation with regard to this concern is ultimately defining of one’s identity. Thus, the person is their politics.
Theory thus often encounters the challenge that it is essentialist while claiming to fight essentialism. It would seem that this implies that black people must be politically Black (see also, Blackness), and that white complicity has something to do with being white (only the latter of these is true). This paradox demands explanation. Critical Social Justice is, technically, fundamentally anti-essentialist in that it denies any essential features of an identity group. However, it sees the lived experience of being a particular inherently political identity in an inherently political social milieu (see also, hegemony) in an essential way. That is, one’s features (sex, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) do not carry essential properties, but one’s lived experience of oppression with those features is considered to be (a) roughly identical from person to person, (b) described correctly uniquely by Theory, and (c) the basis for one’s de facto political identity as a person occupying the relevant identity categories.
This bizarre perspective carries a profound consequence. Critical Social Justice not only has its own complete theory of person; it also proceeds from an entirely unique theory of mind. In Critical Social Justice, consciousness is political consciousness (which has profound implications for personal agency). More specifically, consciousness is only real or authentic when it matches what its social Theory indicates it “should” be and is otherwise some form of false consciousness that one needs to be awakened from (see also, critical consciousness). This belief follows because Theory posits that identity is forced upon people by socialization, but identity is only technically forced upon members of marginalized, minoritized, and oppressed groups (see also, racialize). Dominant groups are Theorized instead to enjoy privileges as a result of their identity, including getting to ignore the salience of their identity if they so choose because dominance includes being socialized as the “default” humans.
It is this dynamic—claiming that power dynamics automatically racialize minorized races or “other” “non-default” identities (see also, other)—that powers the double standards and upside-down logic at the heart of so much of Critical Social Justice. When members of oppressed racial groups bring up race, it’s considered a form of coping with the fact that dominant power structures racialize them but not white people, and when white people bring up race, it is a means of maintaining the racialization of people of color—at least according to Theory. This dynamic applies to other factors of identity as well, mutatis mutandis.
This critical theory of person also has, in turn, profound consequences on the matter of personal agency (see also, responsibilize). Again, the alleged power dynamics matter, so members of dominant groups always have culpable agency under the formulation of complicity—the various specific ignorances of internalized dominance are willful because they come with benefits, like it or not. Members of minoritized groups only express agency by adopting a critical consciousness and agreeing with Theory (which is good), or by pursuing cynical self-interest by supporting the dominant system intentionally, not merely as a consequence of false consciousness (which is bad – see also, acting white, white adjacent, gender traitor, and race traitor, and also, male approval, white approval, patriarchal reward, and neoliberal reward). This is why critical whiteness educator Robin DiAngelo insists, “no one chose to be socialized into systems of racism, so no one is bad, but no one is neutral.” One’s political orientation determines the validity of one’s identity.
Thus, as with Kanye West and others (as described above), if one performs his political identity incorrectly (see also, performativity), say by speaking into or otherwise supporting or maintaining powerful, privileged, hegemonic, or dominant discourses, institutions, or systems that create, maintain, or legitimate oppression, then one is not an authentic representative of one’s inherently political identity (see also, acting white, double consciousness, white adjacent, gender traitor, and race traitor, and also, complicity, false consciousness, internalized dominance, and internalized oppression). A person, like West, might happen to be black but is not authentically representing the lived experience of Black oppression (see also, systemic racism, cultural racism, institutional racism, and anti-blackness). Thus, West doesn’t qualify for the Black identity, which is considered inherently political. Indeed, Kanye West, a black man, is not only “no longer Black”; he’s also a white supremacist, in that he behaves in a way that upholds white supremacy, according to Theory. One may notice that this limits the range of expression for anyone belonging to a minoritized, marginalized, or oppressed group to that which Theory says they should say and do, particularly when those activities and utterances are expressly and intentionally political in intention.
