What Is Critical Social Justice?

What Is Critical Social Justice?

Most people have a working definition of social justice; it is commonly understood as the principles of “fairness” and “equality” for all people and respect for their basic human rights. Most people would say that they value these principles. Yet seldom are the following questions discussed, and even less seldom are they agreed upon: What are those basic human rights? Have we already achieved them? If not, why not? How do we go about achieving them if we agree on what they are and why they haven’t yet been achieved? From whose perspective is something fair and equitable? Might something be fair for one person while actually having an unfair outcome for another? What does respect actually mean in practice? While some say it is to treat others as we would like to be treated,


some say that it is to treat others as they would like to be treated. Thus the definition itself is our first challenge.

The second challenge surfaces when we consider what it means to practice social justice. Generally, because most people see themselves as valuing social justice, most people also see themselves as acting justly in their lives. In response to questions about how they practice social justice, many would say that they treat everyone the same without regard to differences; because they do this, their actions are aligned with their values.

While these ways of conceptualizing social justice are very common, we see them as woefully inadequate. Indeed, a great deal of scholarship in social justice studies is focused on the gap between the ideals of social justice and the practices of social justice.

To clarify our definition, let’s start with the concept social justice. While some scholars and activists prefer to use the term social justice in order to reclaim its true commitments, in this book we prefer the term critical social justice. We do so in order to distinguish our standpoint on social justice from mainstream standpoints. A critical approach to social justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e., divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this.

The definition we apply is rooted in a critical theoretical approach. While this approach refers to a broad range of fields, there are some important shared principles:

All people are individuals, but they are also members of social groups. These social groups are valued unequally in society. Social groups that are valued more highly have greater access to the resources of a society. Social injustice is real, exists today, and results in unequal access to resources between groups of people. Those who claim to be for social justice must be engaged in self- reflection about their own socialization into these groups (their “positionality”) and must strategically act from that awareness in ways that challenge social injustice. This action requires a commitment to an ongoing and lifelong process.


Based on these principles, a person engaged in critical social justice practice must be able to:

Recognize that relations of unequal social power are constantly being enacted at both the micro (individual) and macro (structural) levels. Understand our own positions within these relations of unequal power. Think critically about knowledge; what we know and how we know it. Act on all of the above in service of a more socially just society

Our goal in writing this book is to deepen our readers’ understanding of the complexity of social justice and inspire readers to actively engage in critical social justice practice. We call this blend of understanding and action critical social justice literacy.

Chapter Summaries

We have brought together key concepts necessary for beginning to develop critical social justice literacy. Drawing on examples from Canada and the United States, the chapters are intended to be accessible to both Canadian and U.S. readers. We provide many familiar examples and have kept in- text citations to a minimum. We open each chapter with a quote that captures a familiar misconception that the chapter will address. The chapters are written to be building blocks; because each chapter builds upon the previous, they are best read in sequence. The issues are complex, political, and often emotionally charged, and if readers have difficulty understanding a key idea from one chapter, they may have difficulty carrying the idea forward into the next. For these reasons, the book has the following features:

Definition Boxes in which we define key terms. Stop Boxes to serve as reminders of key ideas from previous chapters and to help with difficult or challenging concepts. Perspective Check Boxes to draw attention to alternative standpoints on examples used in the text. Discussion Questions and Extension Activities for those who are using the book in a class, workshop, or study group. Patterns related to specific dynamics of oppression and how to practice recognizing them. A Glossary of terms used in the book and guide to language use.

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