What is social justice, anyway?

It isn’t directly in the PLU mission statement, but it may as well be from how often you hear it around campus. “Social justice” is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean?

As an editor for the Matrix, PLU’s social justice publication, I obviously care about this. That said, I’m know what social justice means to me, and I’m not here to promote my ideas, so I thought it would be best to see what a cross-section of students thought. People in the humanities and social sciences are often up to their eyeballs in social justice literature and discussions, but what do other majors think?

It definitely has to do with equality. Alexa Bayouk, a junior and music major, gave this definition, “Social justice to me means achieving equal opportunity (not equal outcome) for everyone, regardless of race, socioeconomic class, gender, etc.” Kyle Parsons, a junior and business major, agrees, “It’s having equal opportunities for everyone.”

It isn’t just equality, though. There’s also the question of equity, or fairness. Andrea Murphy, a sophomore and nursing major, says, “Personally, social justice to me means equitably distributing resources – such as educational, occupational, and financial – for all.”

What does this equity mean? Some would say that it’s having a level playing field, so everyone has the same advantages. There’s not it, though. We can’t yet give everyone the same chances, because differences in privilege mean some people get more than others. Maricel Fee, a junior studying geosciences, notes that social justice needs “Equality in terms of privileges as well as economics.” Maylen Anthony, a junior in Hispanic studies, concurs, “I think social justice is the recognition of your own privilege and ways that you are oppressed, then utilizing them in order to better the common good.”

So, how does privilege look? Just like differential calculus in physics, it’s complicated. Briefly, though, people get treated differently just based on who people think they are. If I walked into the OMM in a burglar outfit, you’d better believe the baristas would treat me differently than if I entered with a nice dress and my makeup on point. That simple example shows a big point: people will assume different things about you just by what they think they know.

Kalie Saathoff, a junior in chemistry, notes that social justice “often is brought up in the context of suppression,” and oppression! “especially with respect to race, sexuality, and class.” These labels and more all have baggage. Bayouk notes her own position in society and the privilege she gets, “As a middle class white female, I’ve never found myself to be a victim of social inequality.”

Equality, equity, and privilege, that’s what social justice is made of, at least according to a variety of different PLU students. It’s not all gloom and doom for society, though. They can be used for that other big PLU word, “vocation.” As Anthony concludes, “To me, a life not helping others is a life wasted.”

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