Within queer Theory and gender studies—and even women’s studies, masculinities studies, and some schools of thought in feminism—one’s gender identity or identity as queer are of extreme relevance. Indeed, it is in this context that people most frequently encounter just how centrally identity features in Critical Social Justice Theory and activism and, as well, just how strange that view of identity is. Within these schools of thought, gender, sexuality, and even sex seems somehow to be presented simultaneously as being intrinsic and some kind of choice (which, aside from being paradoxical, seems utterly at odds with most LGBT activism, scholarship, and science people are aware of). In these Theories, there is some sense that one’s identity are somehow a matter of one’s choosing and can change (especially with regard to gender, sexuality, and sex, and also dis/ability status to some degree) but also that it isn’t.
It is difficult to make sense of this until one realizes just how fully committed to the social constructivist school of thought the Theory of Critical Social Justice really is (see also, blank slatism). It is not so much that it believes that one can choose one’s identity as it is that one’s identity is wholly the result of socialization into socially constructed categories, and that these are mostly defined by hegemonic systems of power that can be—through critical theories and poststructuralism—deconstructed, dismantled, subverted, and otherwise questioned, challenged, and overthrown. Gender, for example, is seen as being ultimately performative in nature (see also, gender performativity), and one learns the “performance” through socialization into hegemonic societal expectations and assumptions about sex, gender, and even sexuality (see also, hegemonic femininity, hegemonic masculinity, traditional masculinity, and toxic masculinity).
Thus, in Theory, one’s identity has a status as a kind of pure, unspoiled Platonic form that, despite being inherently political, pre-exists socialization. It is by critically examining and deconstructing the assumptions and categories that shape it that a person may discover their hidden authentic (unsocialized but political) identity (see also, positionality). Socialization has masked this from the person through a kind of false consciousness and has done the Platonic identity within a kind of violence known as the violence of categorization. For this reason, one’s identity seems to be simultaneously a matter of one’s being and immutable and yet somehow fungible. The socialization can be called into question, thus revealing the authentic identity beneath it.
It is for this reason that an identity arrived at through critical analysis (see also, critical consciousness) will always be an identity-political identity: the social forces that conspired to shape one’s “false” (socialized into) identity are the problematic that needs to be challenged (see also, false consciousness), and one’s “true” identity becomes the primary vehicle and testament to the process and the need for it (see also, lived experience and consciousness raising). Thus, overcoming socialization and finding and embracing one’s authentic identity is considered a political process. Thus, woke identities are always inherently political entities, and their entire raison d’etre is to engage in and spread critical identity politics. In this way, in Critical Social Justice, one’s (political group) identity utterly consumes and replaces one’s person, thus rendering the person irrelevant and the Theorized realities of their intersecting sociopolitical groups, i.e., their positionality, the totality of their being.
Acting white; Ally/Allyship; Anti-blackness; Anti-essentialism; Antiracism; Authentic; Biological essentialism; Black feminism; Black liberationism; Blackness; Blank slatism; Center; Close reading; Colonialism; Colorblind; Colortalk; Complicity; Consciousness raising; Crip Theory; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Cultural racism; Deconstruction; Dis/ability; Disability studies; Discourse; Dismantle; Disrupt; Diversity; Do better; Dominance; Double consciousness; Engagement; Episteme; Essentialism; Equity; Exclusion; False consciousness; Fat studies; Feminism; Folks; Foucauldian; Gender; Gender identity; Gender non-conforming; Gender performativity; Gender studies; Gender traitor; Genderfluid; Genderqueer; Good white; Harm; Hegemonic femininity; Hegemonic masculinity; Hegemony; Identity-first; Identity politics; Impact versus intent; Inclusion; Indigeneity; Individualism; Injustice; Institutional racism; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Interrogate; Intersectionality; Justice; Knowledge(s); Liberal; Liberation; Lived experience; Male approval; Man; Marginalization; Masculinities; Masculinities studies; Meritocracy; Minoritze; Misogyny; Model minority; Multiculturalism; Neoliberal reward; Non-binary; Oppression; Patriarchal reward; Patriarchy; People of color; Performativity; Personal is political; Postcolonial Theory; Positionality; Postmodern; Poststructuralism; Privilege; Problematic; Problematize; Queer; Queer (v.); Queer Theory; Race; Race traitor; Racial contract; Racial knowledges; Racism (systemic); Radical; Realities; Reality; Responsibilize; Revolution; Science; Sex; Sexuality; Settlers of color; Shut up and listen; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Socialization; Subaltern; Standpoint epistemology; Stay in your lane; Strategic essentialism; Strategic resistance; Structural; Subversion; Systemic power; Theory; Toxic masculinity; Traditional masculinity; Transgender; Truth; Universalism; Valid; Violence; Violence of categorization; Ways of knowing; White; White adjacent; White approval; White comfort; White complicity; White equilibrium; White fragility; White ignorance; White innocence; White silence; White solidarity; White supremacy; White talk; Whiteness; Whiteness studies; Willful ignorance; Woke/Wokeness; Woman; Women’s studies
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, pp. 146–147.
