University of Arizona

Episode 1
When Justice Goes Viral: Ruha Benjamin

How can we “act selfishly for our own humanity”? How might we recalibrate institutions so they reflect how our individual futures are intertwined? Explore these questions and more in a timely discussion with sociologist Ruha Benjamin. She takes on racism in education, healthcare, the arts and beyond in this riveting conversation. 

Currently, Dr. Benjamin is an associate professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. Her book, Viral Justice, offers an inspiring vision of change.


Amelia Kraehe Race/Remix

Chelsea Farrar This is Race/Remix, a podcast that pushes forward, enriching and challenging conversations about the arts and racial justice. We talk with artists, poets, writers, directors, dancers, designers, performers, and creative practitioners from the Arizona community and beyond. As you listen, be inspired to advocate and activate in your community. Together, we can create a more just joyful and sustainable world. Welcome to Race/Remix.

gloria wilson Welcome to Race/Remix. I’m your host, gloria wilson. Co-hosting this episode is Racial Justice Studio co-director Chelsea Farrar, and visiting with us today in the studio is Dr. Ruha Benjamin.

Chelsea Farrar Welcome to the show. Hi. It’s great to have you with us today to talk about your latest project, Viral Justice.

Ruha Benjamin Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

gloria wilson So to start off, Ruha, can you tell us a bit about yourself and the work that you do?

Ruha Benjamin Absolutely. So any question of origins, it’s hard to think about, you know, which story to tell. What’s the most relevant? We could talk about my academic trajectory and how it led me to this point in this project, and that’s perhaps the most boring, but you can find that out online to kind of read how that has winded through different fields and led me to viral justice through black studies.

There’s a personal trajectory. My family’s of Orange and my African-American side and my Iranian and Indian side and my parents meeting and deciding to marry after one day of conversation, which I will give you a little glimpse of in the intro to the book. So that that’s a little juicy, your store origin story and how the merging of those families have really shaped my thinking about race, ethnicity, diaspora, gender, nationality, borders, and all of the things that I ended up studying.

And so I think the thing that I will highlight here, perhaps meeting in the middle between the academic and the personal, is the fact that I am here because I’ve been cared for and nurtured by multiple communities throughout my life. And so a lot of what motivates me is the sense of responsibility and accountability to all of the people and communities that have poured into me.

My entire life. So I don’t I don’t know if I give this sense enough in the book, the fact that growing up I always felt seen and I felt big up, as we might say, a sense of purpose, a sense of a kinship that I was moving through the world, not just for myself. And so part of this book is just one acknowledgment for all of the things that I’m grateful for, the people that have taught me, not just my academic mentors, but, you know, all of the different people.

And so in terms of the citation practice in the book, it’s also trying to recognize that we learn and we gain knowledge not just from the things that we read, but from the things that we observe, what we encounter, the explicit things people try to teach us, but also all of the implicit lessons that, for better or worse, teach us what it to be human, to be responsible for each other.

And so I think what has led me to this project is just taking pause to note what have I learned in my life up to this point? What are the sources of that knowledge? How can I reflect back and share that with others? And so in many ways, as I say in the acknowledgments section, the whole book is an acknowledgment for all of those ties and those communities that have poured into me and have in many ways just cheered me on.

I felt all my life and buffered me from the harsh and hostile environments that I have also navigated that we all navigate. But I’ve learned that we can do that but still be protected and protect each other in the process.

gloria wilson You have said so many things that track and that resonate this notion of community, the notion of responsibility. You mentioned the community that gave you the big ups, you know, that tracks and what it seems like is this is also returning that big ups to the community that protected you and nurtured you, you know, through these notions of kinship and triggers, this idea of interdependence that you talk so beautifully about in your introduction. And so can you say more about that?

Ruha Benjamin Absolutely. You know, I was trying to think throughout the text, as much as I’m pointing to the things that are tearing us apart and that are killing us is death making structures at every point that I highlight and observe and dissect. One of those I’m pushing myself to look around for the antithesis, for the counter-narrative, for the process that is working to affirm us, to grow different things and alternatives.

And so in many ways, my methodology of writing the book was urging myself to look around for the things that we need more of. And so to the extent that I think about the fracturing, the tearing down that so many of our institutions and norms and structures engage in on a day to day basis. I want to ask ourselves, what’s the reality that these structures are fighting against?

