Breathing Deeply : A Personal Pedagogy of Social Justice in Higher Education

by: , January 14, 2020

© Photo by Brittani Burns

Sometimes my pursuit of justice is like breathing. I follow subconscious actions going through the motions not realising my life is being supported by air—something outside of myself. Sometimes I am so unaware of my dependency on air that my brain focuses on critiquing others I perceive as being too focused on their breath alone. Sometimes breathing seems more tangible when it is hindered. Blocked by cold or allergies, what I wouldn’t do for a full breath in those moments. One can actually breathe shallowly their whole life and still live; however, it is the lack of deepness that can ultimately impact the quality of life. Deep breathing promotes health, strengthens muscles, and re-establishes centre. The thing with breathing is this: to breathe deep requires consciousness. Left alone, the body will not subconsciously breathe deeply. Spending time breathing deeply changes the capacity for conscious breathing—meaning the deeper you consciously breathe, the more your body learns that there is the capacity to breathe deeply all the time.

Social justice, too, requires conscious depth to expand its capacity well beyond acts of self-awareness, good intentions, or charity. To build depth within an ethic of care, social justice requires at least these three parts: a) breathing in—the naming and learning of one’s identity, place, and privilege (Harro 2018a; Kimmel & Ferber 2017; Kirk & Okazawa-Rey 2018; Tatum 2018); b) breathing out— the dismantling of unjust institutions and systems through an awareness of context and personal contributions (Butler 2018; Carbado 2018; Killerman 2018; Johnson 2018a; Lipsitz 2018; Mantsios 2018; Smith 2018; Williams 2018; Young 2018); and c) repeating—the intentional choice to continue doing the work (breathing in and breathing out) in order to create pathways towards liberation for all (Anzaldúa 2018; Harro 2018a; Johnson 2018b; Love 2018; Mohanty 2018; West 2018). Without all three parts, social justice in practice is incomplete. From the perspective of a white-passing professor, the next three sections establish the vitality of each of the three parts—breathing in, breathing out, repeating—for social justice and ethical leadership in higher education.

In Practice

Breathing In

Breathing in, as an act of practising social justice, requires the learning and naming of one’s identity, place, and privilege. One cannot breathe out without first breathing in. In the same way, one cannot do social justice without first taking the time to be aware of their own positionality. Barbara Daniel Tatum suggests that ‘integrating one’s past, present, and future into a cohesive, unified sense of self is a complex task that begins in adolescence and continues for a lifetime’. (2018: 7) Identity is complex because it is not static. Gwyn Kirk & Margo Okazawa-Rey expand this statement: ‘The social features of one’s identity incorporate individual, community, social, and global factors’. (2018: 15) Thus, identity is also complex because it is not just personal. Each person operates within a social location, ‘the core of a person’s existence in the social and political world’. (2018: 15) Learning and naming identity, then, is about who one claims to be as well as the location where one’s claims are received. The findings are regulated by privilege.

Privilege is not one-size-fits-all, but multi-layered. One may hold privilege in one part of their identity and face oppression because of another part. (Kimmel & Ferber 2017) As a leader in higher education, unpacking the layers of privilege, both personally and professionally, is part of breathing in. This is necessary work to have a more holistic understanding of how privilege looks, feels, and works within the individual, systemic, institutional, and structural systems of higher education. This internal work is required in order for breathing to be deep. Leaders in higher education must acknowledge how their positions are informed by their socialisation (Harro 2018b) in order for breathing to become a source of liberation (Harro 2018a): for their bodies and for the bodies of all others in their spheres of influence.

Breathing Out

Breathing out, as an act of practicing social justice, requires the dismantling of unjust institutions and systems through an awareness of context and personal contributions. If the breath in is not deep, the actions of social justice will breathe out convenience rather than intentionality and promote innocence as an assuage of guilt. (Tuck & Yang 2012) Shallow justice like this is characterised through list after list of social action items circulating as buzzworthy trends. (Adams & Zúñiga 2018) In reality, the majority of these action lists are removed from the individual and abstracted from the larger ecosystem of oppression. Iris Marion Young addresses this by stating:

oppression refers to the vast and deep injustices some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well meaning people in ordinary interactions, media and cultural stereotypes, and structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms—in short, the normal process of everyday life. (2018: 50)

As a white passing leader in higher education, I must daily choose to opt into the work, to not turn away, and to not let my own body obscure the concept of truth. It is imperative that oppression is not synonymous with a normalcy of practice. ‘Systems do not perpetuate themselves: they are perpetuated by the actions of people who act automatically on the basis of their socialization’. (Love 2018) Thus, the capacity to breathe out should leave one feeling spent and compel one to breathe in even deeper the next time. This is not to say that one should be out of breath, but it is an acknowledgement that holding back does not increase the next breath. Just like giving power to those who do not have it does not automatically mean that my own power is threatened. The more one holds onto their breath—stereotypes, assumptions, hierarchies, prejudices, power—the less room there is to go deep. With a deeper capacity to breathe out, leaders in higher education, can ‘promote change beyond personal and interpersonal contexts’'(Adams & Zúñiga 2018: 49) alone. Breathing out every breath one takes in allows for there to be a full commitment to the steady work of dismantling well beyond quick fixes.

