Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

Authentic Social Justice, Part One

Author: Sam Bass

When I was first working on a series to contribute to Soundings it was about the intersection of pop culture and social justice. I had a lot of thoughts about the topic, but as I wrote them down I thought, “Other people could say this better than I can. I’m not an expert on this.” While perfect expertise is impossible, particularly in a social justice context, I thought about what I was qualified to speak on: my own experience. I thought about the role authenticity and vulnerability have played in my career thus far and how they have allowed me to have sincere conversations that went beyond lip service to social justice.

I think it is crucial to position oneself culturally before entering conversations like this, since it informs the perspective I am about to share: I am a white, middle class, gay man with a Masters level education (and a bit of mental illness thrown in for good measure). Also worth noting is that I am not well read on the popular literature regarding vulnerability; I’ve maybe seen one or two Brené Brown videos. Rather, most of this series will be informed by the lessons I’ve learned as a professional, a student, a therapy frequenter, and a flawed person trying to engage in social justice work.

It is relatively common knowledge at this point that a white person can study critical race theory, do research, or read testimonials of people of color, but it will never provide a true understanding of the lived experience. We can discuss how race has been constructed historically, we can understand how systems perpetuate racism, but we will never fully know what racial oppression is like. In the same way––and much less frequently discussed––a person of color can study critical race theory or analyze how whiteness operates systemically, but they will never fully know what the lived experience of white people is like. That is why we need to be vulnerable about it, because too often our authenticity is filtered through guilt, fear, shame, or self-righteousness. We need to be “ugly” about our experiences. While I am going to center this first entry of my series around race, it is crucial to understand that this call for “ugliness” applies to all aspects of our personhood. For the sake of clarity and concision in this post, however, I feel that my experience with authentic social justice in a racial context has yielded the most noteworthy examples.

Full honesty in our privileged experience is more important than ever, particularly in our Housing and Residence Life roles. Just recently a white student at Yale called police on a black student because she fell asleep in a residence hall common space, stating she was “somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be.” (see also: black men at Starbucks or indigenous students on college tours). We need to be honest with our colleagues, our students, and ourselves if we wish to fight this narrative of the “suspicious person of color,” because we can too easily contribute to it ourselves.

One of the most powerful moments of my first professional year also serves as a relevant anecdote. After one of our social justice sessions for our Fall RA training I had a staff member (a white male) ask to meet individually to further discuss some concepts he was struggling to understand. During this conversation he described how he “does not see color.” Of course he meant this in the well-intentioned way that says, “I respect everyone, no matter their race.” Still, I simply told him, “You do see race, though.” I then shared a story about a time I went into a gas station, and right after me there was a black man wearing a hoodie with baggy pants. I told my RA that because of this man’s race and appearance I had an initial fear; I held my breath and watched him more closely than the other people in the store. I explained how I had to “check myself” and say, “Damn, I was really racist just now.” Lo and behold, the man was just getting a snack like I was. I was actively experiencing the racism that has led to so much violence against black people.

After this story, my RA said, “Yeah, I’ve had moments like that, too.” With that realization, he quickly moved from “I don’t see race” to acknowledging his whiteness. Later in the semester he had an incredibly educative moment with a white resident who thought everyone should be able to say the “n-word.” The RA called out the initial behavior in the moment, and then had a follow up conversation with the resident, where it became apparent that he had never had such a conversation about race, yet alone been called out for something.

By being honest about my racism, my RA was given “permission” by a fellow white person to express something we are never supposed to admit. He was able to acknowledge out-loud that he has had racist thoughts, words, and actions. He was then able to interrupt another moment of racism with his resident. White people will never be able to be authentically anti-racist until we accept that we are racist, but that takes a significant amount of emotional work, and a space to openly admit these feelings. White Housing and Res Life professionals have unique power and opportunity to give that space to our students.

We also need to do this with ourselves. I find that many of us as professionals are able to identify racial dynamics and the ways in which it manifests in our institutions. I also find, however, that we give ourselves enough of an “out” to avoid the next step of self-reflection. For example, we are often quick to observe, “This is such a white school.” I have heard this at literally every institution I’ve worked at or attended. It’s an important and valid observation. We bemoan the fact that higher education is still a system that privileges whiteness, but we typically say this while scanning the room, looking at all the whiteness that isn’t ours. I have never once heard a conversation that takes the next step: What does it mean to be white with a seat at the table? With a finite number of seats at the table, how do we reconcile our own need to be employed and our professional goals with the fact that we are contributing to the disproportionate whiteness we supposedly hate? I am by no means able to provide an answer to these impossible questions, but I want to bring them up since I think it’s crucial for us to self-reflect when we discuss race on our campuses.

We will not be able to serve our students or campuses until we come to terms with all the ugliness of social justice. This honesty will allow us to move beyond the hollowness of our buzzwords, where even now I worry that I’m saying nothing when I talk about social justice, diversity, or inclusion. We must use honesty and authenticity to reach this point, and be okay with the fact that we won’t always look “good.” It will be “ugly” no matter the subject, be it race, gender, sexuality, ability, and so on, but our students need us to do dive fully into this work with all the brutal honesty we can muster.

As my series continues I will explore more specifically the role emotions play into our social justice work, and later on I will discuss the joys that can come from authentic social justice work. (Those will also be much more concise, I promise). It is my hope that this will be a helpful series that motivates rather than discourages; that I provide helpful examples rather than present a false idea that I have it all “figured out.” Part of fulfilling these hopes is conversation with others, so though this series is still ongoing, please feel free to reach out. Until next time, stay safe, content, and honest.

Sam Bass is a Residence Director at Gonzaga University. He received his BA in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of Northern Iowa and his Master of Science in Education from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. The best way to contact him is by email at bass@gonzaga.edu.

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