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The Aesthetics of Social Justice

Appearance sidetracks our internal processes

The academic school year has begun and as a graduate student in clinical psychology, I am reminded of the many roles I have played over the years: researcher of sexual violence victimization and other traumas, teaching assistant, instructor, mentor, and therapist. Amidst these responsibilities, social justice advocate is the most unexpected role I have had. 

Advocacy started simply enough, with writings about racism within and outside of academia. With UO’s high profile mis-handling of an alleged gang rape case, my advocacy linked directly with my studies: My education in trauma psychology had implications for addressing sexual violence on college campuses. I began to notice how each of my roles as a graduate student were rooted in social justice advocacy. 

For instance, as an instructor, I used my theory on cultural betrayal to encourage students to critically think about how discrimination may impact outcomes of within-group violence for minorities; as a researcher, I published articles and presented work at conferences that explained the importance of incorporating the sociocultural context into our examinations of the aftermath of abuse. 

With this work came an uncomfortable truth. While many appeared to be moved by my lectures, presentations and writings, invariably there were those who were distracted as well. During one conference presentation, I am told by a male attendee that my skin and hair are so beautiful. Following a classroom lecture, a male student informs me how attractive he thinks I am. In preparation for presenting a talk, a woman advises me that because I am charming and beautiful, people will listen to me. And the list goes on. 

At first, I thought I was being oversensitive — and ungrateful. After all, these were compliments that sometimes benefitted my fights for social justice by providing exposure for topics like rape that thrive in silence and secrecy. Over time, the pattern became undeniably predictable — and harmful. In striving to be a professional who can effect social change, I was implicitly and insidiously reduced to an object, with no mind or boundaries worth respecting. Furthermore, the irony is not lost on me that this was occurring in the context of discussing societal and interpersonal trauma: the causes of which include objectification and dehumanization of those who are victimized. 

I had begun to accept this treatment as simply a cost of publicly fighting for social justice. Yet, I have come to realize that precisely because this exoticism and benign sexism is antithetical to equality, it truly has no place in social justice advocacy. Therefore, I am reluctant to spend time teaching myself ways to cope, expect and ultimately accept this behavior. 

Instead, I challenge all of us — including myself — to question our internal processes, examining how gender inequality, racial stereotypes and bigotry in all forms influences how we interact with, judge, listen, accept and challenge each other. For after all, the fight for social justice cannot be relegated to a hypocritical battle to make things better over there. We must work simultaneously to change the status quo here