Dr. Stacey Pearson-Wharton blog article: Fixing a social justice rupture in your community

Over the past several decades, social justice educators have done the honorable work of educating our nation’s students on issues of power and privilege. With privilege walks, star power, difficult intergroup dialogues, this transformative work has permanently transformed the discourse of our nation; our conversation is truly more inclusive. Despite our best work even social justice educators can say hurtful, offensive things.

Take a small trip down memory lane with me—remember the last time you said or did some small thing that hurt someone you love. If you are like most of us, you probably felt guilt, remorse, and embarrassment; possibly, you were defensive or even ashamed. In the same way, when we commit a microaggression, we end up feeling guilty, remorseful, embarrassed, or shameful; we may even act defensively. Because we, as social justice educators, invest much in helping people learn not to say and do the wrong things, when we miss the mark, we are often devastated. But what I know for sure is each of our social justice leaders, from Grace Chen to Harvey Milk, from Malcom X to Laverne Cox, all risk saying or doing something that hurts, offends, or marginalizes someone or some group of people. Transformative work is difficult, and difficult transformations are often imperfect. Given this, chances are you will make mistakes too. Sitting with this fact might seem discouraging, but I feel hopeful.if everyone, can find ways to heal relationship ruptures once we’ve caused offense or hurt, the world would be a better place.

Healing a rupture is complicated, messy, and difficult, but I offer the following 4 steps to guide you and the person or people you care about as you move toward healing

1. Breathe, and move from focusing on yourself to concern for others: Do all you can to manage, regulate, and defer your own emotions until you have attended to the person you hurt.

2. Don’t contextualize, apologize: Quickly offer an apology, and ask for forgiveness. My experience has been that, oftentimes, the offender will consider the conflict resolved after apologizing, but I encourage you to move beyond a simple “I’m sorry” to heal the relationship. Someone seeking to heal doesn’t contextualize—they don’t share the number of gay friends they have or reiterate what they have done to help make campus more inclusive. Rather, to repair the relationship, acknowledge and take responsibility for what you did wrong—own your mistake—and then listen. Listen with your whole self; listen to the person or people you hurt, and seek to understand the complexity of their pain and the information they share. Let them know you’ve heard what they said, and then find out how to make it right.

3. Remember intent doesn’t always equal impact: If I slap you across the face to prevent a bee from stinging you, my intent was to save you from being stung, but the impact of the slap is going to be pain. As you listen, consider why your impact did not align with your intent, and how you might alter your behavior to achieve that in the future.

4. Do all you can to never, ever repeat your mistake: The power of your apology will wane with repetition.


Dr. Stacey Pearson-Wharton offers expertise and a positive approach for issues surrounding diversity, social justice, inclusion, and mental health to provide hope and healing in difficult times. Learn more about her keynotes at campuspeak.com/pearson-wharton.