Social Justice Usage
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, 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. 134.
- “Why can’t we all just be humans?”
- “We all bleed red.”
- “It’s focusing on difference that divides us.”
Biologically we are all humans, of course. But socially we are members of hierarchically organized groups. Where we are in dominant groups, we are taught to see our perspectives as neutral, objective, and representative of a universal reality; our group is the standard for what it means to be normal or “just human.” Thus dominant group members have the privilege of seeing themselves as outside of any group, and thus able to represent all of human experience. However, when we are in a minoritized group, our group is almost always named. Continually limited to our group identification, we are perceived as capable of speaking only for that particular group; whereas a “guy” can speak for all guys, a “gay guy” is seen as speaking only for other gay men.
Further, because dominant group members are taught to see themselves as normal, we assume that people in the minoritized group share our reality. This assumption imposes our reality on them, prevents us from learning more about their perspectives, and invalidates the oppression they experience. Insisting that “we are all just human” in response to evidence of oppression is a way to deny that oppression exists at all and to end any further discussion.
As for insisting that addressing difference is what divides us, dominant and minoritized groups are already divided from one another by virtually every measure, both physically and in life outcomes. In a society in which group difference clearly matters, we suggest that not addressing our differences and pretending that they have no significance serves to hold them in place.
New Discourses Commentary
Social Justice is set up for the advancement of identity politics, which requires centering human experience entirely in group identity (and, frankly, stoking grievances within them). This requires it to reject both the biggest and smallest measures of humanity: the universality of human experience and the atomic individualism that defines each of us as we actually are, in favor of something in between: group identity. Universalism and individualism are the two aspects of humanity that liberalism speaks to, and since the critical methods of Social Justice are explicitly anti-liberal, Social Justice rejects these as ideologies by which dominant groups can justify their privilege (thus keep it) and maintain and rationalize their oppression of marginalized and minoritized groups.
Universalism, or the idea of a universal humanity (thus, not the technical concept in the philosophy of science, which Critical Social Justice also denies – see also, objectivity and positivism), is antithetical to the possibility of intersectional identity analysis and politics. Where Critical Social Justice is intersectionality, it is “unionality,” if we might turn the phrase—or what is referred to as a superordinate identity (the ultimate one, in fact, within humankind – see also, anthropocentrism and speciesism). Universal humanity is explicitly framed as a way the experience of oppression is ignored or erased (see also, willful ignorance) and thus a way for dominance to maintain itself by preventing engagement with its realities. Universal humanity is similarly explicitly denied by Social Justice so long as any systemic power dynamics that create injustices still exist, and in some sense, Social Justice can be understood as an effort to eliminate all such injustices and dynamics, though it simultaneously recognizes that this is impossible.
A key feature of Social Justice is that it explicitly endorses an identity-first model, and its entire theoretical framework—called Theory—is based upon socially constructed group identity and the ways that society “stratifies” accordingly. What this means is that Critical Social Justice believes that the rewards and opportunities of society are distributed unequally, the most relevant way this occurs has to do with group identity, and the reason it occurs is systemic power that plays out between identity groups. These groups are “constructed” by society, particularly by the way we speak about things (see also, discourses), which in turn socializes people into various beliefs (mostly ideological) that produce, legitimate, and maintain unjust systems of dominance and oppression (see also, structural, structuralism, poststructrualism, postmodern, Foucauldian, and Derridean). Further, the antidote to these problems, according to Critical Social Justice, is to put group identity ahead of universal humanity or individualism, increase the social significance of socially constructed identity groups (as outlined by Theory), and use critical methods to agitate for a social revolution that unmakes the problematic systems.
To wit, when seminal critical race Theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw explained in her world-changing 1991 paper, “Mapping the Margins,” she catapulted this revolution in thought out of the margins of radical activism (see also, black feminism, black liberationism, radical feminism, and New Left) and into the mainstream. “I am Black,” Crenshaw explained, means something different and more important than “I am a person who happens to be black” (see also, blackness), especially where identity politics are concerned. Thereby, Crenshaw called very explicitly for the need for intersectional analysis and said that contemporary identity politics proceeds from recognizing group identity and putting it first, then applying postmodern deconstructive techniques to enable the resulting system-changing activism. In that statement, which echoed the growing sentiments of other black feminists (e.g., bell hooks) and identity-first theorists (e.g., Gayle Rubin and Judith Butler in queer Theory), the very notion of a universal humanity was flatly denied. Group identity-based experience, particularly of oppression, utterly negates the possibility for a shared perspective universal to all humans (see also, knowledge(s), ways of knowing, epistemic oppression, and standpoint epistemology).
The denial of human universality anteceded the identity theorists of the 1980s and early 1990s, however. It was essential to the radical activism of the New Left (see also, Frankfurt School, Cultural Marxism, and Neo-Marxism, and also black liberationism, liberation theology, liberation, critical pedagogy, and radical feminism) and was a core component of postmodern thought (see also, poststructuralism, Post-Marxism, Foucauldian, and Derridean). Indeed, these two critical traditions are where the identity theorists of the 1990s got the idea that human universality must be denied. Note particularly, in fact, Crenshaw’s 1991 statements in “Mapping the Margins” indicating that her ideas draw from black feminism, feminism, and black liberationism and that intersectionality is the link between the identity politics of her day and postmodern theory.
Relevantly, the postmodernists, above all else, believed that everything in human experience—particularly everything to do with knowledge, thus power (see also, power-knowledge)—is fundamentally contextual, contingent upon the temporal, historical, geographical, and cultural conditions, especially power dynamics, in which it arose or arises (see also, social constructivism, episteme, and cultural relativism). On this view, human universality is impossible because diverse cultures in diverse times and places would exist in different contexts, communicate via different discourses, and thus have a fundamentally different understanding and experience of the world.
Anthropocentrism; Black feminism; Black liberationism; Blackness; Center; Critical; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Cultural Marxism; Cultural relativism; Deconstruction; Derridean; Discourse; Dominance; Episteme; Epistemic oppression; Erase; Feminism; Foucauldian; Frankfurt School; Identity; Identity-first; Identity politics; Ideology; Individualism; Injustice; Intersectionality; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Liberation; Liberation theology; Lived experience; Marginalization; Minoritize; Neo-Marxism; New Left; Objectivity; Oppression; Positivism; Post-Marxism; Postmodern; Poststructuralism; Power-knowledge; Problematic; Queer Theory; Radical; Radical feminism; Revolution; Science; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Speciesism; Standpoint epistemology; Structural; Structuralism; Systemic power; Theory; Ways of knowing; Willful ignorance
Revision date: 3/9/20