When Did Human Decency Become ‘Social Justice Work’?

A white woman who says she’s ‘An intersectional feminist who does social justice work’ is as confusing to me as a Racial Dolezal.

I know white women who contribute to various charities, Go Fund Me campaigns, and even random Black and Brown people in need. They refer to these contributions as reparations. They’re part of several online groups that examine racism through intense conversations. These conversations are held with mostly other white people. These women are proud to tell anyone who’ll listen that they are committed to this ‘work’.

What the ‘work’ looks like in the absence of people of color.

For the sake of clarity, I’d like to provide a short-yet-resourceful list for Karen’s who struggle to differentiate the concept of human decency and social justice work:

Paying Reparations: Any reparations payment is a sliver of balance for all that undeserved white privilege. Sadly, white people’s version of social justice work, as well as their definition of reparations has distorted human decency, and any chance we had of getting our forty acres and a mule.

Educating Yourself on Racism: Whoever you’re learning from is the one doing the work. If the person who taught you is white, than the person they learned from is the one who did the work. The white person who taught you is simply regurgitating what they ripped off from a Sister.

You should want to know about what’s going on with marginalized people without acting like you’re clocking into a nine-to-five.

Standing Up to People Who are (slightly) More Racist: Remember the series finale of Seinfeld, when the gang was imprisoned for witnessing a crime and not acting on it? That’s a real life law! We actually live in a country where our laws force punishment on apathetic people who refuse to act on behalf of those who cannot. So, whether you’re standing up to a white woman who’s threatening to call the cops on a Black man, or you’re defending your friends from your racist uncle who never misses an opportunity to blame racism on Obama, you’re not working, you’re doing your civic duty. We’re living in Biff’s America; at this point you’re either a bully, a bully-enabler, or a decent human being.

Speaking about how much you love and respect Black women: This is nothing more than fanning out. I don’t care or keep track of how many times a white woman hashtags Follow Black Women, or how many snaps she gives Oprah or Kamala Harris. I care about what white women are doing for Black women, not what they’re saying. This form of performance allegiance is most shallow because it can be done without the expectation of amplifying and standing with a Black woman within proximity. And, by amplify, I damn sure don’t mean retweet. I’m not talking about the Black woman on your timeline, I’m talking about the Black woman in your department at your real job. It’s become common practice to opt out of extending any form of tangible support and camaraderie in exchange for simply posting, “Black women should run the world!” Not only is that not work, that ain’t right, Karen. Your life is your message, not your Facebook status.

Publicly berating, demeaning, and disrespecting someone in the name of ‘social justice work’: This alarming trend is on the come up, and it isn’t just popular with white people, either.

I’ve witnessed a woman of color tell another woman of color to “Get a life” when called-out on her practices with white women. I’ve seen a white gay man publicly humiliate a Latinx queer woman, backed by a group of ‘allies’, in a way that was both disrespectful and abusive. Black men and Black women debating about who is most oppressed and victimized to the point where the B, N, F, and C words are flying around like they have wings. It can get… really ugly.

People who result to cruelty and verbal violence may want us to believe they’re doing it in the name of ‘the work’, but, the reality is that they’re really working on behalf of their own egos.

Any white woman who has mistaken any act of human decency towards marginalized people for work is bound to cause harm.

Perhaps white women feel they have the liberty to refer to acts of human decency as work because they do it so successfully that they actually get paid for it. White feminists such as Gwenyth Paltrow (my most favorite white feminist of all time), Drew Barrymore, and as of late, Rose McGowan broaden their base and increase their asking price with every #metoo reference and nod at feminism. While Tarana Burke continues to fight for people of color who are victims of sexual assault, often settling for low-to-no paying speaking engagements, McGowan’s work has come with the Cadillac of paydays, including a new book and a reality series on E!. It was the encouragement of her base that inflated her ego to the point where she exuded transantagonism, and, continually insults Black women by using them as optics on her show. It’s to be expected from a woman with homegrown ideology on what the ‘work’ is supposed to look like when marginalized people enter the fold.

White women who mistake human decency for work is damaging to everyone. Rather than develop the tools to interact with Black and Brown people without weaponizing their whiteness, white women are only further isolated in their white world, speaking about people of color without ever interacting with them. Thus, when they finally do get around a person of color — God help them both if its a Sister, the white woman is likely to challenge and mistreat the person of color she’s supposed to be helping.

This shit has to stop.

I’ve watched these white women (and white men) create their own world with their own perception of what social justice is supposed to look like, and how they’re going to bring this “work” to fruition. They do a really good job with their work… until a marginalized person enters the picture. These people have no qualms attacking, berating, and humiliating a person of color, or even one of their own. They do it with glee, quoting Heather’s and Mean Girls while personally attacking and publicly shaming marginalized people — usually, women of color, all while having the guile to do it in the name of ‘social justice work’.

White women have romanticized the notion of investing time and energy into race relations and feminism to the point where all they have to do is stitch up a few hats and deposit a few bucks in some Sister’s PayPal to be considered employed in ‘the work’. The fact alone that no one ever ask these women “Who is benefiting from the work you do?” and, more importantly, “How is your standing with Black women?” enrages me.

The worst part about white women romanticizing being a decent human being is that it leaves zero room for Black women. You know… the ones who live, breathe, and die for this work (know that what we consider work is our challenge to exist without restriction or fatality in our designated intersection of gender and race, all while caring for our families and making sixty-five cents for every white man’s dollar).

I’m not suggesting that white women stop payment on their financial contributions, drop out of their affinity groups, and stop striving towards deweaponizing their whiteness. Rather, I’m suggesting that they take these acts out of the ‘work’ file and place them in the more appropriate, ‘human decency’ section.

White women must learn that it is indeed possible to hold the hand of accountability, work on bettering themselves while bidding adieu of their racist ways, and helping the marginalized… at the same time. Until then, the only thing that these white women are actually working on is the last nerve of every Black woman they cross. Nobody gets a cookie for human decency, and it cannot be deposited, shared, retweeted, or tallied up.

“White people, I don’t want you to understand me better. I want you to understand yourselves.”

— Ijeoma Oluo

Tamela J. Gordon is a writer, Black feminist, and creator of the women’s empowerment group, Sisters with Aspiration, as well as SWA’s Intersectional Book Club. You can gift books for readers or pay Tamela HERE: To contact Tamela for speaking engagements or creating your own women’s empowerment group, email shewritestolive@gmail.com

Writer. Feminist. Advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS.