-isms, not -ists

To achieve the goals of social justice, we need to reform society at the system level. We need to dismantle rac-ism, sex-ism, cissex-ism, heterosex-ism, gender-ism, able-ism, class-ism, and more.

Too much of social justice discourse and calls-to-action are focused on the -ists, the people participating in (and perpetuating) those systems.

Our focus on individual actors keeps increasing in social justice spaces I occupy. It’s almost all of what I notice in online social justice activism/advocacy. I’m guessing you’ve noticed it, too.

This focus often takes the form of punitive social justice, identifying perpetrators, dragging them, publicly shaming them, “canceling” them.

We also see it in listicles with titles that highlight the # Ways You’re Part of the Problem. Or the inverse: # Ways to Be Part of the Solution.

We experience it in workshops with activities designed to highlight individuals’ privilege or contributions to oppression.

Every time a finger gets pointed at a person — whether they’re a Fortune 500 CEO or a high school student — we’re focusing on an -ist.

We do it because it feels good, or tangible, or even just doable. It’s something that’s within our power. The system seems out of reach.

Every campaign to “cancel” an -ist — whether successful or not — isn’t the same as addressing the system. It brings our attention away from the system and toward an individual within it.

It’s the -ism that created the conditions where that person’s behavior seemed right, celebrated, or like the only path they could walk, but instead of addressing that, we scapegoat the -ist. A ceremonial sacrifice that opens up a vacancy the machine will dutifully fill with a replacement who can perform the role.

The system is unscathed, and potentially strengthened: the next person won’t make that same misstep, better concealing the machinations of the -ism.

Do we need to focus on -ists, to some extent, in the pursuit of social justice? To hold people accountable, transform them, foster growth?

Maybe. I don’t know. I certainly know that I’m not saying — here, now — that we never should, or that we never need to.

What I’m saying is that focusing on -ists will never be sufficient. That it’s energy we’re directing toward a symptom, not a cause.

And that if we don’t do it carefully, it’s likely to create more problems than solutions.

It already is.


Add Your Voice

About the Author

Sam Killermann Self Portrait

Hi! I'm Sam Killermann. I'm the author of A Guide to Gender: The Social Justice Advocate's Handbook, and I was featured in Katie Couric's NatGeo documentary "Gender Revolution". I created It's Pronounced Metrosexual in 2011. I write everything here and doodle the doodles myself. Bonus: everything I create is uncopyrighted and freely accessible — I even coded (& open-sourced) this site itself, my gift to you. Read More →

All of my work is directly supported by patronage, so if you appreciate what I'm doing you can pay me to keep doing it. I bet you'll also dig these other things I made: