Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education
reviewed by Simon Funge - December 21, 2011
Title: Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education
Author(s): Özlem Sensoy & Robin DiAngelo
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775269X, Pages: 240, Year: 2011
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Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education by Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo is a timely addition to the library of any educator concerned with an increasingly polarized society in which rhetoric frequently crowds out reasoned, thoughtful analysis of the current social, economic, and political space. Part of the Teachers College Multicultural Education series, this concise 214-page book offers the committed, but perhaps bewildered, professional or community educator a guidebook for leading students and participants through the morass of individual and public opinion toward theoretically-grounded knowledge that promotes action on behalf of creating a more socially just world.
Sensoy and DiAngelo base their pedagogical approach on a critical social justice perspective that explicitly points to the historical and ongoing structural inequalities that serve to devalue and minoritize social groups while simultaneously valuing and privileging dominant social groups. The authors assert that all individuals (including both educators and students) must cultivate and continually develop the self-awareness required to recognize the nature of, and our position within, these unjust social arrangements. Through ongoing reflection and by developing our critical social justice literacy (p. xix), the authors argue, we will be better prepared to work more effectively toward destabilizing present social relations in service of constructing a more just society. Is Everyone Really Equal? offers a step-by-step process through which this literacy can be developed.
The book is accessible, well-paced, and includes a variety of devices to help deepen the readers understanding of the material: text boxes highlight and define key terms, clarify important concepts, connect content to concepts learned in previous chapters, and offer readers alternate ways to consider the content presented given their unique social positions. A number of vignettes and examples are also provided to assist the reader with applying the concepts to day-to-day experiences. In addition, the authors introduce us to a number of Canadian and US-based activists some well-known to the reader and others not who, through their work, have concretely operationalized the critical social justice perspective presented. And, at the end of each chapter, the authors provide a series of constructive discussion questions and creative activities to encourage reflection and to expand the readers understanding of the content presented in the chapter.
Chapter 1 prepares readers to approach their learning from a critical, informed perspective that recognizes that, despite how attached we may be to our personal opinions, these often reflect a shallow understanding of complex social phenomena. Crucially, the authors acknowledge that developing a critical social justice perspective can be a difficult and emotionally fraught process as readers are asked to come to terms with their social position in the power structure.
Chapters 2 through 5 explore how oppression functions to confer power and privilege in the form of rights, advantages, and protections (p. 58) to members of the dominant (i.e., privileged) group at the expense of the minoritized (i.e., oppressed) group, and that this process is normalized through the process of socialization. The authors argue that oppression occurs at the group level when one groups prejudice is backed by historical, social and institutional power (p. 39). As such, the cultural and ideological justification of this exploitation occurs through the dominant groups control of major societal institutions including the military, medicine, media, criminal justice, policing, finance, industry, higher education, religion, and science (p. 45). Significantly, the authors argue that oppression is rationalized, in part, via internalized processes such that members of both the dominant and minoritized group come to accept their respective positions as fixed. In effect, this internalized worldview effectively renders dominance invisible to the privileged group.
In Chapters 6 through 8 Sensoy and DiAngelo make concrete how the process of socialization and structural dominance occurs by applying a critical social justice perspective to two specific forms of oppression. Sexism is addressed in depth in Chapter 6 while racism is explored in Chapters 7 and 8. With these chapters, the authors reveal how cultural institutions including the media, the workplace, and schools shape and construct gender and race in ways that privilege men and Whites respectively while simultaneously disadvantaging women and people of Color. As a result of this socialization, men and Whites may fail to acknowledge their privileged position or be dismissive of claims to the contrary. A further complicating factor, the authors note, is that individuals exist at the intersection of multiple social identities some dominant and some minoritized thus making more complex our understanding of the impact of these social arrangements.
The difficulty of recognizing oppression and privilege fuels common objections to social justice education. In Chapter 9 the authors address some of these, including claims that schools ought to be politically neutral spaces, that a focus on oppression and difference is an exercise in divisiveness, or that oppression is a function of human nature, a thing of the past, or not as bad as those who complain about it might believe. These concerns and others are usefully reframed by the authors through the lens of a more informed and critical social justice perspective.
In the final chapter, Sensoy and DiAngelo distill the content they have presented to four core principles. In effect, critical social justice requires that we must (1) Recognize how relations of unequal social power are constantly being negotiated at both the micro (individual) and macro (structural) levels; (2) Understand our own positions within these relations of unequal power; (3) Think critically about knowledge; and (4) Act on the above in service of a more just society (p. 145). To this last principle, a number of helpful suggestions for disrupting oppression at the individual and group levels are offered.
As an introductory text to social justice education, educators who have extensively engaged in learning about the topic or are regularly engaged in social justice work in the community or in the classroom may be inclined to give Sensoy and DiAngelos book a pass. This would be a mistake. Beyond reinforcing what the advanced educator may already understand, for the educator who embraces the opportunity to engage even the most resistant student, the authors name and confront the kinds of platitudes educators may encounter when delivering social justice education. Moreover, students and educators new to social justice education may even recognize their own misgivings in these statements. For instance, readers may be familiar with refrains like I dont think about peoples race, class, gender. I just see people as human (p. 14) or You can only be oppressed if you let yourself be oppressed (p. 38) and No ones handed me anything. Ive worked hard for what I have (p. 57). That the authors address these and other objections in a manner consistent with a critical social justice perspective can be of value to the beginning and more advanced educator or student alike.
It should be noted, however, that members of dominant groups will very likely struggle with the concepts presented not because Sensoy and DiAngelo fail to present their content in a clear, straightforward, and understandable manner, but because these readers are required to reflect upon and potentially disrupt their taken-for-granted assumptions about themselves and about their worldview. This is not to make the argument that the inevitable conflict that arises should be avoided, but to state that students or participants engaged in this work may respond to their discomfort by closing themselves off from further learning an outcome potentially counterproductive to the creation of prospective allies engaged in efforts to construct a more inclusive and just society. Therefore, those educators who plan to use this book should be prepared to carefully facilitate students and participants learning and have the capability to help them work through their resistance toward a deepened understanding of the material. Whether used as primary or secondary course text or as a facilitators guide for the delivery of social justice content, Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelos Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education will likely prove to be an invaluable resource for educators committed to guiding their students toward action on behalf of creating a more just society.