The reality is that we are not atomized, individual, isolated, free, floating individuals. We are connected, for better or worse. That is to say, when something harms you, it in some ways is harming me. But when I’m picked up on that, that you know, the description of my communities that I have raised me over time is that they’re doing that also for themselves.

They’re pouring into me because it’s coming back to them. And so I want us to think about if the truth of our social and spiritual reality is that we’re interdependent. We have this sense of oneness. How do we have to recalibrate and restructure our world? So it reflects that back at us. And so one of the ways that we see this truth unfold is through our bodies and our health.

That is to say, inequality makes everyone sick, not just the obvious targets of unequal systems. And so when we start to actually see that, observe that empirically, that in cities, states, countries where there’s a wider gap between the haves and the have nots, there in those contexts, the so-called haves are internalizing the stress and the lie of their superiority.

We see that in terms of public health outcomes. So that’s a signal. That’s a sign for us that that structure of of resource hoarding and opportunity hoarding, while they may seem to benefit on one level, the principle of interdependence makes us observe the way that it’s harmful in the long run for them through, whether it’s the kind of anxiety, whether it’s kind of the anomie, the isolation that is required to hoard resources and wealth.

One story that didn’t make it in the book. If, for example, when I went to boarding school and in what was then called Swaziland as a tiny one of the first things I observed was that the very small elite in that country essentially had to fortify themselves behind barbed wire and high walls, that they had to imprison themselves in their wealth and have guards and have all of I mean, if you look from the outside, look like, you’re living in a prison.

To me, that was a symbol of what it means to structure a society against, you know, this principle of interdependence, where you’re trying to, you know, hoard and maintain your sense of superiority and wealth. And so that’s just a sign for what we actually can see in so many other arenas that might not be as visible. So, again, thinking about what it means, I think the invitation is once we start to reckon with the fact that equity, justice — this is not charity work.

This is not work that some groups are doing on behalf of others. I’m inviting you to this work to act selfishly for your own humanity, for your own well-being, to understand that you are connected to every other living thing on this planet. And so trying to create societies that reflect that back at us is beneficial to everyone, not just those who are currently suffering the most under these systems.

gloria wilson Ruha, Your latest book, project Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want, is filled with such poetic language and personal stories and references. Some of the greats, the writers, such as Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Christina Sharpe. There are six chapters of the memoir and social analysis chronicling moments and movements. What were your goals in this project?

Ruha Benjamin Thank you for that overview, that was lovely. You know, I started writing in April 2020 and in many ways I was writing for myself. I was writing to push myself to metabolize the grief and the anger that we were all experiencing at that time. It was like my personal mental health program to think about, okay, with this, you know, onslaught of headlines and hot takes and hashtags, whether having to do with public health or police violence.

How do I make sense of this? How do I turn this into something that could be nourishing, that we can learn from, that we could, you know, not sort of get buried under the harshness of the world that we were, you know, sort of witnessing together. And so I started writing in that space, that emotional space and mental space.

And it required me to think about both how I personally got here, but how we got here. Personally my own father, a few years prior, had passed away from another virus, the H1N1 virus, very suddenly. And so I was tapping into that still shock and grief of that personal loss. But to really think about the fact that it wasn’t the virus that killed him.

It was a confluence of stressors and oppressors that made him vulnerable to that meeting with the virus we might say. So that was a personal lessons. Then Think about what are we dying from? Are we simply dying from a biological entity that’s wreaking havoc on the planet? Or have we already been slowly dying from a whole confluence of stressors and oppressors that have made some more vulnerable to this particular moment than others?

So that was one starting point that I was trying to wrestle with and think about. How then do I plot those connections between slow death and swift death between our insides and our outsides? How do I move us beyond this idea of individuals being predisposed to certain forms of death in the way that the language or predisposition often takes the responsibility off of larger structures and institutions?

So that was one goal, was trying to plot those connections between things we might assume are discrete. And then the other was to really push myself to look around for the answers that already existed, not to report that I was going to present some new way forward, but to say there are already people, groups, movements, initiatives that long before this particular moment of crisis have been working to create the kinds of the fabric, the social fabric that we need to sustain ourselves, to buffer ourselves, whether that is the kind of flourishing of mutual aid that we saw that had a long standing tradition in many communities who may not even call it mutual aid, just call it living in community and sort of tracking that. What we assume is new in this moment. There are deep roots underneath the forest floor, the kind of mycelium that give rise to this, these, you know, this sprouting of these mushrooms and in moments of crisis. As I’m thinking here about an essay by Rebecca Solnit, who talks about how, you know, when we see the mushroom, we think, just appeared out of nowhere.

