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BPD Update Online, Spring 2001
From Oppression to Social Justice:

A Curricular Study Guide

Mary E. Swigonski, Monmouth University

FROM OPPRESSION TO SOCIAL JUSTICE - it strikes me that you can't get there from here - at least not
directly. It is a long, circuitous path, littered with interruptions and setbacks. It is a path that we must negotiate and travel together for our collective survival. But what is social justice? Where do we propose to be going?
How do we get from a context of multiple and interlocking oppressions to one of social and economic justice?

There are three authors whose work on social justice I find essential. John Rawls (1971, 1999) work is a touch
stone for many scholars. Rawls focuses on distributive justice: each person getting fair share of the benefits
and burdens resulting from social cooperation. Iris Marion Young (1990) critiques Rawls and posits that social
justice needs to address the degree to which a society contains and supports the institutional conditions
necessary for the realization of the values necessary to live the good life. Those values include the ability for
each of us to develop and exercise our capacities and express our experience, and to participate in
determining our actions and the conditions of our actions. Young sees social justice as necessarily including
the elimination of institutional domination and oppression. In contexts and societies where social group
differences exist and some groups are privileged while others are oppressed, social justice requires explicitly
acknowledging and attending to those groups' differences to undermine oppression. This suggests at least two
teachable points:

A. How we understand difference, and how we understand and engage with those who are different is key to
attaining social justice.

1. Brain storm with students and record on the board the disadvantages (divide and conquer, hierarchical
(better or worse) valuations, dichotomous thinking, etc.) and advantages (variety of options and perspectives,
increased creativity, more nuanced understanding of experiences, etc.) of differences - with concrete
examples. Or, have small groups of students work on this and then compare group results.

2. On 4 X 6 cards, have students list the strengths of each of an array of diverse groups (ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, physical abilities). List these on the board. How might the lists be categorized? Discuss the implications of both of these activities for empathy and professional relationships with clients as
well as for social justice.

B. Oppression and privilege are two sides of the same coin/process. Understanding and addressing systems of privilege is key to overcoming oppression and attaining social justice.

1. Peggy McIntosh (1995) extensively discusses white and male privilege. She lists over 40 examples of
individual privilege in her article. Students can discuss their experiences of these conditions in their own lives
and those of their clients (if they are in field placements).

2. Diane Goodman's (2001) provides a wealth of activities to help students experience differences and to see
privileges that they have taken for granted. For example: In a mainstream greeting card store, find cards with
persons of color, persons with a disability, or a gay man or lesbian on the front of the card. Processes their
reactions and reflections to what they found (or didn't find). Ask students to describe what they do on a daily
basis to ensure their safety. The goal is to promote questioning and discussion of the taken for granted.

3. Generate a matrix that lists sites of oppression/privilege down the first column (gender, race/ethnicity,
sexual orientation, class, physical ability, age, etc - brain storm this list with the class). Call the second
column areas of privilege/power and the third column areas of oppression/exclusion. Produce a copy of this
matrix for each student, and then ask each one to indicate their status (privilege or oppression) for each of the
items in the first column. This provides students with a visual map of how we are all oppressors and oppressed. Discuss their reactions to this.

"How we understand difference,
and how we understand and engage
with those who are different
is key to attaining social justice"

All of these activities help students to begin to see the hidden dimensions of oppression and privilege that permeate all of our lives and that help to invisibly and silently perpetuate systems of inequity and social injustice - we are less willing to work to significantly change social institutions and systems when we believe that we benefits from them. In interlocking systems of oppression (gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, age, physical ability) most of us occupy some place(s) of privilege as well as some place(s) of oppression. The place(s) of privilege that we occupy, and the benefits that we receive as a consequence, can co-opt our engagement in actions for social change.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu's (1999) writing further expands definitions of social justice. He calls for restorative justice, which emphasizes healing, forgiveness and reconciliation - within a context of accountability and responsibility. Teaching possibilities here include:

1. Ask students to build a definition of forgiveness

2. Lead an in class discussion about the relationships among forgiveness, accountability, responsibility, and self protection.

3. Ask students to write about a time when they were forgiven. What was it like to ask for forgiveness? What was it like to be forgiven?

4. Ask students to write about a time when they forgave someone. Did they choose to forgive proactively or because someone asked? What was it like to be asked for forgiveness? What was it like to forgive someone?

