Aware of Injustice — Critical Consciousness of our Social World

(published on Noozhawk 7-22-2013)

Many people think that they are awake while actually remaining half-asleep, according to social psychologist Erich Fromm. Their contact with reality is only partial and they are largely unaware of much of the social world. Their belief systems are largely delusional fictions fed to them by popular media outlets and other cultural institutions. They basically know what they think they need to know to survive their everyday lives.
This lack of critical social awareness has dire negative consequences for the functioning of society. Because people do not know about how our social world operates, they are often poorly informed about social problems and their root causes.

Lacking knowledge about the reality of the world leads to very poor citizenship and threatens the working of a healthy participatory democracy.

We can fall into the “cynical cycle of mindless inaction” in which we practice habitual actions without wanting to know about their consequences. Our ignorance about social injustices leads us to feelings of apathy, indifference and denial.

Within the protective confines of our personal cocoons we might be avoiding the anxiety that could arise as a result of learning about the world’s vast injustices, but we are also avoiding the opportunity for healthy growth that often emerges when we face the truth about the world.
The most important consequence of this lack of critical social awareness is that because people do not know about the continued existence of systems of privilege and oppression, they will not come to oppose them.  n awareness of injustice frequently compels people to break the silence upon which these systems so fundamentally depend.

For example, if men lived with an ongoing analysis of how male privilege affects the everyday lives of women, there would be far more active opposition to it. They might say and do something.

There is a prominent tradition in social science that speaks to this lack of social awareness. Revolutionary thinker Karl Marx famously discussed the “false consciousness” of workers who he felt did not grasp their true place as oppressed laborers in the relations of capitalist production. For Marx, dominant ideologies often become accepted by people as “the way things actually are.”

These powerful and pervasive cultural mythologies can blind us to other interpretations of the world, and keep us from understanding the nature of reality.

There are a number of reasons for this lack of critical social awareness:

» We are insulated by systems of privilege that allow us to ignore the suffering of others. Upper-class people, men, whites and able-bodied people (among others) can live lives in which they remain significantly cut off from the lived experiences of poor people, women, people of color and people with disabilities.

» We tend to exclude information that doesn’t fit into our current meaning system. Moreover, we seek out information that confirms our present belief system. This is a sure way to stay stuck in the conventional cultural framework.

» We tend to avoid issues that evoke anxiety, fear and guilt. Finding out that the world is grossly unfair and that our behavior contributes to that unfairness can be very disconcerting.

» We are often overworked, stressed out and very, very busy. How much time do we really have to commit to learning about the world’s injustices when we are barely able to pay our bills and already feel overwhelmed with the numerous issues that are on our plates?

» We are plugged into electronic media that constantly entertain us, distract us and lead us to feel already overloaded with depressing information.

» Our formal schooling has taught us about the big personalities, big events and important dates of our culture’s history without providing a comprehensive and critical framework to make sense of these disparate facts.

» Popular culture and mass media frame everything as “infotainment” without ever providing tools to comprehend the importance and relevance of the limited events they do discuss. For example, even if, by chance, we do learn about Trayvon Martin as an “innocent victim” and George Zimmerman as an “evil doer,” we probably will not learn about the system of injustice that routinely devalues the lives of black men in our country.

» We see these issues of injustice, inequality and oppression as “other people’s problems” and not really relevant to our own lives. We assume that these people get what they deserve (“just world hypothesis”). We have no sense of our complicity with these systems, and our silently going along with the systems is crucial to their ongoing maintenance.

The development of critical social awareness is necessary for a healthy civil society and participatory democracy because it leads to informed action and ethical behavior.

Gaining critical consciousness is a matter of intellectual growth and maturity. It can be an educational outcome, although it certainly need not occur in the classroom and has several elements that defy any standard notion of curricular planning and pedagogical finesse.

In fact, many aspects of our educational system actually stand in the way of one gaining critical consciousness of our social world. Noted Brazilian educator Paulo Freire referred to these aspects as “banking education” — the dominant model of American education.

So, what are some ways that we can become more socially aware?

» 1. Break out of your comfort zone to experience diverse people from unfamiliar groups. Nothing opens one’s eyes to the world more than meeting and conversing with people who think vastly differently than you do. In high school, everyone I knew was white, Christian and middle-class. In the dormitories at my undergraduate college, I first encountered people very different from me in so many ways, including Puerto Rican nationalists, lesbian separatists, New York Jews, etc.

» 2. Bear witness to social injustice and listen to the stories of those who have been marginalized, displaced and silenced. Gaining firsthand experience with and understanding of people who are poor or have experienced racism, sexism or other forms of structural violence, etc., puts a human face on what can to the naive can seem to be an remote and removed category of person (e.g., victim of racist oppression). To bear witness to injustice is to not turn away, but to face the ugly and upsetting realities of our world. To bear witness to injustice is to allow one’s self to feel the discomfort of observing the processes of inequality, hatred and discrimination.

» 3. Write your own autobiography focusing on the elements that have most importantly shaped your worldview. Critically reflect upon your life and analyze major incidents, turning points and social influences on how you became who you are. Introspection and self-reflection on your own journey are key ways to open up to the world.

» 4. Let go of the notion that your way of viewing the world is the “one right way.” Become more open-minded to the worldviews of others. Learn to take the perspective of others and come to empathize with their way of seeing things. Come to see your beliefs as “working hypotheses,” which can always be subsequently revised or retired. Know that most of the world does not think as you do in the slightest and come to truly respect these other worldviews as legitimate, meaningful and valid.

» 5. Develop spiritual practices that open you up to the world. Meditation and prayer can nurture mindfulness and compassion. Discernment allows us to access sometimes deep and obscured inner truths. Service to those less fortunate cultivates empathy. Getting involved with community to better the world nourishes the soul.