Repeating 

Repeating, as an act of practising social justice, requires the intentional choice to continue doing the work (breathing in and breathing out) in order to create pathways towards liberation for all. To only breathe in and out once—no matter how deep—and expect to sustain one’s body is unreasonable. Social justice reduced to one act—again, even if deep—cannot sustain the consistency required for change. For example, as Allan Johnson asserts,

privilege will not simply go away as the result of a change in individual consciousness. Ultimately, we’ll have to apply our understanding of how systems work to the job of changing systems themselves … Maintaining a critical consciousness takes commitment and work. (2018b: 622)

With this perspective at hand, Bobbie Harro calls out liberation as having capacity beyond the individual:

Liberation is based on something far bigger than me as an individual, or us as a coalition, or our organization as a community, or any one nation, or any particular world. It’s about that force that connects us all to one another as living beings, that force that is defined differently by every spiritual belief system but which binds us by the vision that there can be a better world and we can help to create it. (2018a: 634)

For the leader in higher education, repetition of deep breathing is what creates and sustains the work of social justice as a pathway towards liberation. I repeat by learning the names, cultures, and positionalities of my students. I repeat by letting go of my own need to feel comfortable and centred in all discussions. I repeat by letting go of single stories and pressing forward with a posture of learning rather than knowing. I repeat by holding complexities and not trying to fix everything because I think I can and should. I repeat by doing the work and not expecting it to be done for me.

Conclusion

Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. These three parts of social justice practice require courage, especially in the context of leadership in higher education. ‘It takes courage to wake up and stay awake instead of engaging in complacent slumber. It takes courage to shatter conformity and cowardice’. (West 2018: 635) It takes courage to call out how whiteness is privileged by educational policy. It takes courage to stand up for under-represented voices when the school system does not. It takes courage to say ‘no’ to an academic conference engagement because it is not accessible by people with disabilities. It takes courage to keep repeating the work of consciously breathing.

While it can be tempting to approach social justice as if this way of breathing is standard practice, it is certainly not universal. Not everyone needs to be or will be consciously breathing for change to happen—on campus, in communities, in cities, in nations, in this world. There is hope in the leaders in higher education who have not given up and continue to breathe deeply because they have been transformed by each breath. One must also recognise that leaders in higher education ‘do not all have to do the same thing in the same way. Instead, we must support each other’s efforts, realising that they are all part of the larger enterprise of bringing about social change’. (Hill Collins 2018: 618) As a leader in higher education, there will always be tension in the work of social justice as it will continue to involve people and the systems they create. It is because of this tension, and not in spite of it, that breathing deeply will also always be worth the work.


REFERENCES

Adams, Maurianne & Ximena Zúñiga (2018), ‘Core Concepts for Social Justice Education’, in Maurianne Adams et al. (eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 1-6.

Anzaldúa, Gloria E. (2018), ‘Allies’, in Maurianne Adams et al.(eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 637-639.

Butler, Robert N. (2018), ‘Ageism: Another Form of Bigotry’, in Maurianne Adams et al. (eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 567-572.

Carbado, Devon W. (2018), ‘Privilege’, in Maurianne Adams et al. (eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 367-373.

Harro, Bobbie (2018a), ‘The Cycle of Liberation’, in Maurianne Adams et al. (eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 627-634.

Harro, Bobbie (2018b), ‘The Cycle of Socialization’, in Maurianne Adams et al. (eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 27-34.

Hill Collins, Patricia (2018), ‘Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender’, in Maurianne Adams et al. (eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 615-620.

Love, Barbara J. (2018), ‘Developing a Liberatory Consciousness’, in Maurianne Adam et al. (eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 610-615.

Johnson, Allan G. (2018a), ‘Patriarchy, The System: An It, Not a He, a Them, Or an Us’, in Maurianne Adams et al. (eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 362-367.

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Killerman, Sam (2018), ‘Examples of Christian Privilege’, in Maurianne Adams et al. (eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 264-271.

Kimmel, Michael & Abby Ferber (eds.) (2017), ‘Part Two: Understanding Privilege’, Privilege: A Reader, 4th edition, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, pp. 67-158.

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Lipsitz, George (2018), ‘The Possessive Investment in Whiteness’ in Maurianne Adams et al (eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 87-96.

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Smith, Richard ‘Chip’ (2018), ‘The Personal is Political’, in Maurianne Adams et al. (eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 157-161.

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Young, Iris Marion (2018), ‘Five Faces of Oppression’, in Maurianne Adams et al. (eds), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, New York: Routledge, pp. 49-5.

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