5. Discuss the interconnections among forgiveness, relationships and social justice.

All of this merely begins to define social justice. The question remains, how do we get there? Dismantling of systems of privilege is one strategy. Working for human rights is also an essential foundation for social and economic. Human Rights are founded on the "recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable right of all members of the human family (United Nations, 1948)." The dignity and worth of all human beings may be inherent, but the meaning and implications of that dignity and worth are socially defined. Declarations of human rights, and their interpretations, are social constructs, reflecting the moral conscience of a civilization at a given moment in time (Witkin, 1998, Wronka, 1998). A teachable point in relation to human rights is the assessment of human rights:


Goodman, D. J. (2001). Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating people from privileged groups. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

McIntosh, P. (1995). "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women's studies." In M. Andersen & P. H. Collins (Eds.), Race, Class, and Gender

Rawls, J. (1971, 1999). A Theory Of Justice (revised edition). Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Tutu, D. (1999). No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Image Doubleday Press.

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://www.un.org/rights/

Witkin, S. L. (1998). Human rights and social work. Social Work. 43 (3), 197-202.

Wronka, J. (1998). Human Rights and Social Policy in the 21st century. New York: University Press of America.

Young. I. M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.



Anzaldua, G. (Ed.) (1990). Making Face, Making Soul Haciendo Caras: Creative and critical perspective by women of color. San Francisco: Anute Lute Books.

Collins, P. H. (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment. London, UK: HarperCollins Academic

Collins, P. H. (1998). Fighting Words : Black Women and the Search for Justice (Contradictions of Modernity, V. 7). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Eisler, R. (1987). The Chalice & the Blade: Our history, Our Future. New York: Harper & Row.

Harding, S. (1991). Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women's Lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Hull, G. T.; Scott, P. B. and Smith, B. (Eds.) (1982). All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave: Black Women's Studies. New York: Feminist Press.

N'Gugi Wa Thiong'o. (1993). Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Pharr, S. (1988 & 1997). Homophobia: A Weapon of sexism. Berkeley, CA: Chardon Press.

Simonson, R.; Walker, S.(Eds.). (1988). The Graywolf Annual Five: Multicultural Literacy. St. Paul: Graywolf Press.

Thompson, B.; Tyagi, S. (1996). Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity. New York: Routledge.

Zinn, H. (1999). A People's History of the United States : 1492 to the Present. New York: Harper Collins.

Human Rights

Perry, M. J. (1998). The Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shute, S.; Hurley, S. (Eds.). (1993). On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993. New York: Basic Books.

Wronka, J. (1998). Human Rights and Social Policy in the 21st Century. New York: University Press of America.


Goodman, D. J. (2001). Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating people from privileged groups. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hobgood, M. E. (2000). Dismantling Privilege: An ethics of Accountability. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.

Social Justice

Daniels, N. (1989). Reading Rawls: Critical Studies on Rawls' 'A Theory of Justice.' Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Rawls, J. (1971, 1999). A Theory Of Justice (revised edition). Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Tutu, D. (1999). No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Image Doubleday Press.

Young. I. M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Internet Resources for Pedagogy

American Civil Liberties Union Web Page. Contains a fairly comprehensive list of Issues, with resources and web links. http://www.aclu.org/

Amnesty International Human Rights Web Page including issues, Calls for action and resources. http://www.amnesty.org/

Diversity Database at the University of Maryland's is a comprehensive index of multicultural and diversity resources. http://www.inform.umd.edu/Diversity/

Diversity Web an interactive resource for higher education sponsored by American Association of Colleges and Universities. (this one is awesome). http://www.diversityweb.org/

Human Rights Internet (HRI) the empowerment of human rights activists and organizations, and to human rights issues. http://www.hri.ca/welcome.cfm

Human rights Web. Basic introduction to human rights. http://www.hrweb.org/

Institute for Global Communication & Peace Net -- social & economic justice. http://www.igc.org/igc/gt/PeaceNet/Social_Justice/

Multicultural films/videos Shown at the Annual National Association for Multicultural Education Conference Film Festival http://www.nameorg.org/Listed%20Alphabetically%20by%20Producer%20and%20Year%20Shown.html

Multicultural Pavilion: a collection of awareness Activities http://curry.edschool.Virginia.EDU/go/multicultural/activityarch.html

Southern Poverty Law Center is a non profit organization that combats hate, intolerance, and discrimination. See Teaching Tolerance. http://www.splcenter.org/splc.html

Teaching Resources, including diversity and gender from York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. http://www.yorku.ca/human/tresour.htm

The People's decade of human rights Education, a site dedicated to human rights learning for social and economic change. http://www.pdhre.org/

United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) Collection of Documents. http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu6/1/edudec.htm

United Nations Human Rights home page. http://www.un.org/rights/

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. http://www.unhchr.ch/

United States Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/

WWW Virtual Library: International Affairs Resources, Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. http://www.etown.edu/vl/humrts.html

The BPD Update Online Web Site is sponsored by Lyceum Books.