Form Is Important: Facilitating Conversations on Social Justice

By Zach B.

We see outrage about the current state of our world all the time. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re someone who’s been upset by a number of recent events and wants to see change take place. Everyone has their own way of expressing how upset they are, and everyone does different things to voice their anger or concern. I’m usually not one to police how people pursue catharsis: it doesn’t feel like my place and everybody needs to get their emotions out. However, as of the past few years, I have grown worried about the way that those of us who have more privilege go about processing social injustice and possibly avoid using privilege to help the cause.

With greater awareness of social justice comes more of a desire to have a conversation, a dialogue, a chat, whatever you want to call it. We want to try and explain our points of view to those who might not see the damage that’s being created by things like police brutality, limited abortion access, or strict immigration policy. It all sounds great. It’s all easier said than done. There are many times where we feel we can’t have certain conversations with family members because of their lack of ability to empathize or care for our situations. A lot of us have racist, sexist, and homophobic relatives. A lot of us need to protect ourselves and avoid hurtful interactions that we’re all too familiar with. That’s all reasonable, we all need a little self-protection. What concerns me is when I see people not even trying to have a discussion or getting frustrated with others before they’ve even done anything offensive.

To give an example: Whenever there’s a headline about somebody doing something racist, I’ve heard a lot of other white people say “fuck white people.” Instead of trying to talk to members of their own communities and explain to them why Black Lives Matter is important, or why racism is still a problem in 2019, they take the stance of being too good for that conversation, because they’re one of the “good whites.” This same situation can apply to feminist allies, LGBT allies, etc. I feel like I see a lot of people not making the effort to have discussions because they don’t know how and want to believe themselves to be superior, but they pass it off as if whoever they might be talking to is just unreasonable. That is the case sometimes, but I’ve seen plenty of people, including myself, jump the gun and get angry before their conservative grandma even says anything.

I think we often want to perfectly regurgitate every eloquent, supporting argument that we’ve read on the internet and replicate that eloquence in person. Sometimes, when we can’t articulate ourselves as well or when our arguments aren’t immediately accepted as fact, we get frustrated. Life is not about being right, but we all like to be. We all want to be the most informed, have the greatest insight, dot our I’s and cross our T’s and be the least problematic. We especially feel this way when we know we’re allies to a certain community and are very capable of being oppressive if we’re not careful. Not only do we want to do a “good job” of explaining why our perspectives are valid and important, but we may feel the need to prove to ourselves that we’re not as bad as the people we’re talking to.

Very recently, I found out that feeling superior to others releases serotonin in the brain, which makes us feel good and socially important. So many people pat themselves on the back for fitting into elitist academic culture, or having the right thing to say in discussions, and it’s safe to say that this translates to dinner table conversations with family members. These discussions are important because we need to use the privilege we have to change the minds of people who might not understand the real impacts of their problematic views. However, sometimes we engage in these discussions to make ourselves feel superior and aren’t tactful in how we speak. There’s a part of us that might not care about helping others, we just want to feel right. While no one wants to admit that to themselves, it might go a long way if we do.

I can have a conversation with a relative and hear them say some pretty messed up, cringe-worthy things that make me upset. However, they’re usually not things that pertain to me personally. If they’re saying something racist, I can be mad, but it’s not so personal to the point of where it touches me and my individual existence. I can feel frustrated, but I think I also have the capacity to drudge through the conversation if it bears the possibility of getting them to understand why their behavior isn’t okay. It’s very different for someone who’s commonly the target of racism and is being told that their existence isn’t important. The vulnerability and risk of trauma are so much greater. Having the conversation itself is a start, and I would never encourage anyone to avoid the dialogue. However, we have to be careful not to jump into rage mode and lose the opportunity to play a small role in societal change. It usually discourages anyone from following what you have to say, it’s hurtful, and you feel like an ass after the fact.

I will also note that there is a point where we need to stop wasting our divine energy to make ourselves understood by those who are committed to not understanding us. There are some situations that are set up to only end in dismay. However, it’s important to get better at detecting whether or not this is the case. It’s understandable to have emotional ties to certain issues, but sometimes the emotion is just anger and frustration at not having your argument immediately accepted. I often have to remind myself that being able to have these conversations is a privilege in and of itself, and throwing that opportunity away in order to boost my ego isn’t something our society can afford. The sooner we can put self-importance aside and get better at having exchanges to make an impact, the better it’ll be for the groups of people that we say we want to help.