The “Social Justice Smackdown” (And Why It’s So Not Helpful)

I don’t talk a lot about my actual, real job. Kinda like a superhero, my actual, real job is what I do by day so I can save the world by night.

Or to be more accurate, “so I can save the world by morning,” because I prefer to be in my pj’s with a cup of coffee whenever I do anything especially heroic.

It’s not that I purposefully avoid talking about my actual, real job. It’s just that there are very few occasions when it requires me to run into the nearest telephone booth and change into my pj’s.


Or my Wonder Woman costume.

But last week, I was at a training for my actual, real job, and we got into discussing the “Social Justice Smackdown.”

Now before I go further, for those of us who are less familiar with phrases like, “social justice,” please know that is totally okay.

This is the technical language of my trade, kinda like “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia” is the technical language of medicine.

While “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia” sounds like a bunch of fancy-pants SAT words, it actually refers to brain freeze.

Which most of us have experienced when drinking Slurpees too quickly.

The phrase “social justice,” may sound similarly intimidating, but it’s pretty simple.

It’s essentially the stuff we learned in elementary school. To play fair, share our stuff, and always look out for each other. Especially our friends who are being treated poorly.

So then, what is a “Social Justice Smackdown”?

While there is no formal definition because I kinda just made it up, I think you will know it when I describe it to you.

A Social Justice Smackdown is when we use tactics like talking down to people, shaming them into silence, and practicing other unproductive behaviors to, ironically, advocate for social justice.

What might this look like?


This isn’t how it looks. But it is how it feels.

It might look like ostracizing a woman who doesn’t self-identify as a feminist because she has “internalized sexism.”

Or telling a man who volunteers to mentor a woman that he is “reinforcing patriarchal hegemony.”

Or critiquing a woman’s use of the word “tribe” to describe her BFF’s because she is “appropriating Native American culture.”

While all of this may very well be true and “socially just” to say, it’s super not helpful.

Because not only are we using our educational privilege to marginalize others, we are undermining the ultimate goal of social justice, which is to heal the world through love and compassion.

Social justice is not about public accusations, trials among our peers or punishment. That’s a different kind of justice, the kind that takes place in a courtroom, but I think we sometimes forget.

Especially with each other. Because unfortunately, I see Social Justice Smackdowns take place within our own communities, among good people who are doing the best they can.

And that’s exactly what I did last week. To the man who posted the “tribe” comment on my girlfriend’s Facebook page.

Because he is a man, and she is a woman (and I am a self-appointed-women’s-empowerment-superhero), my social justice trigger got sprung.

So I threw on my Wonder Woman suit and smacked back. While I won’t get into specifics, my response sounded a lot like his. Intellectually arrogant, self-righteous in its definitiveness, and not very nice at all.

Eye for an eye, as they say.

This problematic exchange made me reflect on how I could have handled the situation better.

Because there are many times when people have shown grace around my social justice mistakes. When they restrained from giving me a Social Justice Smackdown and instead demonstrated love and compassion.

Two examples in particular come to mind, and they span the twenty years I’ve been doing this work.

In graduate school, one of my jobs was sending out mass emails to my classmates. Right before spring break, I encouraged everyone to wear sunscreen.

Soon thereafter, I received an email from a person of color who explained that she didn’t need to wear sunscreen because of her dark skin, and that in the future, I should probably not assume everyone who reads my emails is white.

Rather than emailing it out to the entire class – which would have been an epic Social Justice Smackdownshe sent her feedback directly (and privately) to me.

And she did it with such kindness that I actually called to thank her. 

Did I feel ashamed? Absolutely.

Did I feel shamed? No.

And from that place, I was able to apologize, learn for my mistake, and commit to never reinforcing whiteness as the norm.

More recently, I was meeting with a woman who works with the LGBTQ community. I made reference to a transgender person but couldn’t remember which pronouns to use. So in my fluster, I referred to the person as “it.”




Objectifying and dehumanizing “the other” is about as bad as it gets. But rather than looking at me in horror and judgment, my colleague said, “I know this is hard for you. Let’s try that again.”

There are many more times that I have been on the deserving end of a Social Justice Smackdown.

And as I stated earlier, there are times when I have doled out Social Justice Smackdowns. When my well-earned frustration has overridden my best self, and I have used tactics similar to the ones I abhor.

For this, I am very sorry.

So what to do?

First off, let’s remember why we are doing this work. And let’s create a healing space around it. Not for ourselves or to heal our wounds. But for others and to heal their wounds.

And when we feel triggered, let’s accept that this, too, is part of the work. We are going to feel frustration, even anger. So we must be very careful not to tell ourselves that we are fighting for social justice when in reality, we are fighting each other.

Because the tools of the oppressor cannot be used for liberation.

And finally, the time, place, and manner in which we advocate for social justice matters. Anything that elicits shame, silences others, or causes harm is counterproductive to our work.

We must demonstrate the very things we are asking for, advocating for, fighting for, and even dying for – love and compassion.

Because if we want to live in a socially just world where diversity, equity and inclusion are made real, we must practice it ourselves.

Please share this post with your social justice friends. And let’s heal the world together, bravely.

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