The Price of Privilege: Swarthmore and the Social Justice Requirement

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social justice requirement

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Social justice is a big monster to tackle. Social justice seeks to recognise the ways in which our society fails people, the way we fail people. In essence, it addresses privilege, though is often is reduced to race, class and gender. We all have privileges at one point or another; just you reading this means you must have some privilege.

To not acknowledge one’s privilege can be arrogant, hurtful, demeaning, and dangerous. When media or popular culture makes an effort to not employ stereotypes or be more inclusive, it is seen as revolutionary. People want an expansion of society’s mind, and inclusion of the many varieties of people that exist. Social justice asks us to acknowledge how some people have not been included in society. It asks mainstream culture to deliver more accurate portrayals of the people we are, the people we are surrounded by and to not settle for less. It is not perfect, but this does not mean we should abandon such efforts to be better.  

Now, zooming in to our community, Swarthmore. I went to one of the forums discussing a social justice requirement. What I took away from it is that people on our campus are not all on the same page, making it difficult to engage in dialogue when people are missing the basic frameworks for discussion.

Some argue that social justice is everywhere. Certainly, at Swarthmore there is no shortage of people advocating social change. Yet, exposure is not engagement. From my own experience I know I can choose to leave conversations that make me uncomfortable, not take responsibility for the ways I perpetuate harmful norms, turn a blind eye to the hurt my friends live with. Freedom of choice for one’s education and flexibility in one’s schedule are both important, but they are not the real arguing points to be had here. The truth is that these  arguments strive to make life easier and convenient for people, but that is not life. As it is, every graduation requirement is easier for some people and cumbersome for others we all get it done eventually.

I am insulted by the argument that we should not inconvenience people. Isn’t it rather inconvenient to be marginalized? To have your identities result in ubiquitous microaggressions, misunderstandings and a lifetime of opportunities closed off to you because of who you are? I am insulted by the argument that professors will determine grades based on someone’s opinions or only scheme to indoctrinate people. The professors I have come to know and love are neither so one-dimensional in the content they teach, nor pompous enough to grade based on their own biases.

I am insulted by the argument “people who are unaware/ignorant of X will be resentful and will dislike being informed.” I am wrong all the time. I am sorry that my ignorance has hurt others. I want to learn and change so I do less of this. I have taken classes I haven’t wanted to, or don’t have a knack for. Was I frustrated, yes, all the time. But resentful? Spiteful? At the very least, taking a class out of obligation taught me about myself and my limits. Social issues are ubiquitous and I have trouble seeing how being able to recognize and talk cogently about them is a waste of time.

Swarthmore’s distribution requirements are at the heart of a liberal arts education. The school values producing well rounded individuals who can engage with the scientific method and knows from the humanities how to put these questions and answers in context of who, what, when where and why, all while staying afloat mind you – we do in fact have a swimming and PE requirement. These requirements say we think it is important to think in a variety of ways about many topics because the world is interconnected. I want a social justice requirement because this too would place value on being aware of the social paradigms we exist within and reinforce everyday.

I live within and reinforce the patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and ableism all the time, even if this is not my intention. Placing blame is not the goal of social justice, nor should it be a consequence of its actions. Society is something we are all raised in and part of. Fault is not responsibility, however. We are the future. We can and will make our own future and determine the society that younger generations will inherit. Everyone can agree that the “-isms” are bad. Bad in that they are hurtful, exclusionary constructs of power. Why can’t we all agree that we need to systemically change? We need to implement new policies, more education and a world that that no longer rewards taking advantage of the disadvantages we place on people.

Yes, I admit there are real concerns and critiques of a social justice requirement. People are well aware of the many pitfalls – cultural appropriation, reinforcing stereotypes, revising or minimizing history, demeaning and trivializing difference or otherness – especially at a place like Swarthmore, where there is ample privilege policing. A world full of good intention and careful wording is great, but is it what we need? Certainly, social justice should not be a monolithic indoctrination. Nor, should it be considered some unchangeable ideology that we simply strive to conform to.

I see problems such as certain departments being flooded, not enough faculty involvement, not enough engagement with other fields (like STEM where social justice issues intertwine with its history, but aren’t seen as relevant). Even compiling a list of existing courses that address social justice issues can reinforce the limiting mindset that social justice is a cause for minority populations to rally for and for certain fields of studies to address.

I see the question not as a “why” but as a “how”. We need to think carefully about the logistics  of a social justice requirement and make sure that there is nuance to our implementation.

College, especially a liberal arts school, is about learning to think. To think about social issues, we need to be aware of them. To pursue social justice, we need to recognize all the ways injustices are incurred. There is no wrong or right. It is not villain versus victim. We are all perpetrators, and we all already pay the price. Engaging with social justice should help us recognize social issues in our own lives, in our own fields of study. Being aware of your position in society, the privileges you do or don’t have and recognizes the position of others and the world they are perceiving, either similar or different to your own world, is something that makes us better people and better citizens.

Image courtesy of www.swarthmore.edu 


  1. I think you should read Arjun’s op-ed on this and maybe try to directly address his arguments next time. He made some good ones! And I think his article serves as the paradigm for someone you’d want to refute.

  2. This article is so weighed down by social justice buzzwords (Are people really well aware that “cultural appropriation” is a pitfall of an SJ requirement? Would it be? I’m not even close to seeing that as a concern. What is “privilege policing?”) that it’s actually hard to identify the critical arguments.

    The main issue I have with it is the “exposure is not engagement” one. When do we decide when someone has sufficiently “engaged” with contemporary SJ ideologies? There is absolutely an expectation among teenage/college-age SJ communities that, unless someone adheres to the correct dogma and perceives the world in such-and-such a way, they are in need of reeducation and improvement. Sure, an SJ-geared Swarthmore course might demand more nuance, but there are plenty of us– privileged and oppressed alike– who are legitimately uncomfortable with addressing the topic directly in any context (let alone one that’s GRADED) given that atmosphere. We’re not blinding ourselves to the truth of our privilege or whatever; we might even be members of marginalized groups ourselves, or activists in our spare time.

    Social justice issues ARE ubiquitous. Everyone is a perpetrator, but nearly everyone is also a victim on at least some domain. Many classes (mostly social science and humanities, and rightly so– I have no interest in learning about representation during chemistry class) incorporate relevant issues into their subject matter (and if not there, they nearly always come up in class discussion), so a hard academic requirement is simply invasive and unnecessary.

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