Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The Anger & Kindness that Drive Social Justice Pedagogy


This may not be news to anyone, but I’ve been thinking recently about the interplay of anger (against injustice) and kindness (towards those against whom injustices occur, but also in general) that often drives or motivates people who are social justice advocates and who try to apply social justice in their teaching.

I am writing about this as I think of particular people I know, whose anger is so clear in their writing, like Audrey Watters and Chris Gilliard, Frances Bell, and then when you meet them, it’s their humility and kindness that really stands out. There are many others whose kindness and anger stand together clearly in their writing, like Sean Michael Morris, Sherri Spelic, Kate Bowles, and many others.

What I actually want to focus on here, though, is a phenomenon that is tricky.

Anger is important and useful, of course, and inevitable especially if you belong to an oppressed or marginalized group, and if you are truly passionate on an emotional level about a social justice cause, and not just on a rational level. This anger is important for speaking truth to power, even if sometimes you need to tone down your discourse or modify it in order to be heard by those in power.

What I think is tricky is when someone forgets their intersectional position, forgetting how privileged they are in certain contexts, and lashes out with their anger against people who are less powerful than themselves.

There are people who on the surface, in their words and actions, are strong social justice advocates, but in their day-to-day interactions, use their power and privilege to harm others. They retain their anger and use it in contexts where they have more power and use it to oppress others and reproduce their own privilege, rather than drawing on their kindness (which I am sure exists somewhere within them as I truly don’t believe someone can be a social justice advocate if they are not kind at heart).

I see it with women who are married to powerful people but used to have marginal positions in their organizations. They have that intersectionality but behave as if the powerful aspect of their identity is non-existent. I see it with African-Americans in my institution who are used to being a minority because of their race but not their role as those from the colonizer nation in a postcolonial context. I see it in people whose pre-academic class background has caused them to struggle to be where they are today, and they forget that for others, this struggle is invisible and they just appear as white and middle class and privileged.

I empathize with where they’re coming from. I think I understand all of this. Women and people of color are at some level of disadvantage in any context, but the extent of this disadvantage really varies by context, and it is important to ask: relative to whom? To ask, when is unleashing anger going to oppress others?

I’m reminded of two really important things. This by Serene Khader in Decolonizing Universalism (although I would replace “feminism” with “anti-oppression” or “social justice orientation”, as I feel many times we say feminism but we mean more than gender-based oppression:

“It is possible to be fully agentic and to also perpetuate one’s own (or others’) oppression. Feminism requires opposition to oppression, not just the ability to make meaning and act in ways one cares about in the world. Feminists should be interested in promoting not merely agency, but women’s emancipation or gender justice as well, and doing this inevitably means making judgments about the content of agency or what agency brings about in the world. This does not imply that such judgments should be made lightly or without contextual sensitivity, but it does imply that respect for agency is an insufficient feminist normative commitment.”

(Khader, 2019, p. 18)

(P.S. in WordPress app they have a new feature that when you write text in blockquote format, reminds you to write the citation. Cool!)

I’m also reminded of bell hooks,

“[teachers] must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.”

(hooks 1994, Kindle location 286).

And I wonder if the people whose anger overrides their kindness in situations where they have power – I wonder if they’re so focused on their own agency but not working enough towards their own self-actualization that they are not sufficiently conscious of their own intersectional power and privilege, unable to modulate their behavior when they find themselves in contexts where they have that power.

Friere had warned early on that uncritical liberation can lead to the oppressed reproducing oppression. I see it all the time, I even probably do it all the time myself. It takes an incredible amount of reflectivity and soul searching to stop this cycle, and it needs a lot of support and care from those around us who can be our allies in this.

For self-care, and to be more caring for others, we need to surround ourselves with kindness so that we can channel our anger towards oppression but save our own kindness for humans.

Thank you to all my friends and colleagues, at work and online and those I don’t speak to or see as often I’d like who have been wonderful examples of unconditional kindness in small and big ways, but more importantly, in day-to-day ways. It takes so much energy to be kind day in and day out despite the anger bubbling underneath.


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