Teaching Social Justice

Author: Carina M. Buzo

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde, 1981). Often, I hear this quote used to discuss creatively deconstructing oppressive systems and reimagining a society without those systems. I rarely hear this quote referred to in the context of its original article. In 1981, Audre Lorde wrote a reflection of her experience at the New York University Institute for the Humanities conference focused on women, race, sexuality, class, and age. At the conference, Lorde was one of two Black women invited and in attendance. She found out the other Black woman was invited shortly before the start of the conference. Lorde was the only queer woman of color. The reflection articulates Lorde’s critique of scholarly, white, feminism and the inherent danger that failed attempts of allyship have for marginalized identities. The organizers attempted to organize a conference to discuss intersections of identities but failed to include women with intersections of oppressed identities.

When I refer to the “master’s tools” quote, I am referencing the context of this intended meaning. With a critical lens of allyship, I begin to engage my understanding of teaching social justice. These organizers of one identity attempted to create a conference with curriculum and dialogue about a topic but did not include people with a variety of lived experiences with those identities. As social justice educators we may be asked to teach about things that we do not have lived experience with. I center my social justice work with the idea that my allyship and attempt for justice can always cause harm when I am creating curriculum that does not involve my lived experiences. Parallel with the Audre Lorde’s article, I frame my social justice teaching in three ways: identities, intersections, and intentions.

Identities: “I stand here as a Black lesbian feminist” (Lorde, 1981).

In the article, Lorde creates a foundation of her perspective and her reflection as being deeply connected to her identities. In social justice work it is imperative that we are discussing identities with representation and accuracy. Identities shape how we see the world and how the world sees us. To plan a conference about race and class without inviting poor or working class women of color, you are doing a great disservice to learning. To teach social justice without incorporating marginalized voices, you will be re-creating systems of silence and exclusion. The identities of those we are teaching about, the identities of those we are teaching, and the identities of the teacher all impact the learning. The conference had the content of identities, wanting to talk about gender, race, class, and sexuality. The conference thought of their colleague as needing to engage in this conversation. The conference clearly did not consider ways that their own identities shaped the planning and teaching. A cohort of white scholars, discussing race, they missed the opportunity to have the brilliance of women of color. As student affairs practitioners who are teaching social justice, we need to analyze our own identities to be critical of ways that our identities shape the curriculum we are creating. 

In addition to representation, accuracy is another important tenant when discussing identities and social justice education. Accuracy in language requires us to be accountable to our intent and actions. For example, at the New York University Institute for the Humanities conference it was important to have women, but what kind of women? One could say that it is important to have women of color, but what kind of women of color and how many? Do two Black women cover all women of color experience? It would have been helpful for organizers to use accurate language when discussing their intended audience and content coverage.

In my work, I often ask that colleagues and students use accurate language when discussing students or communities they intend to serve. For example, I teach rape culture and sexual assault awareness education. When I discuss the gendered statistics of sexual violence I have to use accurate language. The CDC reports that 321,500 Americans are raped in a year, 1 in 71 American men experience rape, 1 in 5 women experience rape, and 1 in 2 trans people experience rape (CDC, 2012). All of these numbers are true, but they each use specific, accurate language. Without aggregated accurate language, I would miss the opportunity to provide thorough social justice education. Without accuracy of language we lose the nuance of the systems of power and oppression. Accuracy and representation create an ethical and thorough foundation of teaching social justice.

Intersections: “A country where racism, sexism, and homophobia are inseparable” (Lorde, 1981).

Lorde explains that the identities and the demographics of the conference cannot be ignored and must be named as simultaneously racist, sexist and homophobic. To have a conference on race and gender without inviting women of color, is acting within and perpetuating systems of oppression. Oppression happens within intersections, so to not acknowledge our actions within intersectional lens creates more opportunities for us to recreate the master’s house of oppression. Teaching social justice must come at the intersections. Models of social justice education where single identities are focused on at a time often fail because it does not honor the multiplicity of people's’ interactions with oppression. For example, discussing white privilege as a lone identity may have poor white students feeling defensive or silenced. By honoring people's’ complexities, you are more likely to have a willing audience (caveat: not all social justice work will be easy for all students - but it is my intent to keep as many students in the conversation for as long as possible without shame or isolation). Students who trust that you see their complexity may be more willing to hear ways their privilege has shaped their experience of the world.