But no, under the forest floor, there are these vast networks and connections happening underground. And she likens that to the way that social movements and groups are working underground all the time, making connections, and periodically they erupt above the forest floor. And so just trying to, in my view, as so much of this book is trying to look beneath the forest floor to see what has been happening all along that we haven’t been paying attention to, that we can draw on as a form of sustenance to root us as we try to create something new out of this, this chaos and crisis.

And so I was thinking, if I’m writing myself towards that, trying to nourish myself, then perhaps this is maybe there are other people who would also appreciate this redirection, this attention to not just the harms, but also all of the soul searching, soul affirming practices of kinship and community and movement building that are happening all around us. And in many ways we know about one or two.

We have a view that you know of part of the world that this is happening, but I wanted to put it all in one frame so we can see, you know, we actually are doing a lot. There’s a lot going on. And so when we start to feel depressed, we start to feel, you know, like there’s no chance that we’re going to win.

I want us to give us a view of really our power so that we can build on that. And so it’s really an invitation to own our own power, collective power, as we try to not just uproot what’s killing us, but also see the kinds of practices and things we want more of.

gloria wilson So imagine our audience and who might pick up this book. Scholars, Non scholars. How would you describe what viral justice is?

Ruha Benjamin Yeah, it is a microvision of change. It’s a way of looking at the things that are seemingly small and understanding their import, understanding their connections to larger processes. Whether that seemingly small thing is a city budget where we look and see, oh, these line items are telling us where we’re putting our public funds. It’s a microscopic attention to looking and seeing, okay, if we’re pouring all of this money into policing, it’s not going into public health, it’s not going into social welfare.

It’s not going into housing and work. It’s not going into youth services. And so when we start to look at those little line items we see as the Seattle Solidarity budget organizers taught me and which I reference in the last chapter, that a budget is more than a budget. It’s a moral document that tells us what and who we value.

So that seemingly small thing actually is a portal, a lens into something much more profound. And that when we start to change what those numbers look like, as they did in Seattle, shifting funding away from policing into the things that actually serve us and actually keep us safe, that is that small shift in digits is a profound shift in values.

And we can see evidence of that change in our everyday lives. And so that’s just one example of many where viral justice becomes a lens to magnify something that seems otherwise, a small or easy to dismiss. So whether that’s on the sort of client side of budgets, but it’s also on the what we might think of as the more humanistic side of things like poetry and art, that we also need to sustain us, that we don’t just need food and air and water, but we need beauty and meaning so that the arts and poetry, something small, like a poem which easy to dismiss can be a way of reconnecting with our own humanity and those of others.

And so it’s bringing all of that into the frame so that we can understand that we don’t need everyone to do and be the same thing. The wars against us are coming on different fronts, top down, bottom up, sideways. So we need people working, thinking, investing their energy and talents in different arenas. We don’t need a prototype of an activist or an organizer that everyone else.

If you don’t fit this mold, then you’re not. You’re not. You’re a sellout. You know, we need to understand that all of these different modes of relating and organizing and worldbuilding are valuable. And once we begin to really revalue all of the different ways we come to the table, I think that is a beautiful foundation to build community and build movements rather than trying to cut off parts of ourselves to fit a mold of a particular, you know, type of changemaker that, you know, is quite limiting. I think.

Chelsea Farrar In your introduction, you set up kind of these different, like you said, like it comes and looks in different ways, right? And you set it up. And so beautifully the different ways that we see this notion of virility. Will you read a passage that gives a really great example of that first one at page 11 there?

Ruha Benjamin Yes. What if instead we re-imagined virality as something we might learn from? What if the virus is not something simply to be feared and eliminated, but a microscopic model of what it could look like to spread justice and joy in small but perceptible ways. Little by little, day by day, starting in our own backyards. Let’s identify our plots. Get to the root cause of what’s ailing us. Accept our interconnectedness. And finally grow the fuck up.

gloria wilson Thank you.

