An Open Letter to Students
Courses that address social justice and inequality through a critical lens often challenge mainstream understandings and thus bring to the surface patterns and tensions that other courses do not (Gallavan, 2000; Kincheloe, 2008). This is due, primarily, to two key reasons:
The first is that many of us are underprepared to engage in the course content in scholarly ways. Basic study habits, reading comprehension, writing skills, vocabulary, and critical thinking are often underdeveloped in college students. Ironically, much of this is due to structural inequalities that courses like these try to address. For example, political and economic pressures on schools to focus on standardized testing have resulted in moves away from intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and engagement with ambiguity and toward creating conforming and compliant students who can memorize the “one right answer” to pass the test. Differences in the kinds of schooling we receive and the differential futures they prepare us for are based on structural inequalities related to our race, class, gender, and other social locations. These differentials affect our preparation for college and university-level engagement and are examples of the kind of inequalities that social justice–oriented courses address. The ultimate goal of social justice education is to enable us to recognize structural
inequalities in ways that prepare us to change them. However, the sociopolitical context of schooling makes critical engagement challenging for many students, and this challenge is heightened when the topics under study are politically and emotionally charged.
This leads to the second reason that courses that address social justice and inequality bring to the surface patterns and tensions that other courses do not: most of us have very strong feelings and opinions about the topics examined in social justice courses (such as racism, sexism, and homophobia). These opinions often surface through claims such as:
“People should be judged by what they do, not the color of their skin”
“I accept people for who they are” “I see people as individuals” “It’s focusing on difference that divides us” “My parents taught me that all people are equal” “I always treat everyone the same” “I’ve been discriminated against so I don’t have any privilege” “Our generation is more open-minded” “I have friends from all races and we are all fine with each other” “I don’t think race and gender make any difference—as long as you
work hard” “It’s White males who are the minority now” “Women are just as sexist as men”
While these opinions are deeply held and appear to be commonsense truth (and not opinion at all), they are predictable, simplistic, and misinformed, given the large body of research examining social relations. Yet, the relentless repetition of these ideas in the mainstream makes them seem true, and allows us to form strongly held opinions without being particularly educated on the issues. Indeed, where we are members of dominant groups (e.g., if we are male, White, cisgender, able-bodied), we will almost certainly have a superficial understanding because that is the primary message made available to us through mainstream society. Where we are members of minoritized groups (e.g., if we are women, Peoples of Color, transgender, People with disabilities), we may have a deeper personal understanding of social inequality and how it works, but may not have the scholarly language to discuss it in an academic context.
Further, it is a rare individual who is dominant in all key social groups, or conversely is minoritized in all key social groups. Yet messages that circulate in mainstream society do not prepare most of us to conceptualize
or develop the language to discuss our intersecting identities in any depth. Take for example the intersection of race and class and consider a White woman who lives in poverty. While she will face many class barriers, she will not face racism. Yet a poor White woman—while not facing racism— will face barriers related to her gender—sexism—that a poor White man will not. For example, she will be more likely to be held responsible for the care of her children, she will be more likely to earn less than a man, and she will be more at risk for male violence, all of which increase the burden of poverty. Yet mainstream culture tends to present poverty as if there is a collective and shared experience of “the poor.”
Without practice and study beyond what we absorb in our daily living, we are ill prepared to understand social group injustices. Therefore, our perspectives on issues like poverty and social inequality are necessarily lacking—and especially so if we ourselves are not poor. These perspectives include the idea that if we don’t believe in social inequality, then we don’t participate in it. Mainstream culture prevents us from understanding a central tenet of social justice education: Society is structured in ways that make us all complicit in systems of inequality; there is no neutral ground. Thus an effective critical social justice course will unsettle mainstream perspectives and institutional discourses, challenge our views about ourselves, what we think we know about society, how it works, and our place in it.
Unfortunately when we are new to the examination of social relations, we only know one way to respond to ideas studied in the course: “If the professor is saying that I participate in systems of injustice (such as racism), they are saying that I am a bad person (a racist).” Later, we should come to understand that this is not what our professors are saying, and that binary ways of conceptualizing these issues (good/bad, racist/not-racist) are part of what prevents us from seeing them.
In sum, the combination of underdeveloped academic skills, difficult theoretical concepts, and highly charged political content that is absent of complex analysis in mainstream culture, all of which is embedded within an institutional context that is structured to reproduce inequality, can make these courses challenging. Yet basing our knowledge on such sources as personal opinions, self-concepts, anecdotal evidence, hearsay, intuition, family teachings, popular platitudes, limited relationships, personal experiences, exceptions, and mainstream media is insufficient for understanding and responding constructively to social injustice.
Therefore, to maximize your learning of social justice content, we offer the following guidelines: