A recent conversation with some colleagues confirmed a theory I’d been floating around about how people interpret the potential consequences of engaging in social justice work. For so many people with multiple privileged identities (any combination of White, male, cis-gender, heterosexual, able body, middle class or higher, Christian, etc.), even saying the words social justice is perceived as threatening. So engaging in social justice work, what Goodman and colleagues define as “professional action designed to change societal values, structures, policies and practices, such that disadvantaged or marginalized groups gain increased access to tools of self-determination,” makes the perceived threat increases exponentially.
But what is really at risk? The problem is that when you’re privileged in multiple ways, you begin to mistake your luxuries for your life. You begin to think that some of the stuff that people have died for shouldn’t really have to cost you anything. Speaking as a woman with privileged and marginalized intersecting identities, I have to check myself on this everyday. From my position as a Black woman from a working class background, I observe so many White people (men and women) and wealthy people (of all racial backgrounds) act out of fear. Let me just say this:
Most of us feel fear, but all of us can choose courage.
Courage is a choice.
The three levels at which people often feel threatened are life, livelihood, and luxury. More often than not, I’m seeing people name their threat of losing luxuries as the reason they didn’t choose courage.
Life threats are understandably terrifying. You say or do something, and someone may kill you. You have threats on your life because of the type of activism you do. Someone has threatened to harm you or your loved ones. People who are involved in social justice work do actually face these. Often they are people who have multiple marginalized identities, and some of them still choose courage. They are willing to die for justice. Or, they have already been killed.
Livelihood threats are based on threats to your ability to provide financial resources for yourself or your family. Saying something to your boss about the way they treat undocumented immigrant workers may result in hours being cut back or being fired. The type of advocacy or activism you do outside of work may limit your ability to advance or gain promotion. People who are involved in social justice work actually do face these threats as well. Often they are people who have multiple marginalized identities, because they are perceived to lack the social capital and resources to fight back with litigation or other consequences. And, some of them still choose courage. They are willing to lose their jobs for justice. Or, they have already been fired.
Luxury threats are related to increased discomfort in ways you’ve grown used to. Saying something to your friend or family member about their racist Facebook post may get you uninvited to the next brunch. The type of advocacy or activism you do may mean that your colleagues talk behind your back and give you dirty looks when you enter the room. People passive-aggressively try to discredit what you say or do. You don’t get to be number one anymore. People who are involved in social justice work actually do face these threats, but when you equate them with life and livelihood threats you effectively miss the point. Courage ain’t comfortable, but you’re not unsafe. People with both privileged and marginalized identities experience these threats, and some of them still choose courage. They are willing to lose some comfort for justice. They may have lost some friends or important networks.
I am intentional about using the word “often” instead of “always” in this post, because “always” rarely applies. But, it’s time for all of us with privileged identities to sit with what actually feels threatened when we shrink from undertaking social justice action. Is it life, livelihood, or luxury, and what is the line for you?