by Christopher Paslay
Fighting for social justice, the 21st century term for “equality” or “civil rights,” is the hippest thing since wearing pink for breast cancer. Topped only by going green, promoting social justice has become the latest adopted cause of politicians, universities, educational researchers, and of course, the starry-eyed, idealistic school teachers fresh out of college.
Striving to level the playing field for the underprivileged in America is very commendable, but we must be careful how we go about doing so.
Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun who wrote When Things Fall Apart, explains, “True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”
This insight is incredibly profound.
Promoting social justice in the 21st century has a dualistic quality to it. The concept suggests that there are “haves” and “have-nots,” “free” and “oppressed,” “celebrated” and “marginalized”. Because of this, there is a built-in condescension, a polarizing effect between the giver and the receiver.
Last month, in a Philadelphia Weekly commentary, Teach For America transplant Brenden Beck explained why he was giving up teaching in the Philadelphia School District.
. . . I got into teaching to promote social justice, mad at the Jim Crow-sized injustice that gives our nation’s poorest students an education much inferior to their suburban peers. I hoped to listen to and learn from people who endured the poverty I’d read so much about in college. . . .
. . . Since my students were all black, I talked about whiteness. I used my own experiences as a point of departure for discussions about privilege. While reading a story about Haitian street children, we talked about how police treat black and white people differently. While reading a biography of Thurgood Marshall, we talked about the advantages most white people had growing up.
I hoped that I could offer my students insight about the ways to speak and write or the mathematics needed for college and jobs. But I found that those very same privileges prevented me from connecting with them.
Late one afternoon, many students had begun to ignore the lesson, talk to one another, and throw the work on the floor. Exasperated, I launched into a lecture about using education to go places, to have options. One of the kids, Shandra, a bright, talented student, said, “What’s wrong with it here in Germantown? Why do we need to ‘go places?’ Why don’t you go back to the suburbs?” I stared mutely at her, and mumbled something about me being there because of my belief in social justice.
In talking about my whiteness and advantages, I had ignored my students’ situation: I was casting their homes as an undesirable obstacle to be overcome. My students knew theirs wasn’t a “good” school, but it was theirs, and they weren’t sure why I was there. . . .
Brenden Beck’s revelations are very interesting, and very true; I suggest reading Beck’s whole commentary in the September 16th issue of Philadelphia Weekly. His writing is excellent, and his observations are right on the mark (you can do so by clicking here).
I think Beck’s experience teaching in Philadelphia can serve as a lesson for all those folks who wear their social justice buttons on their shirtsleeves. Just like Pema Chodron says, we don’t help people because we are better than they are, but because human beings share the same stuff.
This is the main reason why I’ve survived 13 years teaching in the Philadelphia School District. My students and I are the same. There’s no up here and down there, rich or poor, fixed and broken. I don’t teach from a place of guilt or idealism, or from a lofty privileged pedestal. When I look at my students I see me sitting in those desks.
In my opinion, this is a big reason why so many new teachers can’t hack it in large urban cities. Programmed by the divisive politics of many multicultural education courses, new teachers often view their students as “underprivileged” and “marginalized,” victims of an oppressive system. Riddled by guilt, they try to play the role of savior, and when they find out it’s not as easy as theorized in their college textbooks, they get discouraged and move on.
I am leery of trendy 21st century buzz words that come out of the mouths of the masses. Instead of fighting to promote social justice, politicians, researchers and public school teachers should simply fight to promote our humanness.