Based on conversations with seminary colleagues, friends, and family members, it seems that in discussing matters of social justice that there are three distinct parties. In the first group, there are those of us that say little when asked to respond to injustice, or don’t want to form an opinion because we just want to “keep the peace.” In the second group, there are those of us that consider ourselves social justice minded people, perceived as fierce and knowledgeable, but at times choose not to listen or engage in conversation unless it is in agreement with our point of view. In the third group, there are those of us somewhere in the middle, trying to figure out the best course of action to take to become more educated and aware. To see this dynamic live, you need to look no further than Facebook and Twitter, or even our own dinner tables.
There are two ways for these three parties to engage with each other. The first is by being vulnerable. In Brené Brown’s book, Daring to Lead, she says, “You can’t get to courage without rumbling with vulnerability. Embrace the suck” (Brown 10). While Brown’s context and goals are different from mine, and while she arrives at different conclusions, her advice about vulnerability is a good departure point. In conversations about social justice issues, we need to be open to the idea that when we think that we are at our best and decide to share our knowledge with others, we also need to have that same openness to being challenged or corrected. Once we are corrected, it also takes everything in us to resist becoming defensive. The defensiveness is our own reaction, not to something a person may have said, but to our own fears and worldviews that have been shattered or threatened. We want to run back and delete anything that may have been said, or walk away from the conversation angry, rather than think of things in a new way.
It is always significantly easier to talk about things as “issues”. When we discuss topics like “immigration issues,” “race issues,” or “gender issues,” it gives us the illusion that we are looking at things in a non-biased way, and that we are a safe, convenient distance away from looking through our personal lens, that is actually impossible not to see out of. We stop maintaining a sense of empathy that recognizes these “issues” as are our neighbors and ourselves. “Embracing the suck” and “rumbling with vulnerability” are about being okay with not knowing everything or not getting everything right, especially if you are a public figure under scrutiny (ahem, clergy). It is about being brave enough to take the first step and acknowledging our own privileges and assumptions and realizing that we might be wrong.
Melinda Gonzalez, a dear friend, Puerto Rican anthropologist and Ph.D. student, brought up on social media that only 5% of tenured faculty are Latinx. Still, she doesn’t feel safe with them since “they often act as gatekeepers and perpetuate the systems that have kept them in privilege.” The 5% of tenured professors in the U.S. are likely white Latinx people, and in her experience, almost every Latinx professor she ever had was white as well. She made it a point to say that “higher education is way less accessible to poor, Black, Indigenous, and Brown Latinx folx. Latinx is not a race, but an ethnicity often used to erase these identities with mythologies of racial mestizaje that ignore how white Latinos continue to oppress and perpetuate anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous sentiments and systems” (Gonzalez).
Melinda does a few things here: she challenges both the university as being a truly inclusive institution for people of color, and challenges the idea behind “Latinx,” what many perceive to be an already inclusive term for all Latin American/Hispanic people. Some reactions could be that of defensiveness by telling her that she has no proof or no statistics (even though her experience is valid). People could also try to police her language or accuse her of being racist against light-skinned Latinos. Instead, those same people can also choose to be further informed and challenged; they can realize that their “fixes” or “arrivals” at inclusivity and acceptance in the university can still be problematic and exclusive, which forces us to look at our own privilege and perceived notions of being light-skinned Latinx. If we can hear it as a critique that helps provoke new questions about what it takes for the university to make space for Indigenous, Brown or Black Latinx folx, then responses do not need to be denial, defensiveness and disengagement.
Melinda also demonstrates vulnerability in expressing and challenging the status quo. As Brené Brown does in her book, it’s important to distinguish between vulnerability and simply disclosing everything. We know confession is good for the soul, but it is not about trusting people that have not earned trust- as many of us know, that can often be not only humiliating but also dangerous, especially for those on the margins who are already predisposed to attacks by people that are in privileged positions. I will disagree with Brené Brown, for example, that the classroom is a “safe space” for people of color. However, the vulnerability of others and the examination of our own vulnerabilities gives way to provoking questions and new methodologies needed to approach injustices in our institutional systems.
The second way we need to engage with others is by being able to say, “I don’t know.” Simply saying you don’t know, when being challenged or critiqued, acknowledges the limitations of our social location, and it also expresses that the answer we think we have is based on limited information- and that is okay. Let’s make one thing clear: Ignorance, on its own, is not an evil thing; it is simply a state of not-knowing. Malcolm X once said, “Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.” After getting my M.Div at Drew Theological School, I realized that all the -isms we have grown used to were way more implicit and insidious within my formal education and upbringing than I had ever imagined. The admission of our ignorance, or not-knowing, makes a way for new information to come into play and allows for the growth of new respect and relationships with others to form.
If we are in the “woke” position, either by being informed from experience, or by reading the latest books that challenge institutional injustices, we cannot just jump down the throats of people that might be making ignorant statements by spouting off whole chapters of Ta-Nehesi Coates’ books. Not only is it a huge chasm for people to jump to an understanding, but we lose any chance of being engaged with the other, and it tends to become a one-sided battle of defending our stance and not being open to any mutual transformation. In that same vein, for those of us that might be on the receiving end of that, we must take responsibility for our own learning. While it is okay to ask someone to explain a general term or idea to you (ie: “What is mass incarceration?”) to ask a person of color to educate you on everything that you might have missed in the history of that specific oppression in the past 200+ years of the United States, is insulting and a privileged and presumptuous thing to do. It isn’t their responsibility to educate us or inform us. There are many symposiums, conventions, forums, community conversations, and recommended reading lists to help the average adult understand various social injustices. Examples of these, are Harvard University’s Open Learning Initiative, which is a way to take free courses on some of these subjects, or Drew University’s Tipple-Vosburgh lectures, which give all types of adult learners a way to explore things that are not typically considered part of a university course load. Many of these programs or lectures are either free or affordable, and available to all adult learners.
No matter where you find yourself in the ongoing, necessary discussion about our country’s treatment of “the other,” all of us are always in a state of learning and evolving. The only time we are ever really at fault, is if when confronted with the facts, we stay willingly and blissfully ignorant to the cries of those that are in need.
Janine Carambot Santoro is an Associate Chaplain at St. Luke’s University Hospital and a Library Technician at Bethlehem Area Public Library, in Bethlehem, PA. Janine received her B.A. in English and Psychology from Rutgers University (NJ) and her M.Div from Drew Theological School (NJ). Her recent research interests include public theology, Christian ethics, and pedagogies of healing. She currently enjoys reading, writing, traveling, and creating curriculum and workshops for sacred, (w)holistic work to be done in secular places.