#trending Social Justice

Peggy Li, Opinion Editor

Students at Whitman care a great deal about social justice issues that primarily do not affect them. In contrast to communities of color from underprivileged backgrounds, students at Whitman are (at least for now) primarily white and privileged. So when these students speak on behalf of/about the injustices against minorities, or the dangers of capitalism, there can be a feeling of something both perverse and disingenuous about this way of representation, especially when it is so ‘trendy’ or ‘cool’ to Instagram pictures at marches. When a white person writes about issues that don’t relate to them, like maybe their support for KONY 2012 (outdated, yes), or Standing Rock, there is a sense that these white bodies are mediating the understanding of these issues, sometimes at the expense of the marginalized peoples themselves expressing their own opinions. 

After all, is it not somewhat disenfranchising to have someone else speak for you, and instead of you? And in an endless chamber of shares and statuses on Facebook, opinions by actual people affected by social justice issues can easily get lost or drowned out.

How compellingly can a white person either sympathize or represent the problems or suffering that is not their own, and then, are the articles written and shared about how much they *care* about a marginalized group to which they do not actually have a connection to? Who really ‘owns’ the right to discuss that sort of experience? I ask because this has been on my mind after someone pointed out to me that they were uncomfortable when an issue that affects them was written about by someone who maybe didn’t understand that experience or feel that pain. In that moment, I didn’t know what to say because while its true that discussing issues of marginalized groups can come across somewhat patronizing and disempowering, there doesn’t seem to be any way to effect lasting change unless everyone, including the white majority, gets onboard.

Yet that answer doesn’t do anything for those who feel confused when a white person writes about ‘their’ issue. So to this question, there doesn’t seem to be a perfect answer beyond being careful and respectful of other people. That being said, two main factors of consideration stand out: intention in representing the issue and execution of how well a person represented an issue. In order to best care about issues relating to marginalized groups not including oneself, one needs to have the intention of spreading a good message for people to care about, and to execute it well so that the message will be clear. Otherwise, why not let people represent themselves?

In contrast, when I think about Kony 2012 or Standing Rock now and all the people who shared it have since forgotten, I wonder if things would have been different if instead of being directed by white directors, or mediated by Facebook shares, if there was greater direct access to resources. Even access to social media, to the United Nations, or to governing bodies so that the native Ugandan people could voice their plight, their struggles, and their life would have changed the whole movement. Or if the white majority in general had greater and longer-lasting sympathy towards the plight of natives, Keystone XL might not have happened. Perhaps instead of just sharing things on Facebook and ‘caring’ for as long as it’s trending, these movements could actually last, and accomplish something meaningful. But at the same time, would anyone know about Kony, if not for those filmographers, or for all the white protesters at Standing Rock? While white mediation can bring greater attention from a wider audience, it remains a question of whether or not this mediation is good or better than self-representation.