When I Was a Social Justice Warrior

This essay is Part Two of two essays about liberalism. In the first, I describe the moment – during an argument with a fellow student while studying abroad in France – that I became a liberal. In Part Two, I describe the progression of my political beliefs through graduate school. I suggest that liberals move away from identity politics and toward a more inclusive, economic platform for social justice. 

In the fall of 2015, I was one year into my first master’s degree – an interdisciplinary social science and humanities degree with an emphasis in social justice. 

I spent my first year learning about inequality in the U.S. and around the world. I took women and gender studies courses, critical race theory courses, and courses that problematized things like technology and globalization. Also, as I stated in Part One, I was exposed to social and political philosophies that influenced my political identity and strengthened my already fierce commitment to lessening the suffering of others.

As I was choosing my courses for Spring 2016, I came upon a flyer shared by my academic advisor about an intriguing course in the education department. The course was called Problematizing Whiteness, and the flyer read,

WANT TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT RACISM?
TIRED OF NOT HAVING THE VOCABULARY TO EXPLAIN YOUR RACIAL EXPERIENCES?
EVER WONDER, WAS THAT RACIST?
PROBLEMATIZING WHITENESS: EDUCATING FOR RACIAL JUSTICE

Admittedly, I was a bit turned off by the flyer at first. The course’s logo was a red, solidarity fist, holding a pencil, and surrounded by ears of corn. Looking at it now, I still don’t quite understand it. Maybe the corn was a nod to Marx – I don’t know. 

Either way, I liked the idea of a pencil-in-hand denoting power. What I didn’t like was the blatantly ideological message the flyer seemed to be sending:

Take this course and become a fighter for racial justice.

My other courses had taught me about identity and inequality, particularly as they relate to race and gender. Yet, in my opinion, none of them seemed quite as unabashed in their mission to persuade or prescribe political beliefs as this one.

I believed, and still believe, that we all have a moral responsibility to learn about cultural, historical, political, or institutional oppression (and attending universities can give us that opportunity). Yet, I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of a college course marketing itself as a sort of “training ground” for political activism. 

Despite my discomfort, I reached out to the professor and asked for a copy of the syllabus. I spoke with a friend that said the professor was intelligent, warm, and friendly, so I decided to enroll in the course.

That decision changed my life forever. 

When it started in January, I learned that the course was really about critical whiteness studies. Critical whiteness studies is an offshoot of critical race theory. It studies “whiteness” as a problematic and often harmful identity that is inculcated through white supremacy. 

It is where we get the now ubiquitous term “white privilege.” And it shares roots with many of the books recommended by racial justice activists today, such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kindi. 

Despite my initial hesitation, just a week into the course, I was hooked. 

Remember my story in Part One, where I describe – after the conflict with my Turkish friend – how dumbfounded I was to learn that I may not be one of the “good guys”? That either I, or people with whom I share an identity, may be responsible for others’ pain? 

Well, reading and learning critical whiteness studies was the antidote to my guilt. It was my social justice crack. I could finally do something about the mistakes of my group. (In this context, “my group” was “white people.”) 

I might not have been able to assuage my Turkish friend’s anger, or take back the wars waged by my country in the Middle East. But, by learning to be an anti-racist and a white person fighting for racial justice, I finally felt like I could do what I didn’t have the tools to do back then. 

I could become one of the good guys, and I could stop the bad guys – even if all of the bad guys looked like me.

For most of the next year, I fully adopted the identity of “anti-racist.” I was a white, twenty-something young woman with a social justice mission. I’m not sure if the term “social justice warrior” was as prevalent back then as it is now, but either way, I wore my “SJW” hat with pride. 

I posted anti-racist memes on Facebook and participated eagerly in the debates that ensued. I joined a group called “Showing Up for Racial Justice,” a local activist group made up mostly of white people who were attempting to simultaneously respect activist spaces of color and participate in anti-racist activities themselves.

I brought critical whiteness studies into my Core Composition classroom – the writing class I taught (and the one “everyone has to take”). Outside the classroom, I continued to “educate” anyone that attempted to contest my anti-racist beliefs, no matter how blatant or subtle their objections were.

I was high on self-righteousness. I was drunk on Truth. I finally had a guidebook, a set of rules for how to be good. To many of us, racial injustice feels like the social, political, and moral issue of our time. And I finally felt like I was on the “right” side.

Then Came November.

When November 2016 came along, I was eleven months into my anti-racist crusade. As I hope is clear from my last post – and even by the presence of this blog – my desire “to make the world a better place” has always been strong. 