» 6. Understand that our society as a “system” has a history and that it changes over time. “Systems thinking” helps one to connect the dots, so that what previously seemed like disparate and isolated phenomena are now seen as intrinsically linked and part of a greater whole. Learning about how societies change over time reveals that “our way of doing things” is just one of a number of ways in which social arrangements have been done, and is not necessarily the “best” way or the “natural” way.

» 7. Create a lifelong learning plan to systematically examine power, privilege and oppression in our society. For example, having gone to American public high schools, I came to realize that my understanding of diverse “minority groups” was abysmal. I subsequently spent a number of years exploring Native American, Chicano, Asian American and African American histories and cultures. Read the compelling writings of, to just list off a few important names not mentioned elsewhere in this essay, W.E.B. Du Bois, Simone de Beauvoir, Franz Fanon, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy E. Smith, Gloria Anzaldua, Edward Said and Ward Churchill.

» 8. Accept that you probably need to do a lot of “personal work” to unlearn oppressive ways of thinking and acting. This personal work involves facing your emotions, examining your prejudices and acts of discrimination, and becoming an “ally” with oppressed groups in the struggle for liberation.

» 9. Critically reflect upon the life experience of a loved one who has been unfairly affected by life’s challenges. I have met many people who became awaken to the nature of our social world through experiencing the suffering of a loved one. A mother who deals with her son’s addiction and mental health issues might subsequently have a much greater appreciation for the issues of those struggling on the streets. A man who deals with the sexual assault of his wife or partner might subsequently gain understanding of patriarchal domination. The family of someone with mobility impairments might become awakened to all the barriers that exist for those in wheelchairs.

» 10. Conscious-raising groups are groups of people who dialogue on some issue or concern hoping to heighten their awareness. In the late 1960s, feminist women often came together to discuss and analyze the oppression in their lives, without the interference from the presence of men. With the insight of black feminist thinker Patricia Hill Collins that we might all be potentially both oppressed and oppressors at different times in our complex lives, consciousness-raising groups increasingly have been done with mixtures of oppressed and privileged people.

Of course, there are numerous other ways in which one can have one’s eyes opened to the injustices of our social world.

Stages of Social Awareness Development

As children grow older their thinking becomes more complex. They begin to open their eyes to the world around them. Throughout time, people have noticed an elegant procession of sequential stages of developmental maturation that individuals go through, often at varying speeds.

The development of critical social awareness happens in stages in which people move from a naïve acceptance of the dominant culture’s perspective and being ignorant about institutional oppression and privilege to becoming fully aware of social injustice and actively fighting for social change.

While some people become “blocked” at earlier points in this evolution, the whole gamut of possibilities is potentially available to all people, no matter from where they originate.

The stages are not rigid and firm steps, but merely handy labels to break up a fluid and somewhat amorphous process. I have broken the process of developing social awareness into four stages, but that number could easily have been expanded or contracted:


First, we begin our journey to social awareness cut off from the happenings occurring around us and often happily oblivious to the injustices of the world. We wholly accept the conventional perspectives of the dominant culture on the nature of reality. We are only concerned with our own lives and do not venture out of our comfort zone. We live within a trance of denial, refusing to face the harsh realities of the world. We are frequently caught up in the cynical cycle of mindless inaction.


At some point our eyes begin to open to the reality of the world and the ubiquity of injustice. Sometimes the development of this heightened consciousness is gradual and accumulative; other times some triggering event jolts us from our sleep. Once the protective cocoon is cracked with information about one issue, we can, but do not necessarily, become more open to learning about other issues. Our illusions become shattered as we face the facts that things are not as they originally appeared. This can lead to emotional anguish, anger and sadness. It can hurt to realize our long-term complicity with systems of injustice.

Facing the Despair

If trauma and emotional paralysis are not going to overwhelm someone, they must deal with the feelings that have arisen as a result of their newfound knowledge of the world’s injustices. As stated above, they must do the “personal work” of unlearning oppression. Accepting the world as it is, integrating this new understanding of the world into a new worldview, and adapting our behavior can be a painful and drawn-out affair. Suffering is a part of the process of awakening — it is how the universe gets our attention. As we deal with the negative emotions, we open ourselves to movement toward wholeness and healing.

Expanded Consciousness

With eyes wide open, we no longer live with complete illusion. We not only accept the harsh realities of the social world, but seek to live intentionally making the world a better and more just place in which to live. We are able to integrate new information about the world. Having pushed through the trauma of human misery, we have grown into profound and often spiritual wisdom and see the world as filled with liberating possibilities. We decide to become an ally and a change agent.

We as a species are also undergoing a process of awakening on the collective level. Sociologists, such as Anthony Giddens, call this “reflexivity.”

We are increasingly aware that our actions have the ability to alter the course of history (even if only slightly). We alter our behavior in light of what we learn about the world, and we are aware that through our changed behavior we, in turn, change the world. For example, we recycle our cans and bottles knowing that they can contribute the pollution of our world.

The challenge of maintaining critical consciousness takes ongoing commitment. A person must make awareness of social injustice and potentialities for social change a part of their everyday life.
Systems of privilege and oppression will not simply go away because people have become socially aware. Centrally, we must apply our understanding to change the systems themselves.  This is praxis.

I implore you to continue on your journey of becoming critically conscious of the world’s injustices. No matter where you currently are in this journey, you can continue to awaken to the state of our social world and deepen your commitment to taking action for social change. While it is easy to become discouraged by the plight of those who suffer from the abuse of systems of oppression, and it is equally easy to become disheartened by the callousness of those who benefit from systems of privilege, never lose sight that the grand course of history is on your side and that, as Martin Lather King Jr., observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”