Do I Always Have to be a Social Justice Warrior?
Creating Safety and Planned Alliances for Bias Disruption
This isn’t an article about soccer, but did you see the U.S. win the Women’s World Cup on July 7? Did you catch the award ceremony where FIFA president Giannai Infantino was booed and the crowd chanted “equal pay”? (You can read the details of the pay discrepancy here, but for quick reference, the champion women’s team splits a prize of $30 million, while the winning men’s team splits $400 million.)
Watching these incredible female athletes, I could see parallels to the Civil Rights Movement—how both carefully coordinated strategy, timing, preparation, and ally building to advance their cause. And it all makes me wonder how these images impact personal, individual social justice against our daily encounters with bias. Looking at these big movements, we can feel plagued by guilt and worries of self-oppression if we don’t leap to speak out in the face of every slur or bias. And that can quickly lead to burn out. With the sheer number of microaggressions and overt racist behavior women of color face daily, it’s no surprise that I hear women of color say, “Being a social justice warrior all the time is too exhausting. I cannot spend all day educating, calling out, or pushing against racist systems.”
I hear their frustration and fatigue. I too feel the weight of that responsibility. But let’s take a close look today at the intense coordination and organization of the women’s soccer and Civil Rights movements, so we can take from them a lesson in planning, boundaries, patience, and discernment when it comes to being a social justice warrior and not burning out.
What Soccer and Civil Rights Can Teach Us about Bias Disruption
Their timing was perfect. The U.S. women’s soccer team had choreographed a flawless dance where everyone knew their part and stood ready to rally around their cause of pay equity for female soccer athletes. But did you know that their plans had been in place long before the stadium chant? First, a series of EEOC complaints in 2016, then a lawsuit in early 2019. The women’s soccer team has planned their campaign from the start.
This same kind of well-orchestrated activism was seen in James Forman’s organizing and leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Their commitment to disruption relied on intense training, coordinated protests and sit-ins, media alerts, and allies already standing by to lend strength and support.
And here’s another very recent example, this time from politics. When Senator Kamala Harris called out Joe Biden’s opposition to school integration bussing during a heated exchange at the first Democratic primary debate on June 27, it was the kind of well-designed plan that included maneuvers like her staff immediately tweeting out the now-familiar line, “that little girl was me,” along with an already-sourced photograph of her as a child. There were even t-shirts pre-made and ready for sale. Like generations of organized activists before her, Harris relied on a detailed playbook to make her moment count.
Choose Your Battles
The take-away from all three examples is that being a social justice warrior takes a great deal of planning, coordination, and foresight. Activists with a plan do not disrupt bias casually—there’s simply too much at risk to be utterly spontaneous with bias disruption.
You are a social justice warrior without having to fight every minute of every day.
In fact, you should be choosing your battles, planning your moves, always acting strategically. This leaves a great many hours in the day when you may not seem to be “fighting.” But no one can fight like that all the time without ensuring total and complete burnout.
5 Keys to Planning Your Bias Disruption
What does all this mean for facing bias in the workplace or your personal or public spaces? Essentially, the same principles apply to your bias disruption in the workplace - planning is key.
A Strategy for Your Fight
The first thing to be clear on is your strategy, as bias disruption should be part of a bigger plan with a larger and long-term goal. Otherwise, we’d spend every waking moment dealing with it and most certainly draining all our energy. It’s crucial to know what you’re fighting for so that you don’t spend all your energy fighting against everything.
So, get clear: what are you striving for? A project, advancement, compensation increase, more autonomy or authority, career change? Know what you want so that you can recognize what’s actually standing in your way.
Know What Disenfranchisement Looks Like
Sometimes, a bias—even an egregious one—isn’t necessarily one you need to disrupt. The bias that disenfranchises you is the one you need to focus your resources and attention on. This distinction matters: a stranger can hurl insults at you, but that’s different from your supervisor presuming you’re not up for a leadership position because of your gender. While the former is hurtful, it is only the latter that holds power over your opportunities. Why spend your energy confronting a bigot on the street (unless you’ve got the energy to spare, and yes, sometimes people just need to be held accountable or called out), when the end result will not likely affect what you’re striving for?
