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, 2017, p. 213.
Remember that it isn’t actually possible to see everyone as an individual and thus to treat them as one. From a critical social justice perspective we understand that we are all socialized to see people from groups other than our own in particular and often problematic ways.
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, 2017, p. 221.
Another pattern in this scenario is that of the men shifting their attention away when a woman begins to speak. The men’s behavior reinforces the dominant messages that men’s voices are more important than women’s, that men are entitled to speak first and most, and that what a woman has to say is not as valuable to men. These messages are reinforced for all of the women in the meeting, but are further problematic because the woman who begins to speak is a woman of Color. In addition to what this communicates to women overall, this also communicates to the women of Color that their voices are less valuable and reinforces not only male privilege, but White privilege.
New Discourses Commentary
The chief occupation of critical theories and other critical methods, including the Theory of Critical Social Justice, is to identify “problematics” and make recommendations for their remediation. This it often does actively in a process called “problematizing,” which means to look for ways in which circumstances, statements, texts, spaces, or any other phenomena imaginable are “problematic,” by which is meant somehow potentially upholding, producing, reproducing, justifying, or legitimating any form of systemic dominance or oppression, such as racism, sexism, misogyny, ableism/disableism, fatphobia, homophobia, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, transphobia, or the inequitable status quo. This is often done through critical methods including highly intrepretive and subjective ones that look for problematics where there aren’t any, (see also, discourse, discourse analysis, and close reading).
Of course, “problematic” is a word in everyday speech as well, meaning “capable of causing or containing problems.” These problems can refer to technical or strategic problems, on the one hand, and to moral problems, on the other. For example, “the alloy used in the turbine is potentially problematic” would indicate that the turbine is likely to fail or present other technical problems under the stresses and circumstances of its operation. Also, “the use of the N-word is problematic due to its very specific use throughout history” is a statement within the moral arena of social justice that most of us would generally agree with, even if we’re against politically correct speech codes and taboos. Another example of this sort in a moral sphere apart from social justice (or Critical Social Justice) might be, “the interpretation of the blood of Christ being literal wine as part of communion can be problematic for Southern Baptists who also religiously abstain from drinking any alcohol.” In greatest generality, then, “problematic” refers to being indicative of problems or potential problems.
Problematics in the narrower critical usage are not necessarily the same thing as genuine problems, as they are identified by critical theory (see, critical theory), which isn’t necessarily concerned with understanding why and how a phenomenon works but rather how it falls short of being (morally) perfect according to the moral structure underlying the critical theory at hand. Thus, “problematic” in Critical Social Justice means something that either transgresses the moral boundaries of Critical Social Justice or that potentially could contribute to the transgression of those boundaries, even if only in Theory.
Thus, if something could conceivably be considered racist or upholding of racism (for just one of many potential -isms) even by the most tortured logic, it’s problematic. For instance, antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi once tweeted that calling the infamous stock market crash “Black Tuesday” was problematic name because of the negative association it could generate with black people. In the 1950s stop-motion “claymation” Christmas movie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the gruff and anti-red-nosed bigotry manner of Rudolph’s girlfriend’s father (a clear metaphor for racist attitudes) was deemed problematic by Critical Social Justice activists even though the purpose of portraying them was to show that they’re wrong. The film is broadly anti-bullying and anti-prejudicial in its theme, but the problematics in the film are the many ways in which bullying and prejudice are depicted (as the losing set of beliefs). Examples of this sort are typical of the approach and are far too numerous to attempt to summarize or catalogue, though the reader is encouraged to see also acting white, benevolent sexism, colorblindness, the good old days, meritocracy, individualism, universalism, liberalism, science, white equilibrium, white women’s tears, whiteness, epistemic violence, willful ignorance, allyship, and good white for a few choice considerations. Even one of Critical Social Justice’s core concepts, white fragility, has been named problematic for being too white.
In practice, “problematic” is a word applied to anything that a critical theorist doesn’t like and wants to complain about, and the “problematics” involved will be the specific reasons they have rationalized for those complaints. To be completely fair, sometimes these observations carry legitimacy, which makes the misapplication of the term to so many trivial and asinine things a tragedy, as it obscures the genuine capacity to reliably identify problematics in need of correction. A significant example of a potential genuine problematic that is complicated and obscured by the drive to problematize everything has arisen in the 2019–2020 Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, where the conversation over whether calling the disease “Chinese” has become effectively impossible as a result of the rampant problematizing (saying how it could be a racially-relevant problematic, sometimes in extreme terms) of that description.
