When we think of social justice and activism, most people would think of things like petitions, protests, lawsuits, calls to representatives, empowering speeches, conferences, research, legislation, publicity stunts—because these are the current conventional forms of activism. We owe much of our societal progress to the activists that have used these tools for decades to affect change.
These tools also have something in common: They target financial and institutional positions of power to enable a large range of impact. A single piece of legislation can impact the lives of millions of people for years to come, so it’s logical to focus on influencing the people who have enough financial and institutional power to bring such legislation into fruition. One action from an elected official will have far more effect on the systems that make up our society than ten actions by an individual citizen will.
But I have found that whenever I attempt these traditional forms of activism, all I can think about is how far away I am from the center of it all, how little control I have over what happens. There are plenty of activists that do get to the center, but in order to be “in the room where it happens” many of these activists risk their lives or safety, travel frequently so they can be wherever they are needed most, work 60-hour weeks, forego food/rest, and rely on other forms of physical stamina, all for their cause. Their endeavors are incredibly noble, and my chronically ill and disabled body was not built to fill that role.
What, then, should you do if being too far away incites helplessness, and being too close is costly to your livelihood to an untenable degree?
My solution is to focus on the “social” half of “social justice.” Let’s run through SJW 101 real fast.
Putting the Social in Social Justice
If you take five samples at the deli counter and the deli worker glares at you, to avoid that awful feeling of judgment, you’re likely to only take one sample next time. If you bring home a report card of all A’s and your parents are ecstatic, you’re more likely to continue prioritizing the acquisition of high grades so that you can feel that excitement about your achievement again. If wearing a shirt with a loud color scheme in public makes you nervous but you receive no discernible reaction from other people when you leave the house, you’re likely to feel assured that your color-choices for clothing are not worthy of any anxiety.
Do you have a weird habit that you picked up from your parents? Are you ashamed to cry in public because of how someone reacted to you doing that when you were little? Did you leave a toxic job situation but then found that anytime your new boss called your name, you were filled with dread? We already know that how you interact with other people, how you behave in public, even how you respond to your own needs and desires, is heavily influenced by how other people have reacted to these behaviors. This phenomenon is called socialization: the process of learning ideas about how a person like you should or shouldn’t behave, act, dress, think, feel, and aspire to be, through social interactions.
Our strongest influencers are often the people in our lives who have more power than we do; teachers, parents, employers, role models etc, but power doesn’t just come from authority or fame, and that’s where social justice comes in. How much relative power we have is closely tied to our gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, financial status, physical and cognitive ability, and body type. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
The traits I listed above are used as focal points for oppression if we happen to be anything other than what society considers “default”: male, white, christian, heterosexual, cisgender, financially stable, physically healthy, able, and thin. We can see the consequences of these societal expectations in high homelessness and suicide rates in LGBTQ teens, disproportionate incarceration rates and more severe sentencing for people of color, severe poverty among disabled populations, and heartbreakingly high frequency of sexual harassment, assault, and physical abuse of women. Our culture teaches us that these tragedies are a result of personal weakness or a lack of effort towards resolving their own struggles but they are actually signs of people who have had their power stolen from them.
If, however, you are among the default, your increased power not only means you’re likely to avoid the obstacles listed above entirely but it also comes with an increased number of choices available to you, less resistance to getting what you want, a greater ability to bounce back from consequences, more connections to other people with power, and a higher likelihood that your word will be trusted over a person with less power. This, in very brief terms, is a summary of what it means to have privilege.
Change Starts With You
The exciting news about privilege, power, and socialization is that just as there have been thousands of people that have shaped you through social responses to your actions, you are also shaping and influencing the people in your life.
The actions you choose to perform are an indicator of what kind of world you want to normalize. You can lead by example, speak up in the face of injustice, disconnect from toxic influences, encourage and celebrate progression, resist regression. You can validate, reject, inspire, undermine, or uplift. Humans are by and large social creatures. We are motivated to attain connection and acceptance from other people and as a result, just a simple smile or frown is enough to influence someone else’s actions down the road.
It is this superpower that I use as my primary “weapon” against social injustice. The practice of being intentional about what behaviors I socially reward or reject according to the change that I want to see is a power that I have at my fingertips every day.
Each person has a complicated blend of privileges and sources of oppression. The complex manner in which those benefits and obstacles interact and compound on one another in your life is known as intersectionality. But no matter what your line up is, you can identify the aspects of your life that afford you more choice, more flexibility, more recourse, and use your increased power to give your influence over others, greater impact.
Add social media to the mix and an action that previously could only be seen by a dozen people at most can now be broadcast to thousands of people, if not millions. Every time you comment, share, like, you aren’t just sharing your thoughts with your friends, you are shouting your message into a megaphone. The more power you have, the louder that megaphone will be, the more people will hear you.
Identify and Utilize Existing Social Patterns
Most of the time, our involvement in the socialization of other people is unconscious. Just as our level of power is determined by traits like gender and race that are outside of our control, how we are socialized is influenced by these traits too. Without the intention of doing so, we socialize women to be emotionally accessible and caring, while we encourage men to be assertive and stoic. Our culture teaches people of color to be obedient, LGBTQ people to hide their true selves, poor people to deny themselves basic pleasures, mentally ill people to suffer silently, and disabled people to ignore their own basic needs. If you’re not sure where to point your socialization powers, pushing back on the default roles we’re all squished into arbitrarily, and celebrating behaviors that defy those roles, is a great place to start.
But, keep in mind that a side effect of privilege is that you’re less likely to be aware of the depth and nuance of oppression- based problems if you’re even aware of them at all, which can put you at a disadvantage when trying to support marginalized groups you’re not part of. I’m white, cisgender, financially stable, and relatively thin, but the fact that I’m also a woman, bisexual, disabled, mentally ill, and used to be poor, means that I’m in an excellent position to both understand the needs of marginalized groupsand use the resources I have to effectively support them. I use my experience associated with my marginalization to help me understand other sources of marginalization I don’t face.
What Change Will You Spark in Others?
The catch to using this magic tool is that the majority of the time, you won’t know exactly what kind of impact you had on people. While a hundred people will notice your actions, only one will tell you. I devoted months to my work as a blogger, feeling as if I were shouting into the void, but then people that I rarely interacted with began approaching me in person to thank me for my work and express the degree to which my writing had influenced them, and I was surprised every time.
Do you remember a time when you were a child and an adult in your life changed something in you for the rest of your life? Maybe they were the only person who believed in your ability to achieve your dreams. Maybe they taught you kindness and compassion towards the people you found difficult to forgive. Maybe they saw you for who you were and reflected you as good and valuable when no one else had before. Even just a small word of encouragement can be important enough to us at that age that we remember it for decades. That person that helped you probably has no idea that they affected you so much, even if that impact lasted a lifetime. What if you could be that person for someone else?
What if you could be that person for dozens of people? Or hundreds? Imagine the reverberations of your actions throughout the world as each of those people carry that change with them through life.
Our boots-on-the-ground activists know that leaders and authorities have infinitely more power over institutional change than we do as citizens and so they seek to change the course for our country and our planet by finding the steering wheel. A leader’s decision can impact the lives of millions of people, but with your socialization powers, you can participate in the slow evolution of large scale change, enabling a society that collectively makes the kind of change you want to see, creating the activists and leaders and innovators that we need in order to achieve our goals for the planet. Your superpower is available to you whenever you choose to use it.
© 2019, Kella Hanna-Wayne