Am I Doing This Right? Reflecting on the Complexities of Activism and Social Justice Research
Guest blog by Morgana Lizzio-Wilson, Doctoral Student at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
I’ve always been passionate about social justice. As an activist, teacher, and researcher with a combination of advantaged and disadvantaged identities, I try to constantly interrogate my privilege, seek to understand what being a ‘good ally’ means to the different groups I don’t belong to but want to support, and have conversations with members of advantaged groups about the unique identity pressures I and other disadvantaged groups face. However, there’s an issue that’s starting to demoralize me: advantaged groups’ defensiveness and lack of receptivity to discussions about privilege and allyship. When I try to have discussions about gender, racial, sexual, and/or economic privilege (to name a few) with family, students, and strangers on the internet, I frequently encounter reactions ranging from vitriolic diatribes to blatant disinterest.
I am tired of dealing with these kinds of reactions. They take up too much time and energy, and make me feel like things are moving backwards. So recently I started to wonder: should I frame conversations about privilege and allyship differently so they reach people who might otherwise react defensively? By ‘differently’, I mean in ways which minimize anger and other negative emotions which may lower advantaged groups’ receptivity. As a social science researcher, I turned to the academic literature to see if my hunch was correct. However, the answer was more nuanced than I expected and led me to reflect further on my own privilege.
What does the research tell us?
Perhaps not surprisingly, non-aggressive and indirect confrontations of prejudice (i.e., tentatively labelling an act as problematic but not explicitly bigoted) are perceived more favourably and as less threatening by advantaged group members.1 As indirect (versus direct) confrontations are seen as less hostile, they elicit less anger and more favourable evaluations of the confronter.2 This is important, as the experience of anger enhances people’s use of heuristics3, which are mental shortcuts that ease the burden of decision making, which can include using stereotypes and profiling. So advantaged groups’ experience of anger may lead them to rely on negative stereotypes of activists, which can reduce their adoption of the behaviours that activists promote.4 Thus, intergroup emotions elicited by direct confrontations of prejudice and privilege could, ironically, reduce the advantage group’s desire to engage with and help disadvantaged groups.
After reading this, I began to think that it might be valuable for activists to package their messages in ways that might reduce these negative emotions and enhance receptivity. As an added bonus, this might also reduce the amount of ‘ammunition’ that advantaged groups can use to delegitimize activists (i.e., ‘You’re so angry and unreasonable, I can’t even talk to you!’). But when I started reflecting on this research as an activist, I realized that it only tells part of the story. It doesn’t capture the exhaustion and frustration activists and disadvantaged groups feel day to day. We already have to deal with the intrapsychic, interpersonal, and structural consequences of inequality. But on top of that we’re expected to manage the hurt feelings of advantaged groups? This is a herculean task, particularly when you consider that many activists possess multiple disadvantaged identities. Thus many of us have to deal with multiple sources of discrimination and hostility, making the burden of this task even greater.
Where to from here?
Given the evidence for the benefits of strategic communication and the complexities of this issue not yet captured in the literature, it doesn’t seem appropriate to recommend a course of action that everyone should take. However, exploring this issue has given me further insight into the importance of reflective practice around allyship and privilege as an activist and researcher. As an activist, asking members of disadvantaged groups to take on the added burden of strategic communication and emotion management is not always reasonable. And as a White, cisgender (non-transgender), heterosexual, upper-middle class woman, I need to consider how my many privileges inoculate me against these difficulties, which may mean that I have more ‘headspace’ and social capital to communicate strategically with advantaged groups. Further, it’s not my right to tell groups I don’t belong to how they should react to discrimination and problematic allies when the consequences of those interactions do not directly affect me. I also encourage advantaged groups to shoulder some of the responsibility in these dynamics. It’s OK to feel frustrated and confused about how to be a good ally. And it’s OK to find it hard to confront your privilege at times (I certainly have in the past). But even though I may feel upset and hurt by these conversations on occasion, I don’t have to live with the oppression and discrimination that these disadvantaged groups do. At the end of the day, me feeling uncomfortable and questioning my privilege is not that much to ask.
As researchers, we need to place disadvantaged groups at the centre of research on collective action and social change. I know that issues related to inequality and injustice are already a main focus of Social Psychological research. But in my experience, much of this research does not consider how the multiple identity pressures and emotional fatigue disadvantaged groups experience qualify findings which suggest that we should communicate with advantaged groups in particular ways. Adopting an intersectional lens in our research is imperative if we want to better capture the complexities of social movements and provide practical applications which are feasible and useful to the groups which need them.
All being said and done, I’m keen to hear about other people’s experiences dealing with these issues. I don’t have all (or even most) of the answers to the complex questions that allyship, social movements, and privilege raise. I’m just doing the best I can and learning as I go. I figure that as long as I’m open to owning my mistakes, learning from them and other people, that’s a good start.
Morgana Lizzio-Wilson is a final year PhD student in Social Psychology at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her research focuses on collective action, prejudice reduction (with an emphasis on sexist attitudes), and solidarity behaviours among disadvantaged groups. She is passionate about giving Psychology away, and has worked with the Women’s Collective at her university to organise evidence-based campaigns which tackle prejudice and instigate social change on campus. If you would like to learn more about her research and activism, please visit Morgana’s ResearchGate profile (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Morgana_Lizzio-Wilson), or contact her directly at email@example.com.
1 Becker, J. C., & Barreto, M. (2014). Ways to go: Men’s and women’s support for aggressive and nonaggressive confrontation of sexism as a function of gender identification. Journal of Social Issues, 70(4), 668-686.
2 Hyers, L. L. (2010). Alternatives to silence in face-to-face encounters with everyday heterosexism: Activism on the interpersonal front. Journal of Homosexuality, 57(4), 539-565.
3 Bodenhausen, G. V., Sheppard, L. A., & Kramer, G. P. (1994). Negative affect and social judgment: The differential impact of anger and sadness. European Journal of Social Psychology, 24(1), 45-62.
4 Bashir, N. Y., Lockwood, P., Chasteen, A. L., Nadolny, D., & Noyes, I. (2013). The ironic impact of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(7), 614-626.