Another way that intersecting identities can be used as a tenant of teaching social justice is by making connections for students who experience their lives in opposing systems of power and privilege. For example, a queer Christian student may hear that a Christian identity offers privilege but this student may experience oppression by their Christian community for being queer. Intersections strengthen the teaching by giving a full view of student experience. Teach social justice intersectionality gives teachers and students to create a more robust understanding of injustice and discrimination.

Intersecting identities and intersectionality are not the same thing. Much like this Audre Lorde quote, intersectionality is often used outside of its original intent. Black women, Kimberle Crenshaw and Anna Julia Cooper to name a few, created intersectional theory as a lens to view overlapping systems of oppression (May, 2012). Crenshaw, a legal and critical race theorist, explained that Black people experience racism and women experience sexism, but Black women experience something at the intersection of these two systems of oppression. The intersection of racism, sexism, and classism that poor Black women experience are ignored when discussing only racism and sexism separately. If your use of intersectionality is only being used to discuss the intersecting identities of people your use is overlooking the brilliance of Black women and women of color theorists. This example of accurate language with the terms intersecting identities and intersectionality, is another way to strengthen your social justice teachings.

Intentions: “We did not know who to ask” (Lorde, 1981).

At the conference, Lorde turned to her academic peers who had organized the conference and asked about their wildly obvious lack of representation of people other than white women. She got many responses but she sums the answers up with the overarching message of her peers saying “we did not know who to ask”. Teaching social justice isn't only about the right content. It is heavily about the teacher’s intent. If you want to teach social justice have you done the personal work that is needed to find all of biases and origins of resentment? Lorde explains that her colleagues’ collective response was an evasion of responsibility. By not seeking people to ask and incorporating them, they were evading their responsibility to offer dynamic and lived understandings of the intersection of gender, race, class, and sexuality.

My ask of our collective role in teaching social justice would be to move away for the comfort of out evasion of responsibility and continuously move towards engaging responsibility. This is our role. Student affairs practitioners, as professionals working with college students, as professed social justice educators, it is our role to analyze our intentions. Are we teaching social justice to explain ourselves? Are we teaching social justice in the way that makes our privileged identities most comfortable? Are we holding ourselves accountable to accurate and updated language about identities we do not have? Are we listening to the critiques and offerings of students and colleagues of underrepresented identities? Are we rainbow flags or are dismantling systems of violence that LGBTQ+ people face? (Caveat: we need both, but which do you rest in?). You can always do more, how often are you researching and committing to more? My commitment is to always assume i have so much to learn and to actively seek for more to learn and to incorporate my new learnings as often as possible. Learning and incorporating stories of oppressed communities, learning and incorporating new understanding of power and oppression is how we begin to release the master’s tools.

Our intent should be to anticipate our use of the master's tools (because they are all we have been taught) and instead make every day decisions to create a whole other house in a whole other city. We do this while simultaneously teaching students to not only look at the house that holds oppression or the actions that keep it standing, but we teach students to analyze the foundation of the house, analyze the foundations of oppression. We can teach students to analysis the soil, the wood, the tools. Teach students to analyze history, oppressive laws, our nation’s obsession with power and violence.

I work incredibly hard every single day to avoid evading my responsibility to ethical social justice education. I do this by holding myself and my peers accountable to accurate language, a variety of representation, current research, and deliberate use of foundational critical theory by women of color. I was asked to write about my experience with teaching social justice. Over the last couple of years my experience of teaching social justice has ranged for semester long courses to one time lectures, college students to high school students, 50 min to 6 hour long trainings, required to opt in. Currently, I create academic year long social justice curriculum for residential halls. I didn't want to write about technical pieces of creating social justice curriculum because I have learned that intent, critique, and commitment to research makes the quality of social justice so much more productive than a syllabus. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde, 1981). don't look for ways and teachings that already exist, challenge yourself to dismantle and recreate with representation, accuracy, and research.


Center for Disease control. (2012). Sexual Violence: Datasheet. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-datasheet-a.pdf

Lorde, A. (1981) `The Master's Tools will never Dismantle the Master's House', in C. Moraga and G. Anzaldua (eds) This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Boston, MA: Persephone Press.

May, V. (2012) “Intellectual Genealogies, Intersectionality, and Anna Julia Cooper.” Feminist Solidarity at the Crossroads: Intersectional Women’s Studies for Transracial Alliance (59-7). New York: Routledge.

About the author: Carina M. Buzo serves as the Assistant Director for Diversity Initiatives and Programs at Oregon State University.