As a general rule, problematics are always the fault of the dominant groups in society. If women were hypothetically found to have drastically lower interest levels in computer programming than men on average in a demonstrated total absence of sex discrimination in schools and hiring for these jobs, it would still be problematic and the result of some patriarchal and misogynistic combination of men creating negative environments or patriarchal society socializing women to believe computer programming is not for them (see also, false consciousness, internalized oppression, internalized sexism, and internalized misogyny). This is because the social constructivist views and critical beliefs about systemic power dynamics always result in anything that can be read as oppressive being the result of the dominant influences on “the system,” which are by definition self-interested (see also, privilege and internalized dominance). Learning to see the world in terms of its (critical) problematics is called developing a “critical consciousness,” or, in the case of Critical Social Justice as a critical theory, “wokeness.”
See also – problematize.
Ableism; Acting white; Allyship; Antiracism; Benevolent sexism; Cisnormativity; Close reading; Colorblind; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical theory; Disableism; Discourse; Discourse analysis; Dominance; Epistemic violence; Equity; False consciousness; Fatphobia; Good old days, the; Good white; Heteronormativity; Homophobia; Individualism; Internalized dominance; Internalized misogyny; Internalized oppression; Internalized sexism; Legitimate; Liberalism; Meritocracy; Misogyny; Oppression; Patriarchy; Privilege; Problematize; Racism (systemic); Sex; Sexism (systemic); Social constructivism; Social Justice; Socialization; Space; Status quo; System, the; Systemic power; Text; Theory; Transphobia; Universalism; White; White equilibrium; White fragility; White woman’s tears; Whiteness; Willful ignorance; Wokeness
Source: Manne, Kate. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 226–227.
The narrative account of the concept of victimhood thus helps to explain why victim-blaming is held, and intuitively seems, to be so morally problematic. As soon as the focus shifts from what was done to someone, to ways in which her (perhaps genuine) imprudence or even morally problematic behavior contributed causally to the wrongs done to her, her role as a victim in the narrative is liable to be compromised. It may then be difficult to see her as a victim whatsoever.
Source; Manne, Kate. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 27.
Investigating the logic of misogyny often involves exploring what is entailed by such problematic or indeed flatly false assumptions, which exclude many people, and assume away legitimate and salutary ways of being embodied, living, and loving—and even some people’s very humanity or existence. But it can be useful to under- stand the inner workings of a system that upholds the status quo in intricate, and sometimes even morally gory detail, in order to see how best to combat it. This is my intention when I intermittently grant certain objectionable assumptions, for the sake of argument—and, ultimately, trying to expose and disrupt misogyny’s operation.
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, 2017, p. 40.
Simplistic platitudes often surface when we are faced with evidence that fundamentally challenges our worldviews. For example, the evidence that racism not only exists, but is systemic and implicates everyone is a difficult idea for many of us. But popular platitudes such as “I don’t care if you’re purple” are problematic for at least two reasons: First, colorblindness is not actually possible—we do in fact see race and it does have social meaning and consequences. Second, people do not come in these colors and so claims about green, purple and polka-dotted people render race ridiculous and trivializes the realities of racism.
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, 2017, p. 79.
The prejudice that leads to the differential treatment we name here—either ignoring/avoiding the blind woman or offering unsolicited help and speaking as if to a child —is not unique to us, and can be predicted precisely because of that fact. The messages that reinforce prejudice toward blind people are everywhere and affect all of us. This prejudice in turn informs our behavior. Consider representations of people with disabilities in media. Inspirational heroes are valorized for having “overcome” the tragedy of disability; horror movies wherein the villain’s ability to scare victims is connected to “freaky” eyes or disfigurements of the body; and admonishments to children to avoid activities that could cause them to go blind (implying that this would be the worst possible condition to have).
When we add the fact that most sighted people don’t know any blind people (because in our society most blind people are separated out and sent to special schools and workplaces), you ensure the likelihood of problematic ideas and interactions. Notice that blind people (and people with other perceived exceptionalities) are both highly visible in the ways their blindness is amplified in films and popular culture, and at the same time invisible in that they are often separated from the mainstream. This dynamic sets us up to rely on misinformation and starts the cycle of prejudice and discrimination.
Revision date: 4/2/20