I find one of the most daunting things with doing diversity/social justice work is the pressure to not mess up. The work centers on being able to create inclusive environments for different communities and teaching others to do the same. This means educating ourselves on theories, policies, and trends and becoming ‘experts’ on that information. Often we get tested, disagreed with, and outright challenged. Equipped with our air-tight suit of armor we head into numerous battles determined to camouflage our weakness and present an unmoving force of righteousness.
But what I have learned in my now 8 years in the field is that I mess up. I suck actually. I know that sounds radical, but let me break it down a little more. I know my sucky-ness isn’t constant but I do know that I am not perfect. I find that when we do social justice work it becomes easy to get a big head. We think we are doing great educating and are able to articulate to others the process of identity, oppression, power and intersectionality; which is much needed work. However, I’ve seen this turn into this elitism that perpetuates this ‘I can do no wrong’ attitude. But we can offend, too. And really there can be some equal opportunity offending. Once I recognized this, the easier it was for me to be okay with my mess-ups.
Messing up is natural really. If I have trouble understanding all the complexity of my multiple identities, how could I completely understand the complexity of others? In essence then, there is going to be something I don’t “get” and probably don’t even know is out there in the first place. That’s the epitome of privilege, not knowing what you don’t know. Admitting your privilege is always tough no matter how or why you do it. However, I have found there’s this struggle to do so in the field of social justice. Well, at least admit it publicly, because we want to present this idea that we can get it too. It’s like there is this imaginary scale of social justice supremacy that we are trying to progress along. On this scale, those who educate on the issues have reached the space that others should aspire to. If we admit that we aren’t as far along that scale as others believe we are, we think the world as we know it will come to an end.
I believe when we admit our privilege, that we don’t really ‘get’ it, we not only provide the space for others to do the same, but we truly support targeted identities as well. At times when I have shared my story and my sharing was met with “explain-it-away syndrome” or the proverbial ‘you’re being too sensitive’ comment, all I really wanted to hear was “I don’t understand, I’ve never had to experience that, thank you for sharing.” In those moments of vulnerability, admitting your privilege in ‘not knowing’ provides support that speaks volumes.
The real challenge comes in how we chose to respond in times where we offend. Responding with a simple ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t enough. We must commit to really hearing how we were offensive and how we impacted that person. Then acknowledge that we didn’t understand, and communicate our commitment to continue learning. Lastly, we must follow through with that commitment. That, too, is part of the real work of social justice educators. We are both the teachers and the learners. Just like our work is never done, nor can be our continued growth in understanding others.
Cherjanét Lenzy has worked as the Director of Diversity Affairs at Allegheny College, and most recently served as the Living Learning Coordinator for Intercultural Competency and Diversity with Semester at Sea.