Chelsea Farrar I mean, you’ve talked already. Describe this idea of what this micro vision for change means for you and how you came to that.

Ruha Benjamin Yeah. I mean, I think part of it is me trying to wrestle with my own training as a sociologist and the attention to big macro processes and, you know, world like global level phenomenon. And, you know, we have wonderful language around institutional racism, structural inequality, these lenses that are getting us to pay attention at a scale that is well beyond the individual.

And I think for myself, I developed a kind of allergic reaction to anything that reeked of individualism. Like anything that was individual responsibility, individual, you know, if it just even smelled a little bit like it was in that direction, I would break out into hives, partly because of my training and partly because I know how that has been weaponized to keep people in place and to put responsibility on the most vulnerable for their own, their own circumstances.

That, in my own thinking, minimized the power of individuals to shape culture, that a society is made up of people. An institution like we talk about institutional racism as if it does not rely on individuals making decisions that are harmful. And so in some ways, that language that my disciplinary language can become a kind of alibi for individuals not to take responsibility for the ways they are complicit and responsible for injustice.

And so, again, me writing this book for myself was thinking, okay, I need to reckon with the power of individuals, both as a form of complicity, but also as a form of accompaniment. How can we channel our individual power, link arms to actually move things in the direction that we think we want to go rather than just throw up our hands and think, this is all institutional injustice or structural?

And so I can’t do anything, you know, like we have to watch in our own minds how that becomes a way out of taking action and trying to do something about the harms that we’re seeing. And so it’s an attention to virality or the seemingly small ways that we all participate in unjust systems is not an endpoint. It’s not to say, well, you know, this is the way it is, is to say if that is what we’re doing by just clocking in and out, following directions, following orders, you know, as a teacher, for example, that might be, you know, teaching a class the way it’s been taught for the last 30 years, you know, the same dead white guys not questioning the canon, you know, just carrying on business as usual, rather than saying, why are these the only people that we’re looking at as a source of knowledge? Did they, were there other people who were being neglected, scholars, artists, thinkers who I might want to include in this class on X, Y, and Z?

So that moment of me not caring, the pattern continuing on business as usual is is within all of us can sort of take that individual power back from the institutions that we work in to question and not to say there won’t be consequences and not to say that there won’t be a backlash because certainly we’re living in a profound moment of backlash, especially in the educational setting when it comes to teaching things that are different, expanding the canon.

So that is certainly the case. But I think we have to not simply put our heads down and assume that because things are happening at these larger levels, that we have absolutely no power. And my invitation is to say we do and we especially do when we work collectively. So not to say that I have to go at it alone, but when we look around and think, who else cares about this thing?

Who else is working on this thing? How can I join up with them? And when we begin to organize on a more collective level against whether it’s injustice in our educational system, health care work. And so there are lots of examples of that. And one comes to mind really quickly just in this context of education and technology. A few years ago, a number of schools were just kind of adopting these learning, these learning platform, these systems in schools to make learning more efficient and tailored.

Facebook was designing one called Summit Learning that was being adopted in many schools, and there was a group of students in a Brooklyn high school that noticed, okay, we hear all these buzzwords, tailored learning, you know, efficient, etc., etc. but we get to see our teacher for 15, 20 minutes a week of human contact. Otherwise, we’re stuck behind these screens and tablets under the guise of more progressive, you know, high tech education.

And they decided, no, this is not real education. And they staged a walkout and they made their feelings and thoughts known and got that platform removed from the school. And this is just one example of many of young people taking action and saying this is not real education. And so we see that in. And I’ll give you one more example, just because it’s on my mind in terms of health care, medical students who were like, we’re going out into communities where we know these stressors are in and pressers are impacting people’s health.

But our medical education is not addressing the role of racism in health. And so they looked at the curriculum, they looked at who was teaching them. They looked at the slides that were the pedagogy and they formed an organization called White Coats for Black Lives and chapters all around the country and started staging all walkouts and dying.

And when we had these high profile murders and they didn’t just object to the lack of attention and care and medical education for the role of police violence. But they said we need to change the curriculum. We need to change who’s teaching us. And so they decided, you know what, y’all are trying to grade us. We can’t grade you.

We’re going to grade the medical schools. We’re going to put a report out every year that kind of says where you fall along the spectrum of dealing with curriculum and faculty and community engagement and on and on. This is an example of viral justice because it’s people owning their power and not seeing themselves simply have consumers of an education that has been predetermined, but shaping the education that they want and need.

