No matter where you call home in the United States, you likely have an opinion about what to call this sugary, fizzy beverage.
When it comes to pop or soda or whatever you call it, we are generally talking about the same stuff – flavored sugar syrup mixed with carbonated water. Our different cultural understandings, however, greatly influence the language we use to describe that stuff.
The words we use say something about who we are and how our experiences have shaped our view of the world. I am adamant about using the word “pop” because it reflects my midwestern roots and I am proud of that culture.
There is a nuance that gets lost if I ignore my complex understanding of culture and how the word for “pop” reflects this distinction. And so, we have different words describing the same soda-y stuff, but representing much larger cultural and geographical significance.
I believe there are some parallels to be drawn here to the language we use to describe social justice.
Over the years the words we’ve used to describe it are different. Civil Rights in the 50’s and 60’s. Diversity in the 70’s and 80’s. Multiculturalism and Cultural Competence in the 90’s. Now, we hear language like Inclusion or Social Justice. What’s the difference between these terms? Does it even matter what we call it, as long as people know what we mean?
On the surface, it may seem like they are all just different words for the same thing – semantics, really. But the more you dig into these terms and the ideas they represent, the more you begin to understand that they do have significant differences.
For those who are not social justice educators, it may seem like the evolution of terms is merely substituting old words for new ones. But for those who are immersed in the work of dismantling systems of privilege and oppression, there are clear differences between things like diversity, cultural competence, and inclusion.
The main distinction between these terms and the idea of social justice is the acknowledgement of social inequality. Instead of merely addressing social or cultural differences and advocating for the appreciation of that diversity, social justice seeks to address the unequal distribution of power and resources in society.
As a White cis-gender man working toward equity, this is a crucial distinction. The unearned privileges that I benefit from on a daily basis have made my journey far different from those who have to navigate systemic racism, sexism, and heterosexism. More than just acknowledging differences, facing my privileges through social justice has made me realize the immense responsibility I have to interrupt oppression, both on an individual and institutional level. While I may not be responsible for creating these systems, I am responsible for allowing them to continue and I believe those with privilege need to be the first to take action.
Certainly concepts like diversity and multiculturalism are important in social justice work. Understanding differences related to things like race, gender, and class provide some context to the stories of those who experience prejudice and discrimination. Social justice goes a step further, however, and seeks to uncover how those people came to be oppressed and what can be done to stop it from continuing.
Adams, Bell and Griffin define social justice as both a process and a goal. “The goal of social justice education is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society that is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.”
There is nuance that gets lost when we ignore the complex understanding of power, privilege and oppression.
Just talking about diversity or inclusion is positive and can result in developmental reflection for individuals and groups. But if we want to truly put an end to bias, hate, and discrimination, we have to do more.
I like “pop” and for me that means having pride in my midwestern roots.
I also like “social justice” and for me that means going beyond the conversation of diversity to address the real injustices that plague our society, the systems that reinforce those injustices, and how we all can take action so that everyone is treated fairly.