On Monday, I lead three rotational sessions about journalism and black feminism at the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Justice Research Institute. The classroom is made up of notably progressive 15- and 16-year-olds who have words like cisgendered already in their lexicon. At the top of the sessions as a means of introduction, I asked each aspiring social justice practitioner to say their name, their age, and to identify at least one way that they were privileged.
It was an impressive mix of students, some of whom are from far-off places such as Greece or China. Each of them could identify the clear privilege that they’d had in common — an opportunity to spend the summer studying at one of the nation’s foremost Ivies — but as individuals there was some variation in the things they said. Gender privilege. Sexual orientation privilege. Economic privilege. The privilege that comes from having a supportive family. And of course, race.
“Do you feel guilty about it?” I asked one student whose face was turning red as words stumbled out of her mouth, trying to find the right way to land.
“Being white,” I said, curious. She was describing a scene where she was the only white person in a Boston-area McDonald’s, a place where she came with a friend of hers, who, like the rest of the people there, was black. It was her first time, she said, that she’d ever been “the only white person in the room,” and she was trying to reconcile her emotions in the moment.
“Yeah, I do,” she said, with some relief that she could admit to it. There were others that had admitted during the day that their White Privilege made them uncomfortable.
“You don’t have to feel bad about being white,” I said, trying to draw the line between compassion and self-pity. “No one’s asking you for that.”
It was good to be able to identify the squeamishness some students had with their whiteness as it dotted many of our conversations. But in areas of social justice, for the good of progressiveness in the public policies designed to serve the greater good, it’s important to learn how to have difficult conversations. To explore and unpack the discomforts people experience when pushed beyond their usual frame of reference.
In the company of teenagers yesterday, I was asked many fearless questions, most of them oriented around my experience as a black female writer. Or a black female citizen. Or a woman living in the world. Of course, the classroom generally provides a safe space for that type of understanding (or at least it should.) But how can we make the academic practical? How can we effectively (and inoffensively) learn things about other people? How does social justice become normalized?
Social justice work, whether at the field level or done from behind a byline, is about one’s ability to promote “good” to the masses. It starts, really, about effective communication and actions between two individuals. Yesterday, one student asked, “There aren’t a very many people of color at my school; how can I have conversations about race?”
“Do white people have a race?” I posed.
“Well, yeah.” she said.
“So then why can’t you have a conversation about race without people of color being present?” She paused for a beat.
“Race is not strictly an issue that concerns people of color, any more than ‘gender issues’ belong exclusively to women. You can have these conversations. Challenge your peers. Become a student of the information you’re seeking by reading different things.”
She mulled over it. I saw others taking notes and nodding their heads. One girl chimed in with enthusiasm, eager to expand on the point. Yesterday was the tip of an iceberg in the series of difficult conversations they’ll have throughout their lives. Conversations that happen in college. And uncomfortably at office water coolers, or sometimes, inappropriately at job interviews, which once happened to me.
These young people may never ever pursue formal careers in social justice. But for three hours, a room of students from different backgrounds sat in a room and learned to talk about what makes them uncomfortable; without conflict or judgment, and with open ears. I was happy to facilitate that discussion, as someone did for me when “teen” still suffixed my age, and hope that they continue the private work of social justice by carrying it forward.
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