For as long as I remember, I have identified as a liberal. This is because, to me, a liberal means “open to change.” That’s it. It exists in contrast to “conservative,” which, in my opinion, simply means that one wishes to “preserve” or “protect” what already is

In my experience, if we become knowledgeable of pain, suffering, or injustices in the world, we typically develop liberal views because, by learning about this pain and suffering, we decide that what is isn’t good enough. 

I know that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have come to mean so much more these days. It’s as if assuming one of these identities means that you must also assume a laundry list of opinions, beliefs, values, and ideas along with it. 

“Either you’re with us or against us” seems to be the dominant message from both camps.

Well, from childhood until November 8, 2016, I was “with” liberals through and through. And with my newly-acquired knowledge from critical whiteness studies, I finally had moral certainty and self-righteousness on my side. 

On the evening of November 8, I joined a small group of friends on the couch as we watched the U.S. presidential election unfold. With every passing minute, we saw the red numbers tick upward, while the blue numbers stood still.

And then we watched Donald Trump win the election for President of the United States. 

Keeping true to my anti-racist training, I quickly shared an article that argued his election was a “whitelash” against a black President Obama. I ordered a Black Lives Matter sticker for my laptop case. I started crafting new anti-racist lesson plans in my head. 

Yet, after a few days, I calmed down. I processed. Donald Trump had won. Despite bragging about “grabbing pussy.” Despite threatening to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to keep “rapists” and “criminals” out. Despite touting anti-Muslim rhetoric. Donald Trump had won. 

Either almost half of my country was downright racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic, or something else was going on here. 

I knew I disagreed with the Right. I knew that I never, in a million years, could support Donald Trump. Yet, for the first time in years, I questioned the validity of my side, the Left.

And my ironist sensibilities roared.*

We need to do better.

As I described in Part One, I have always been skeptical of “once and for all” explanations of “the way things are” – of unquestionable, impenetrable, ideas about what’s true. 

I’m not sure if it’s because my father was such an outspoken individualist – a man who passionately rejected anyone’s attempts to control or define him – but I grew up always being wary of strict rules, rigid institutional structures, or people who claim to have all the answers.

I know that’s why I was suspicious of the critical whiteness studies course. It offered me answers to one of my life’s greatest moral dilemmas: what to do when you’re on the side of the oppressor. 

As someone who grows quite exhausted from constantly questioning society and myself, certainty is a tempting refuge. 

Yet Donald Trump’s election, again, made me hit the pause button.

It didn’t make me question that the systemic oppression of people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and others is a plague that has captured our nation for far too long. I have seen too much, read too many books, and met too many people to take seriously any suggestions to the contrary. 

After all, as a white woman, I went through my own process of liberation when I discovered the historic oppression of myself and others that look like me. 

Yet, Trump’s election did make me question the ways liberals are attempting to remedy this situation and who – in our quest to help the oppressed – we might be leaving out. 

“What About Poor White People?”

At one point during the critical whiteness studies course, we read an article by Ricky Lee Allen, a critical whiteness scholar, called “What About Poor White People?” In it, he describes this question – “What about poor white people?” – as a defensive tactic that middle- or upper-class whites use to avoid conversations about racism.

He argues that, while it may be valid to ask about the condition of poor white people in social justice circles, that often isn’t the true intention of those who pose it. It is, instead, a way to deflect responsibility.

Non-poor whites who ask, “What about poor white people?” are really saying, Look at those white trash/hillbilly/redneck racists over there. Why don’t you talk to them about race and leave us alone?

Non-poor whites talk down to poor whites, painting them as the “real” racists that need to be snuffed out. Meanwhile, poor or working class whites, seeing themselves as “temporarily disenfranchised millionaires,” remain politically loyal to upper-class whites. 

They think, With just a little more freedom, a little less government intervention, I can attain the American Dream, too. They overlook the experiences they share with poor or working class people of color, blame the “other,” and continuously vote against their own economic interests.

Sound familiar? 

I’m not suggesting that liberals stop fighting for racial justice, immigration reform, LGBTQ rights, or gender equality. I am suggesting that liberals consider how we may be ostracizing another oppressed group: economically disenfranchised white people.

I wonder, what are our motivations for characterizing working class Trump supporters as ignorant, uneducated buffoons? Is it because we think we’re helping people of color? Is it because we think, by posting memes on social media, we’re helping Democrats win? 

Or is it because, in painting poor white people as morally apprehensible, we can feel a little bit better about ourselves?

I suggest that we start crafting a new version of liberalism, one that transcends identity politics. 

This means that we recognize the immense importance of identity in shaping the trajectory of our lives, but we work to diminish the importance of those identities, rather than cling to them. We also stop assuming that one’s racial, ethnic, gender, or other social identity predetermines that person’s values, morals, or political beliefs.

