Social Justice is a Loaded Term

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
– Lilla Watson

Although the above quote that I introduced the article with is attributed to Lilla Watson, indigenous Australian or Murri visual artist, activist and academic working in the field of women’s issues and Aboriginal epistemology, I saw it beautifully framed in a Chicago church, which hosts the famous Temple Theater, whereby the play “Mosque Alert” was being shown that evening. I did not need this quote to continue my work of social justice, but it was a reminder to me that evening about a month ago to ask myself if I am someone who strives for justice because it feels good to “help” someone, or because, as Watson says in the second half of this quote, my liberation is bound up with hers and with the cause or people I am working with?
A recent event with my leadership demonstrates my reflection on this quote. As a second year Master of Divinity student, I work at two field sites in order to learn from praxis the field of chaplaincy. When I came into this program, I was interested in university chaplaincy (and still am), so I worked with two universities: one whose mission and degrees are Islamically-oriented, and the other, whose mission is Catholic-driven. The most recent event I programmed at the first university was called “Prayer of the Oppressed.” The Prayer of the Oppressed is a poetic devotional prayer in the Islamic tradition written by a 17th century Moroccan scholar in order to pray for the end of French colonial occupation of his country. The prayer asks God for justice and I highly recommend everyone read it because of its power in its simplicity and sincerity.
The prayer was recited in Arabic with English translation provided to prayer participants and then followed by a panel discussion on systemic racism, white privilege, the prison industrial complex, and the intersection of Islamophobia and anti-blackness. I should state now that I am of European and Egyptian descent. I myself am not black, but believe that all forms of racism are anti-Islamic and anti-Prophetic (I’m speaking of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him). In the Prophet’s Farewell Address, he said among other things, “All humankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by God-consciousness and good action.”
The three panelists were two females, a black woman and a white woman and a black male. The discussion was candid by all three. I wanted to emphasize that white privilege must be addressed and quoted Alice Hunt, the president of Chicago Theological Seminary, who said,

“As people of faith, we need a new kind of prayer: Our prayer must be action. We must learn to 1) recognize how our white privilege pervades our culture; we must 2) name white privilege every time we see it; and we must 3) confront ourselves in the mirror and examine, accept and correct what we do on every front. Our prayer at this time must be action.”

As the event ended, I thought to myself of the layout: as a “white” Muslim woman, I was leading this event about racism. While I know what it is like to wear a headscarf and have people make judgments about you, I do not know what it is like to be a black woman who may have to endure, or get ready for, racism on a daily basis. Yet, I know that we can still act in solidarity and must always speak out against any form of injustice regardless of “race” or religion or any other label we give ourselves because my liberation as a human being because my liberation is bound up with the liberation of blacks and all humanity. Many people say race is hard to talk about, but who is it hard for? Is it hard for white Americans because of potential feelings that can get hurt? Racism is hard for black and brown people who live it daily, and if you are black and Muslim, then Islamophobia is also “hard.”
What I learned from this event is to keep striving for justice, but to try to put myself in the shoes of those whom I want the both of us to work for liberation. There is a lot of literature on critical race theory and racism. I hope we can read it, but also talk to our neighbors who may be a different race of religion than us. I also hope we can work on public policy, changing both laws, minds, and hearts.

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One thought on “Social Justice is a Loaded Term

  1. I love this article, thank you for sharing!

    Your opening quote reminds me a lot of something I read a while ago about “transactional philanthropy,” where (usually) college students head to Haiti (or somewhere) for a few weeks to volunteer, before completely leaving those communities at the end of their trip. Far more valuable, the author argued, would be to make relationships with communities – and to understand that the trips were equally for the spiritual benefit of those on them (their “liberation is bound up” with each other).

    And more generally, on the topic of racism: I am a white man, and was raised religious before falling out of (and partially back into) Christian faith. To briefly share my perspective, I think when you ask “Who is it hard for” of course the only answer is those affected by discrimination. But, I don’t think it’s a matter of “feelings hurt” for white Americans who are afraid to talk about racism – it’s just that, as you imply, white Americans may not have to live with knowledge of racism every day, and when confronted with something outside of their experience of the world, they don’t know how to respond. (Particularly as such conversations are often heated!)

    I suppose the real problem is that white Americans can go through a day unaware of their privilege, as you mention. But I think it might be similarly problematic to hint at an accusation of “hurt feelings,” when some white Americans may have good hearts but simply be unaware.

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