Social Justice Beyond Safe Borders

Diversity Journal Club!

Thank you to those that were able to join us on Monday 6 April for our discussion of Social Justice Beyond Safe Borders. For me, a really interesting conversation. We had posed this topic in a pretty abstract and open-ended way, mainly because that’s as far as we could get and we wanted to hear from the larger #DiversityJC community.

Although the initial questions were about doing diversity work, doing science, and teaching way beyond your comfort zone, our conversation really demonstrated that what is “safe” really depends, and that it’s a challenge to do this work in realms much closer to home. While these closer boundaries are far less dangerous to our personal safety, they are no less real in terms of keeping people from doing social justice work. For me, this raises the question of how we begin to open up those boundaries and move beyond personal safety nets and comfort zones to make change that we do want to see, but find challenging to get started? We may be well aware of diversity issues in STEM, we may want to help, but we may feel ill-equipped in terms of skills, unsure of our place and how to begin.

Another clear message from the conversation, which may help some of us take that first step, is realizing how much the burden to do this then falls on the minority groups themselves. Part of privilege is being able to ignore biases and abuses because they don’t affect you. Others cannot do this – the consequences are felt directly – and this also means they feel far more responsibility for being active in these concerns. Guilt over not doing something is far more acute. In addition, they are simply expected to sit on committees, to mentor, to help with new hires and searches. They are expected to be the token minority person doing this work. All of this means the burden of making change falls far more squarely on the minority group itself, for both internal and external reasons. And they have no less responsibilities to work and research and grant writing and publishing and friends and family than the rest of us, no more time in a 24-hour day.

To me, understanding this somewhat hidden cost of social justice work is even more impetus to do something. As a human being, I have this responsibility – and it is not lessened because I have white skin. In fact, as someone with substantial privilege, my responsibility are all the more pressing. To get out of my comfort zone, beyond my safety net – to deconstruct this privilege that I can use to keep me isolated from the realities of inequality. It is my responsibility to not let that privilege also allow me to avoid this work, to shift the burden to someone without my privilege who can’t ignore it as I can.

This is challenging, for those of us with privilege who aren’t sure how to begin. Stepping from comfort and safety is difficult and scary. It doesn’t have to be. A few baby steps:

  1. Talk to someone who might have insight: Ask your friends, your families. If you don’t see someone in your immediate circle, campuses are literally the place to go for this. There are faculty who study these things, activist groups and centers who are trying to make change, with or without your help. Seek them out, talk to them, ask what you can do.
  2. Read: There is a ton of excellent literature and research out there – and even more great work in the blogosphere, and while I don’t always suggest the Interwebs as the place to go for education, I have to say it did a great job of educating me.
  3. Learn to listen & amplify: Basically, learn to shut up. Being a good ally is usually not about telling people what you think. Learn to let others share their experience, their views, and what should be done. If they say there’s a problem, don’t assume that because you haven’t experienced it it doesn’t exist. When you’ve listened, don’t then take those words as your own. Amplify that voice, that message by getting it out there.
  4. Be ok with being wrong: It’s ok to screw up, to say the wrong thing. It’s better to say something and be educated. if you say something that angers people, be ok with their anger. It’s likely not at you personally as a bad person. Make clear you want to understand what is wrong and how to correct it.


For our complete conversation, check out the good Doctor’s storify of our discussion! Apologies for the rather short recap this week, it’s been busy! We hope you will join us for the next Diversity Journal Club on Monday 20 April at 2pm ET! Watch this space for our next article on mental health in academia!


Emily K.



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