As a person of Color, you may also be invested in denying racism for a range of complex reasons including these: You have also been socialized to see racism in binary terms; You have been socialized to see peoples of Color as “just as racist” as Whites; Denying racism helps you to cope with its overwhelming dynamics; You have had some measure of success in mainstream society and rationalize that members of minoritized racial groups just need to work harder; You have an immigrant experience that is different from that of some other racial groups; You do not carry the weight of internalized racial oppression because you have not grown up in the U.S. or Canadian contexts; Whites are more comfortable with your racial group, with the shade of your skin, social class expression, or other aspects of your identity. Yet there are costs for this denial, including a disconnection from one’s cultural roots and separation from other minoritized racial groups. Ultimately, this denial supports the dominant group.
The racist/not-racist binary illustrates the role that ideology plays in holding oppression in place, and the ideology of individualism in particular. Individualism is a storyline or narrative that creates, communicates, reproduces, and reinforces the concept that each of us is a unique individual and that our group memberships, such as our race, class, or gender are not important or relevant to our opportunities. This narrative causes a problematic tension because the legitimacy of our institutions depends upon the concept that all citizens are equal. At the same time, we each occupy distinct race, gender, class, and other positions that profoundly shape our life chances in ways that are not natural, voluntary, or random; opportunity is not equally distributed across race, class, and gender (Flax, 1998). Individualism helps manage this tension by claiming that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success, and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but of individual character. According to the ideology of individualism, race is irrelevant. Specifically, individualism obscures racism because it does the following things (DiAngelo, 2016):
- Denies the significance of race and the advantages of being White
- Hides the collective accumulation of wealth over generations
- Denies the historical context of our current positions
- Prevents a macro analysis of the institutions and structures of social life
- Denies collective socialization and the power of dominant culture (such as media, education, and religion) to shape our perspectives and ideology
- Maintains a false sense of colorblindness
- Reproduces the myth of meritocracy, the idea that success is the result of hard work alone
Let us be clear—we are not arguing against individualism in general. Rather, we are arguing that White insistence on individualism in regard to race prevents cross-racial understanding and denies the salience of race and racism in White people’s lives. Further, being viewed as an individual is a privilege only available to the dominant group. In other words, peoples of Color are almost always seen as “having a race” and described in racial terms (e.g., “a Black man,” “an Aboriginal director”), whereas Whites are rarely defined by race (e.g., “a man,” “a director”), thereby allowing Whites to move through society as “just people,” while peoples of Color are seen as part of a racial group (Dyer, 1997; DiAngelo, 2016). This dynamic also allows Whites to see themselves as objective and peoples of Color as having “special” or biased interests and agendas.
Of course to see oneself as an individual is a very different dynamic for peoples of Color. While for White people insisting that one is an individual is often a strategy for resisting acknowledging that their race has meaning, for peoples of Color it can be a strategy for coping with always being seen in racial terms. Since peoples of Color are denied individuality by dominant society, individualism can actually be a way to challenge racism and an important counter to the relentless imposition of racial identity on them. Because the social and institutional positions are not the same between Whites and peoples of Color, the dynamics of how ideologies are used are not the same.
Thus to challenge a particular form of oppression requires different tasks based on one’s position. If we fall into the dominant group, one of our tasks is to look past our sense of ourselves as individuals and examine our group history and socialization. If we fall into the minoritized group, one of our tasks is to claim individual complexity. That is, to challenge the way in which society has focused solely on our minoritized identity and denied us a sense of individuality.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, pp. 62–63.
