Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

Authentic Social Justice, Part Two

Author: Sam Bass

Emotions are increasingly derided as detrimental to social justice work, but I think this does a disservice to all of us. It is true that “white tears” or “male tears” derail conversations and recenter the privileged, and we should continue to challenge those “tears” when they happen. My discussion of emotions is more internal, though, at least initially. For example, when engaging in a social justice conversation, I try to analyze the feelings that occur when I talk. Do I feel scared? Satisfied? Angry?

If I’m satisfied because I feel like I showed everyone how “woke” I am, then I need to reevaluate why I’m taking up space in the conversation. To do that, though, I have to be honest with what I’m feeling, and I have to be honest about why I’m feeling it. I cannot work against my self-righteous, white-male savior complex until I am honest with myself, and if I can’t work against that complex, then I can’t effectively do the social justice work that needs to be done for my students and my institution. Satisfaction is an emotion I want to encourage all of my white colleagues to look for, since we do not often discuss our own self-righteousness.

The emotion I struggle with the most is a combination of sadness and anger, but with a very specific manifestation. This manifestation is intersectional, and highly prevalent in marginalized communities that still experience noticeable privilege. In my case, I call it White Gay Syndrome. I’m certain most of us have seen a conversation in which we are discussing one marginalized identity, but then someone brings up theirs instead. I’m sure this is often done with good intentions, an attempt to connect with others experiencing something “similar but different.” Unless it’s coming up in an intersectional way, though, it runs the risk of derailing the conversation.

While I tend to avoid bringing up my identities during conversations of race or gender, internally I often shut down for a moment because of it. In the same way that some people say, “You can’t tell me I have privilege; I’ve worked for what I have” I think “Don’t say I’ve had it easy; I’m gay and depressed!” On a good day I move past it, but it was such a hang up I decided I needed to really sit down with myself and figure out what was going on.

While reflecting on my White Gay Syndrome I thought of John Green’s quote from The Fault in Our Stars: “Pain demands to be felt.” What I realized was that I had not properly processed the pain I have as a gay man with mental illness. I realized that I could not truly hear about people’s experiences with racism, sexism, etc. because I thought that their pain somehow made mine less valid. I had to work for years to finally internalize that my pain was real, which allowed me to hear other people’s stories more sincerely. The pain that someone experienced after being racially profiled by the police does not negate the pain I felt every time I was called disgusting for being gay. The pain of a woman being harassed or assaulted does not negate the pain of spending years self-harming to cope with depression. Once I accepted that this pain was real for me, I didn’t have to defend my own experience, because bringing up my pain when discussing other forms of discrimination is a way for me to deflect the guilt I have for being a white man. It tells others, “I don’t care that you’re discriminated against, let’s talk about me,” and that does nothing but allow oppression to continue.

When planning a series on honest and vulnerable social justice, it was important for me to include that story about pain, because we are a field that loves social justice conversations (to a point). We have sessions during our professional and student staff trainings or we have discussion groups, and those can be too easily led astray by our own emotional needs. Emotions are a basic, instinctual aspect of our lives; they have informed our actions for as long as we have existed. We cannot escape them, but we try, and that holds us back. When we are held back in social justice work, the most marginalized and vulnerable are harmed. In this way, discussing emotions are integral to social justice.

I have primarily discussed analyzing one’s own emotions, but to bring this emotional awareness to interactions with our residents is imperative. If we aim to have students who are “multiculturally competent,” then we need to walk with them in their emotional journey, as well.

As I have discussed emotions in social justice I have focused on the word “pain.” I think pain is the root of many issues in social justice, so this was no accident. But I also do not want to feed into the narrative that having a marginalized identity is all doom and gloom. Personally, the “gayest” aspects of my personality are some of my favorite things about myself, and I am sure people with all sorts of identities feel the same way, so that is the focus for my third and final installment to this series: the joy of vulnerability. Until next time, stay safe, content, and honest.

Sam 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 Masters 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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