Once upon a time, there was a group of people who considered themselves to be the ultimate fighters for social justice. The members of this group regularly attended workshops about sexism, racism, and institutionalized social-injustice, and they discussed how to create inclusive communities and educate their peers about the important issues. Oh, weren’t they just perfect! They were called the Golden Team. The Golden Team would become properly outraged by stories about the suffering of the underprivileged, and they certainly would never do anything to contribute to the suffering themselves. Everything was just perfect, but there was just this one tiny problem.
The problem’s name was “M.” More specifically, the problem with M was that he was slightly out-of-tune with the rest of the group. M was born in North Minneapolis, and he was a person of mixed-race. M’s behaviors were a little different: he swore a lot, he was too straightforward for many of Golden members, and he didn’t seem to pay as much attention to his personal hygiene. M had a horrible time connecting with the other members of the Golden Team, and it wasn’t long before M found out that other members were talking about him behind his back.
Furious and confused, M went to his supervisor, “S,” and asked if she knew anything about this situation. S was shocked that one of her staff was experiencing anything other than a warm and welcoming environment on the team, and she stumbled for an answer. S thought to herself, “how could this happen? All of the people on my team are warm, compassionate, and caring individuals who are too well-educated to discriminate against anyone.” S excused M so she could consider the situation further. The next day, she called M to her office, and told him, “I’m sorry that you’re experiencing this, but you just can’t force people to be your friends. I’m sorry, but there is nothing I can do…”
When I asked M what he thinks about that day, he told me that he always thinks back on it with a little smile on his face. “Really M,” I asked him, “I would be traumatized if I were you.” “The thing is I’m no longer that naïve freshman who always asks why he couldn’t be part of the mainstream community. I have learnt my lessons, I’ll applaud for any ‘combat racism’ workshop, but I’m not gonna expect much afterwards.” Seeing M chilling with his people, I wasn’t sure if I was happy for him or weeping for our society.
The Golden Girl
There was this one girl on the Golden Team. She was lovely, friendly, compassionate, always positive and just perfect. She had this amazing energy around her where she could laugh so hard at the most boring jokes depending on who she was talking to. She was compassionate about the underprivileged communities and passionate about social justice even though she only befriended people who were “the popular,” the loudest, the best looking, and the most judgmental.
She was the glue that held the Golden team together. She was the girl who loved everyone and she was also the girl who yelled at M: “how could you?” in front of the entire Golden Team members when he pushed the elevator button for it to stop two floors up. The Golden team just got back from another “Creating Inclusive Community” workshop, and M was as usual quiet and looked out-of-tune with the rest of them. He wanted to get back to his room as fast as possible. Within the last five seconds he had to spend with these people, Golden girl yelled at him: ”how could you?” “I cried the minute I stepped outside of that elevator,” M looked over the window as he was telling me the story, “I remember the look on their (the other Golden members) faces staring at me or avoiding me and I remember how quiet and still they stood in that elevator compared to how passionate they were in that workshop. I realized how ugly they truly were.”
At the end of the year, M didn’t show up for the group photo. As usual, people were talking about how little team spirit M had, what a terrible team player M was for the whole year, and how much they had to tolerate his uncooperative behaviors. Oh, the Golden Team, they always think alike! They were such a wonderful team!
Disclaimer: Every character in this story is purely fiction. If there is any resemblance with any individual, it’s purely coincidental.
Author’s Note: I sometimes wonder why there continues to be a need to talk about social justice, and what does that say about how effective our efforts to educate have been. Racism and sexism were labeled as taboos a long time ago, yet the data about poverty, mental illness, incarceration, and other hallmarks of social injustice indicate that we still have a tendency as a society to marginalize people that look different than the majority.
What’s the fundamental cause of the exceptionally high stress level for unprivileged students? What happened to M on the elevator that day might not seem like a big deal by itself, but many students like M have dealt with the pressures of being different for their whole lives. It isn’t usually a single event that leads to someone withdrawing from a group or society, but years of pressure caused by a struggle to find acceptance. I believe the first mistake we make is to judge. We have created a society where the act of judging others gives us a sort of “superiority” over the person who is judged. Most of us have lived through the popularity contests where that sort of judgment commonly takes place. As a result, whether we think about it or not, everyone has a conceptual model of what it means to be socially popular, and many of us struggle with how we measure ourselves personally against that model.
The act of judging has everything to do with the problems that cause underrepresentation and marginalization in our society. The conceptual models we have in our head about how to act, how to speak, how to hold, are all culturally based. And, the culture is white, inside-and-out. For instance, have we ever pictured a popular kid with a strong Chinese accent? Even politeness is white cultural based, meaning different cultures have different polite manners and somehow everyone is asked to follow the one white standard.
The popular white standard is so prevalent, and everything else that doesn’t agree with it is under scrutiny and judgment. So maybe, just maybe, our social justice education shouldn’t sound like another weapon that could be used as tools of judgment. Instead, we should just teach other kids to be compassionate and less judgmental. Maybe it’s okay to be quiet, it’s okay to swear, and it’s okay to focus on yourself instead of what others did wrong.