When we fit neatly into these binary categories, scholars sometimes use the prefix “cis” to describe us. Cis is Latin for same and indicates that one’s gender assignment and identity are the same or in agreement. Another way to think about this is that a person who is cisgender is not transgender. People who are transgender have a gender identity that is different from their assigned sex at birth. A transgender woman is someone who was identified as male at birth but whose gender identity is female and lives, or desires to live, her life as a woman. A transgender man is someone who was identified as female at birth but whose gender identity is male and lives, or desires to live, his life as a man. (And there are some people who don’t want to be in either of the gender categories; they are nonbinary.) One thing we all have in common, regardless of our gender identity, is that we live in a society that is set up to enforce the gender roles imposed on us from birth. Cisgender and transgender people have this in common, though they will undoubtedly have different experiences and feelings about being socialized as boys or girls during childhood, following a prescribed script throughout adolescence about what it means to achieve manhood or womanhood, and existing as adults in a structure where compulsory gender norms continue to be imposed. We acknowledge that the terms we use here —“man,” “woman,” “male,” “female”—are neither natural nor unchanging. What we aim to communicate by using these terms, limited and inadequate as they may be, is the power of socialization; what society tells us it means to be a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, male or female, how it tells us, and what the consequences are. Thus, we use the terms men and women to illustrate the process of socialization within a cisnormative gender binary and how that socialization is rooted in sexism.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 143.
While they may have initially been divided in terms of ethnic or class status, over time European immigrants were united in Whiteness. For example, early Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants were not considered White, but they “became” White as they assimilated into the dominant culture. Reflecting on the social and economic advantages of Whiteness, critical race scholar Cheryl Harris (1993) coined the phrase “Whiteness as property.” This phrase captures the reality that being perceived as White carries more than a mere racial classification. It is a social and institutional status and identity imbued with legal, political, economic, and social rights and privileges that are denied to others.
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lexington Books, 2010, pp. 40–41.
Although it is not only white people who are susceptible to white ignorance, white people are particularly susceptible because they are the ones who have the most to gain from remaining ignorant. As Sandra Harding argues, it is members of oppressed groups, those who have direct experience with oppression, who “have fewer interests in ignorance about the social order and fewer reasons to invest in maintaining or justifying the status quo than do dominant groups.” Again, this is not to imply that all members of oppressed groups automatically have such knowledge. Alcoff explains,
identity does not determine one’s interpretation of the facts, nor does it constitute fully formed perspectives, but rather, to use the hermeneutic terminology once again, identities operate as horizons from which certain aspects or layers of reality can be made visible. In stratified societies, differently identified individuals do not always have the same access to points of view or perceptual planes of observation. Two individuals may participate in the same event, but have perceptual access to different aspects of that event. Social identity is relevant to epistemic judgment, then, not because identity determines judgment but because identity can in some instances yield access to perceptual facts that themselves may be relevant to the formulation of various knowledge claims or theoretical analyses.
What Alcoff underscores is that there is a greater tendency for those who experience the harms of systemic racism than those who benefit from it to be troubled by the normalization of white space and to be more affected by the white norms that are mystified as universal when they are not.
White people have a positive interest in remaining ignorant because such ignorance serves to sustain white moral innocence. White ignorance, however, simultaneously protects systems of privilege and oppression from being interrogated. Whiteness, according to Mills, requires certain “opacities in order to establish and maintain the white polity.” In her 1984 book, The Politics of Reality, Marilyn Frye similarly argues that ignorance is indispensable for the perpetuation of white power and privilege. She contends that ignorance is “not something simple; it is not a simple lack, absence or emptiness, and it is not a passive state.” In order to know one must pay attention, Frye contends. So too not knowing requires an active interest in ignoring or a resistance to knowing what is right in front of you. White people, Frye maintains, actively refuse to pay attention to their complicity in racism. Ignorance is “the condition that ensures its continuance.”
Revision date: 5/22/20