We need only mention conservative, anti-BLM activists like Candace Owens, or anti-feminist commentators like Tomi Lahren, to know that being black doesn’t mean you care about racial justice, and being a woman doesn’t mean that you’re a feminist.

I argued in my master’s thesis that identity divides, but economics unites. That’s because, as a white woman, I might not understand your particular plight as a black, Chicana, or Native American woman. But, like everyone else, I need to put a roof over my head. I need to support my family. 

We all bleed, and we all need to eat. 

Wealth inequality on national and global levels has increased dramatically since the 1970s, and some of the world’s greatest democracies are being threatened by Right-wing populism in response

The American Left’s answer to fascism cannot be limited to reactionary bids for police reform or short-sighted responses to Trump’s immigration policies. We need to develop our own answer to growing inequalities – one that speaks to the interests of the vast majority of Americans.

In addition to policy reforms that enhance the dignity of black lives, we need an economic agenda that speaks to the needs of the “new poor,” the losers in the fight to stay within a shrinking middle class

On a national scale, liberals need to show how inequality in education affects poor, rural whites just as it affects inner-city blacks. And we need to consistently show how we are all hurt by rising housing costs, shrinking wages, and inadequate healthcare.

Many of us who are educated about social justice know that the impacts of these societal problems are not felt equally. But what we need now is not a reminder of our differences.

What we need is a reminder of how we are all the same. 

What being liberal means.

As I mentioned here and in Part One, to me, being a liberal means that we never accept any proposition as indefinitely, undeniably true. We are always open to questioning the righteousness of our own or others’ beliefs. 

I learned a lot in my critical whiteness studies course. I learned how global white supremacy functions. I learned how, whether we’re individually racist or not, racial inequalities are perpetuated unless they are addressed and remedied. I even gained some tools for confronting systemic racism and reflecting on my own, problematic behaviors and beliefs. 

Critical whiteness studies is important because it shows the “other side” of critical race theory. It shows not just who is being oppressed, but who is doing the oppressing and how. It shows a more holistic picture of racial inequality in the U.S. and the world. 

Yet, it also has serious flaws. It’s not just a brazenly ideological field of study; it has a tendency to advocate moral dogmatism, almost indoctrinating its students into an, ironically, “black and white” view of the world.

“Good guys” and “bad guys” become decipherable by skin color, and to “do the right thing” often means to simply do what you’re told.

We veer off course when we start to cling to one lens through which to view the world. When our acceptance of one group means the rejection, humiliation, and criticism of another, we are partaking in identity politics, not real politics.

I challenge liberals to think about what world they wish to build and who they might be omitting from that vision. Poor and working class whites, even those who may have voted for Obama in 2012, were Trump’s ticket to the presidency in 2016

Come November, I would hate for liberals, like me, to be jolted awake and realize that, in their quest to be the “good guys,” they really endangered us all. 

*As defined in Part One, an “ironist” is a term coined by Richard Rorty that refers to someone who is constantly questioning the verity of one’s own beliefs or the beliefs of one’s group.

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9 thoughts on “When I Was a Social Justice Warrior

  1. You write well, Eliza, about a difficult, sensitive topic. Your energy, enthusiasm, and passion are clear and productive. Thank you for writing this and for starting this blog.

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  2. Thanks very much for this post. I just ran across it and look forward to following what you are doing.

    Two comments, from someone of an older generation. I came to political awareness during the civil rights movement. In that era, liberals were regarded as frauds, which is why I have never wanted to describe myself thus. Martin Luther King’s most famous writing, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, singled out liberals – – white moderates – – as the greatest impediment to social justice. The problem was not what they believed but how they believed it: tentatively, without urgency, suspicious of those passionately committed to their beliefs, etc. This is why the liberals of the day generally opposed the direct actions of the civil rights movement.

    This bears on what to think of Rorty who, though coming of age in the 1950s, showed no involvement with the civil rights movement or any of the era’s radical movements. As Louis Menand points out in “the metaphysical club”, Pragmatists were generally suspicious of the civil rights movement for the reasons Rorty identifies. There was nothing ironic about it. To sacrifice in ways that were required for it rested in a confidence about one’s commitments that was incompatible with the sort of fallibilism Pragmatists proclaim. Rorty’s position is actually quite similar to Lionel Trillings, who Rorty praises, and who, in the name of liberalism, rejected all types of radical action.