It’s important to recognize that an act of disenfranchisement is when someone’s bias is costing you something. This means you’re excluded, denied opportunities, unfairly set back, harassed, etc.
I’ll share a personal example. Back in 2015, as I was starting to focus Leverage to Lead more on working with women of color, I was speaking with an acquaintance who opined that Asian American women would not likely want to work with a black career coach. As an Asian American man, he presumed to speak for an entire culture’s prejudices. His comments were frustrating and hurtful. They were also ridiculous, evidenced by the fact that at that very moment, I had many Asian American clients. Did I need to protest his bias? Did his opinion hold power over anything that I was trying to accomplish? The answer for me at the time was clearly no. I moved on.
Build Your Team of Allies
When the moment comes to disrupt, you need both a plan and a network to rely on. The women’s soccer crowd had been turned into a sea of allies by the team’s years of work ahead of the championship win. Kamala Harris had built up a base to share out her tweets and publicly support her moment in the debate. Your allies must be cultivated and ready as well.
Consider this fictionalized scenario: you decide that you need to disrupt a male colleague’s behavior in meetings. He regularly interrupts, talks over, ignores, and dismisses you. Ahead of the next meeting, you hold conversations with other coworkers about this behavior and ask them to support you the next time this happens—to serve as your allies. They can do so by validating the occurrence of the behavior you call out and holding the offending colleague accountable. Allies are crucial in publicly confronting bias because their voices lend credibility and solidarity.
Establish Safety First
Even with a solid strategy and dedicated allies, you shouldn’t disrupt bias in an unsafe environment. If your organization isn’t committed to its relationship with you or willing to do the necessary work of moving through disruption into reconciliation, then your disruption will have limited impact and maybe even pose a risk to you.
In the scenario above, the person wanting to disrupt bias in the meeting should do so if they know their supervisor holds people accountable for unprofessional behavior, that there is not a culture of punishment or retaliation, and that their contributions to the organization are valued. You should feel confident about your safety and wellbeing before you disrupt.
Emerge from the Disruption Ready to Lead
The disruption itself is not the end goal. There has to be something more, something beyond the bias you are clearing out of your way. For the women’s soccer team, it’s currently a proposal for a hearing before the U.S. Senate about wage disparity, which they achieved with strong support and momentum after their win. For Kamala Harris, it was a surge of donors and supporters that is helping advance her campaign.
None of this means the situation will necessarily feel resolved. Quite the opposite usually follows most bias disruption and other kinds of DEI work. We’re left feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable for some time, which doesn’t sit well with our desire to have problems solved with simplicity. The discomfort is a space we must occupy and move through in order to grow.
A Social Justice Warrior’s Creative Audacity
Recently, a client who is deep into the creative audacity phase of her career, recounted how she took a big, bold idea to a powerful regional director at her organization and had it shot down. It was a disappointment, and we strategized a different approach and a different audience for her idea. Disrupting bias in creative audacity is about preserving and protecting your creative energy so you can continue to do your best work.
This example also illustrates one of the pitfalls of creative audacity: sometimes we get so excited and enthralled in our ability to create, we lose sight of discerning our true allies or make a move in haste. Creative work is hard to do on your own. Don’t underestimate the value of having a mentor or coach by your side to lend perspective or a reality check when needed.
Get Some Space
Disrupting bias is time- and labor-intensive work. You shouldn’t do it alone or on top of all your other responsibilities. You need real space and time to dig deep, get some feedback, make a plan, and start building alliances. Later this fall, I’m co-hosting a retreat called The Antidote along with Alison Park of Blink Consulting, specifically designed to offer you this much needed space and support, along with the crucial validation of the biases you’re battling. Read more about the retreat and join us in October for a career-defining and career-changing gathering of fearless and ambitious women of color who are ready to leave behind apprehension and step into audacity together.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If you would like to receive her newsletter directly in your inbox, please subscribe here.