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Almost three years ago, Slate.com published an article that correlated a city’s level of walkability to its political liberalism. The idea was basically this: The more people walked, the more their perspectives came to include the homeless on the street, the indispensability of public transportation, and other public services.
These residents would then go on to vote for local candidates who supported allocation of funding towards better public transportation, and better institutions for the poor and the homeless. Further, the city is the breeding ground for our friends that proudly sport the socially-liberal-and-fiscally-conservative banner; if you’re a heterosexual student with gay friends, it’s hard to say that they don’t deserve the same human rights as you.
Perhaps we can we say that this is the chic, urban remix of Southern hospitality by walkable cities?
There’s no doubt that there are a ton of other factors that go into the mix for painting one’s political color, but the point is to make an analogy. When it comes to matters of social justice, there are a lot of people at Harvard that haven’t walked the walk. More specifically, when it comes to matters of gender, race, sexuality, and socioeconomics, those who’ve never walked the walk of vulnerability are considered to embody a sort of blind privilege. There’s no doubt that this part about “blind privilege” is true—you don’t know what you’ve never seen or felt, and that’s just part of the human condition.
But I worry that there is an increasingly starker dichotomy of those who “get it” and those who don’t on our campus, a dichotomy that’s ironically made Harvard’s social justice community one of the more intentionally exclusive groups on our campus, and has also served to vilify people who do what they do and say what they say, simply because they “just don’t get it.”
And this worries me, because the thought that the phrase “social justice”—one that stands as the sweeping representation of a normative disposition towards a fairer society—is not open to everyone is a scary one.
When we talk about privilege, we refer to the privilege of being “the norm,” of being comfortable in your skin, where you are, without giving a second thought, and of not having centers dedicated to an important part of your identity—i.e. the Women’s Center, the BLGTQ center—cornered away in an inconspicuous corner of a building basement. Our conversations are based on our demographic identities, with the rightful understanding that some are coddled and some are screwed over by the unfair societal results of a malicious history.
But I think there’s also a privilege to knowing—and being able to remind yourself on a daily basis—that these things are privileges. And I wonder if this realization might be the ignition to an empathy that our student body can put to use in creating a more open social justice community.
Knowing about the intricacies of intersectionality and knowing why what someone said was an “ouch” moment for another person are definitely the more subtle privileges of perspective and knowledge. But the beautiful thing about this privilege is that it’s one with the potential for the maturity to invite people into it.
Any kind of privilege, whether it’s the ironic privilege of perspective or just the darn real, blinding privileges of money and race, breeds an exclusive structure of in-group and out-group. This is precisely why the two privilege groups are often uncomfortable with each other.
But the thing about the former kind of privilege—the privilege of having walked the walk—is that it’s too important for everyone not to have. And for the people with the privilege of “getting it,” there’s a real opportunity to show those with the other kind of privilege what the maturity of inclusion and empathy can do for the world, and more importantly, in broadening their own perspectives on human life.
I have a feeling that that’s really the spirit of social justice behind social justice.
Jenny J. Choi ’16, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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