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    1. Thanks, Cheyney, for your remarks. You are correct in your account of Rorty and Liberals (in one of the biographies of Rorty, I think he expresses irritation toward student activism that disrupted Princeton). Rorty’s evocation of liberalism overlooks much that is problematic with it. I recently read Counter-Revolution and Revolt by Herbert Marcuse and he presents a pretty damning critique of liberalism which made me cringe. Rorty gets beat up a lot for his position, but he would also be critical of Marcuse’s position. Rorty can be read as someone who tends his own garden because of a vast amount of privilege he has. But he is honest and upfront about it. What he does do well, and what Marcuse does well, is to argue well for their position–and thus to make it easier for us to justify our life choices and commitments. Rorty encourages us to play books off of each other to find different ways of being in the world. The world has more tools available in it because of people like Rorty and Marcuse, even if their lives were not perfect or if some of their ideas seem, in retrospect, a little off. The best of them inspire others, in this case Eliza Allen, to create this blog, to create a community space for more ideas to bump into each other. We need both activists and theorists, and Rorty would be the first to agree that, between the two, he would like to see more activists. He is correct. But we should not forget that Rorty was also a teacher. And while teachers can be theorists and activists that this not central to what they do. I speak as a teacher and as someone who tries to write theory and social criticism. I am not particularly good as an activist and I may not be particularly good with theory and criticism. I try my best. But when I die, I will die knowing I was a damn good teacher, convinced that I have made a difference in countless lives.Rorty was a teacher. He has touched my life in ways that no one else ever has (with the possible exception of Nietzsche). If it is a activist-pragmatist figure that we want, that would be Jane Addams. She gets beat up also for her liberalism if we want to call it that. It is not the label that matters, but how we each get others to respond to our life. I’m glad that Rorty lived, just as I am glad that Martin Luther King Jr. lived, and that all the BLM protesters live. I’m glad for the fact that we have something called a Leftist tradition in our country. While it is not perfect, it is something to build upon, and the tent is large enough for all sorts of doers and thinkers and caregivers and people who teach in all sorts of different ways.

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    2. Hi Cheyney. Thanks so much for your comments. I do think that pragmatism, by definition, is not radical. And reading Achieving Our Country, Rorty is clear in his praises and critiques of the Civic Rights Movement. I associate pragmatists more with the Progressive era in the beginning of the 20th century. I do think there are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches (pragmatic, reformist-style approach vs. radical, civil-rights style approach). (Though even in writing that I’m not sure how accurate it is to call the Civil Rights Era “radical”). Either way, ideally, I think we would utilize the strengths of both approaches and try to avoid their pitfalls as we work to define and redefine the Left in the 21st century.

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  3. Well said. For myself, the open-ended nature of the call to action surfaces thoughts of the pre-existing conditions to which the narrative speaks of – the destructive dichotomy of American democracy.

    “Maintain the status quo” or “strive for better”, each agenda with their own motives and subjective definitions of what “better” is. Although I haven’t determined the school of thought that my personal philosophy is compartmentalized to, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the two-party system and have for over a decade chosen not to identify with either. “Reaching across the aisle” seems almost counterproductive when striving for greater social outcomes as it is indicative of an inherent chasm. If we all bleed and feed, then the only thing that stratifies us is status, with political identity being the conduit to how an individual views their own status and role in the spectrum. Socio-economics lends itself to this stratifying effect, but at what point do we recognize and implement systems that tend to the “weakest link in the chain”? For if one link fails, the whole chain fails with it.

    Point being is that the challenge seems exclusive to liberals, although the failures are systemic and all-inclusive.

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    1. Alexandre, I like your point about the right also thinking that they are “making things better.” Contrary to what I wrote here, I think that’s often true. Perhaps those are the conservative arguments I am most open to hearing: we might disagree with what “better” means, but at least those conservatives are making an argument or taking a stand for change.

      This conversation is related to a blog post I do hope to write that I think, again, many leftists/liberals would disagree with…essentially the importance of hearing conservative arguments, particularly in intellectual/academic spaces, rather than “banning” or “cancelling” them (think Milo Yiannopoulos scheduled to speak at Berkeley). On the one hand, I think many conservative/anti-social justice ideas are dangerous. On the other hand, I think we might be causing more harm than good by trying to silence them.

      I haven’t quite worked through it all yet.

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      1. Good points and I don’t believe anybody has quite worked through it all yet. The argument I’m trying to make is that maybe we should start to work through it rather than continue to fight for one side or the other.

        From the The Times’s Interpreter column and Amanda Taub about the polarization of wearing PPE recently:

        Political identity in America has become so all-encompassing that anything can become a statement of political allegiance. “And if the other side likes something, then your side has to think it’s bad,”

        My stance is that rather than looking at it from a perspective of right vs left, maybe we should look forward. Food for thought.

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