Elitism in Millennial Social Justice Movements
When I was a wee freshman in college, I would come back home for winter break to confidently inform my family of all of the tragic woes in the world and what was needed to fix them. My dad would always back-handedly reply, “That’s what’s wrong with you liberals. You think you’re always right.” I was offended, first by the categorizing of my ideals as being liberal, and second because what I was saying was right. There is a right and a wrong to the world and I was on the right side of it. Fortunately I came to learn that this is both not true and quite naive to think so. Lamentably, this idea has cycled through groves of liberal college freshman and continues to permeate many of the mass movements led by the freshman-turned-graduate. Those of us who claim to be at the forefront of social justice movements keep falling into this trap, centering the same hierarchical, “my way or the highway,” thinking that led to the bedrock of oppressive systems in America and all over the world. Regrettably, this rendition is even more troubling because it is the same system veiled as a call for liberation.
The #CancelCulture, the trend of calling someone “problematic” or “cancelled” because of disagreement with their worldview, has led to folks being encapsulated within silos of their own thoughts and opinions; therefore causing them to mistakenly think that a larger part of the world agrees with their points of understanding. This trend has been perpetuated in many of the millennial movements we see today and is rotting a foundation for a new reality before it has even been established.
Instead of listening to another worldview, many deem it appropriate to listen for a buzz word (homophobia, patriarchy, feminism, etc.), decide if they agree with it, and act accordingly (even if all they have to offer stops at memes circulated through social media). These terms claim to give language to a silent oppression but are often being used to privilege those who can follow along with them in a conversation.
For instance, I was recently a part of a conversation between two Black American men, an Asian American woman, and a Black American woman. The two Black American men were inquiring about the term “people of color” and who was included in such a term. They expressed their confusion with Asian cultures being included because of the relationship often seen between the Asian American and Black American communities in low-income urban areas (i.e. nail shops, take out places, liquor stores, and hair stores). The Asian American and Black American women proceeded to scold them for their ignorance about the inclusivity of oppression, using words such as “problematic,” “intersectionality” and “silencing.” This conversation left the two Black men more confused about the subject rather than leaving them with an understanding of the women’s point of view. They felt ostracized by the language used and worse, completely misunderstood by the two women. This was in a space that claimed to be about “collective liberation.”
With the onset of a #CancelCulture in new millennial movements, we must ensure we aren’t perpetuating the same exclusionary and hierarchical systems that we claim we are combatting. If we are all even slightly affected by the classism, racism, sexism, etc. that we criticize others of, then who are we to call anyone else “problematic” or undervalue their ideas/ contributions to grassroots conversations? This includes those that didn’t go to college, those that did and hung out in different crowds than you, and even those that hung in the same crowds that you could never agree with.
Who are we to judge someone that survives differently than us?
Future generations cannot afford for us to put our noses up when someone is not familiar with pronoun changes or if they are and do not agree with their usage. Future generations cannot afford for us to cancel someone because they are not familiar with the words “toxic masculinity” or may disagree with what we think it means. Future generations cannot afford for us to think we have reached a stage of awareness that others must reach before engaging in a meaningful conversation with us.
I admit, this rule can get sticky but we have to approach each person with this type of humility. No matter the amount of reading we do, or how much we purport to know, no matter how many marginalized friends we have, no matter the amount of “woke” tweets we spew into the world, this humility is vital to any reality we seek to cultivate. The value of difference in perspectives both within and outside of the movement must be coveted -- not cancelled. Who are we to judge someone that survives differently than us?
As we engage with folk who operate in a diverging worldview, we must not understand this to mean they have not yet reached our stage of enlightenment but that possibly the assumptions that underlay their world don’t match ours -- and that’s okay! It is not for you to convince them otherwise but to merely perceive the difference. It is in this difference that valuable questions arise and growth appears. It is in this difference that something close to the rhetoric of “collective liberation” comes into view.
I hope these words provide a space of reframing for all those who claim to be about collective liberation. Asking ourselves the questions: What exactly does collective liberation mean? Am I willing to work with others that don’t necessarily align with my worldview to attain this? What are the truths I have to agree on with the people I am working with? Who would these truths exclude? Am I okay with that? If the answer to the last question is yes, then you might want to revisit the first.
This piece serves as an effort to widen the lens, with the understanding that this may make the focus a bit more blurry. Another thing my dad always says is,“Something ain’t right when you think you got all the answers.” Words like liberation and freedom compact these ideas into convenient terms, but we must never neglect that these ideas are grossly difficult. They are not as neat as they sound and this understanding is pivotal to their success. We must move cautiously when envisioning a new reality. Examining questions rather than searching for answers ensures that our movements stay centered and have a lasting impact for generations to come. And aren’t they the point of all of this anyway?
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Malikia Johnson (2017). Cast Down Cancel Culture: Elitism in Millennial Social Justice Movements. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/cast-down-cancel-culture