Saying we can’t graduate without this basic knowledge of racism and justice. And so you need to meet us where we are. And so, again, many, many examples. And when we start to, I think, hear and see, it can embolden us to think what’s happening in our own backyards. That needs to change. How can we link arms with others and begin to plot to plot a different way forward?

Chelsea Farrar Will you read another passage from your introduction Page 19, starting with viral justice as an admission.

Ruha Benjamin Viral justice as an admission. I am. We are exhausted, discouraged, grieving, and sometimes even to exhausted to grieve. It is a recognition that even the most resolute and hopeful among us worry that our efforts are futile, and we need encouragement to see another day in its attention to everyday insurrections and beautiful experiments. Radical designs for living, seeking, venturing, testing, trying, speculating, discovering, exploring new avenues, breaking with traditions, defying law, and making it viral justice expresses a deep longing that animates black life and that listing, I should say, is quoting here You can’t hear the quotes, but quoting Saidiya Hartman Beautiful experiments.

Chelsea Farrar This podcast, The Race Remix, is part of the Racial Justice Studio. And so in the Racial Justice Studio, we’re really interested in the stories of how the arts intersect with abolitionist and anti-racist practices. And so one of the reasons we really enjoyed your book is because it talks about and gives great examples of the ways in which visual culture, the arts, like through fashion and the way we present ourselves in the world.

And you write about this idea of presentation for preservation or visual indicators of care. Can you talk a little bit more about what that is, what you mean by that?

Ruha Benjamin Absolutely. So this was a section of the book where I was describing some experiences of being a kind of tween and teen and running up against my grandmother’s sense of fashion and respectability and my own kind of grunge rundown, rugged holey jeans, you know, big oversize clothes, combat boots. And so really thinking about fashion as a side of struggle and as a side of race making and identity making and generationally really thinking about where those tensions came from rather than just seeing it just dismissing, it’s just respectability politics.

Thinking about what in her life had made the investment and a certain kind of esthetic look, especially when moving through the world, especially when traveling is so important and thinking about what our fashion communicates to others. And for her generation, you know, growing up in Arkansas, moving to Atlanta for college and then Texas later as an adult, moving through the world, what that that particular way of looking like you belong to someone is the way that I describe it, where your clothes are pressed just right where you have the white gloves, where you wear, you look like.

Put together that. That’s not simply trying to be white or trying to be wealthy. It’s a way of communicating that someone woke up early to press my clothes, to wash my, you know, gloves to get my hat just right. So if I go missing. So if something happens to me, people are going to come looking. And so it’s a way of communicating again that you belong to someone that some group of people took care to get you ready and present you.

So learning that only really coming to grips with that later I understood why my esthetic which look like I didn’t belong and nobody I belong to myself was in some ways threatening because it meant that, if something happens to me, it just felt like a very fragile but meaningful way of trying to protect me. That didn’t feel like protection at the time.

And so, again, to your point that art esthetics representation there more than meets the eye, you know, there’s a whole politics and sociality bubbling beneath the surface that I think behooves us to really think about and reckon with rather than just reacting to the surface.

gloria wilson Ruha, you have been so generous, so thoughtful, so vulnerable. We appreciate that. And the beautiful work that you have done and you’ve left a lot for us to be inspired by. And so thank you so much.

Ruha Benjamin Again, the honor was all mine. Thank you so much for the really generative questions that elicited all of that gushiness.

Chelsea Farrar Thank you for joining the conversation on Race/Remix today. The podcast is the creation of Racial Justice Studio in Tucson, Arizona. Land of the Tohono O’odham and the Pascua Yaqui. This episode would not have been possible without the efforts of our team of students, staff and faculty fellows Me, Chelsea Farrar, Amy Crane, Gloria Wilson, Isaac Schutz, Deanna Scott and Jenny Stern. this program is brought to you by Arizona Arts at the University of Arizona, with generous support from John and Sandy Flint. If you enjoyed this episode, please invite your friends, family, students and colleagues to listen interested in joining our community or listening to more episodes, please visit Race Remix Arts School, Arizona dot edu and sign up to receive an email about upcoming news and events. You can also learn more about all of our guests in the show notes.

Amelia Kraehe Race/Remix





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