For decades educators have concerned themselves with the initiatives of working towards so called social justice. With ideals of civic engagement and increased empathy, no wonder so many curriculums have attempted to inspire students to “make the world a better place”. And yet, without a critical reflection on the role of race, the centering of the local community, and specific tangible action, social justice became another commodified iteration of colorblind ideology.
If educators wish to produce real change in their practice and with their students we should seek to listen to the words of James Baldwin. In “A Talk to Teachers”, Baldwin acknowledges this paradox of public education that seeks to create conscious thinkers while producing citizens complicit in cultural norms no matter the detriment. Baldwin states:
The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions... To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity… [But] What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society... The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.
Baldwin identifies the pressure educators face to inhabit performative social justice work, which allows them to remain within the comfort of school and societal norms - a pressure that prevents the transformative movement of social justice that is critical of racial power structures, inclusive of diverse communities, and actionable in its pursuit of knowledge and change. Educators who keep Balwin’s voice close provide for their young people the ability to transform themselves and their communities through education and follow through on the ideals of social justice.