An Autoethnographic Call to Social Justice: Ruha Benjamin Interrogates the Culture of Injustice

Using personal stories and scholarly studies, Benjamin digs into the reality of how injustice impacts all of humanity.

By Sherri Lawson Clark

Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want, by Ruha Benjamin. Princeton, 2023. 392p, 9780691222882 $29.95, 9780691224930 $19.95, 9780691222899

book cover of Viral Justice by Ruha Benjamin

Cultural anthropologists conduct ethnographic research to “write a culture,” entailing years of intensive observations and in-depth interviews with a specific group of people. The aim is to describe what E. B. Tylor defined in 1871 as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”1 Despite volumes of adaptations to the definition of culture, Tylor’s holds as one that encompasses what it is that anthropologists hope to capture via ethnographic inquiry.

A closer examination of Tylor’s definition of culture begins with knowledge; thus, culture is learned and shared, and this knowledge is used to generate behavior and interpret experiences.2 Gradually over time, anthropologists have recognized the roles they play in shaping the kind of data they have been able to collect while in the field, prompting the practice of journaling, through which anthropologists reflect on their daily observations and interviews, which proves quite useful when analyzing and interpreting data. This manifestation of autoethnography has been defined by Professor Christopher Poulos as,

an autobiographical genre of academic writing that draws on and analyzes or interprets the lived experience of the author and connects researcher insights to self-identity, cultural rules and resources, communication practices, traditions, premises, symbols, rules, shared meanings, emotions, values, and larger social, cultural, and political issues.3

In Viral Justice, sociologist Ruha Benjamin (African American studies, Princeton Univ.) writes a culture using her own lived experiences situated in a world of injustice. Employing the tenets of autoethnography to organize this review, I hope to render the vigor, passion, historicity, and call to action that Benjamin presents to her readers. She begins and ends with the symbolism embedded in a homeplace reminiscent of bell hooks’s Yearning (1990), where “all that truly mattered in life took place—the warmth and comfort of shelter, the feeding of our bodies, the nurturing of our souls.”4

Benjamin leads with the Great Migration of Black families following Reconstruction, using her own family’s journey from Georgia to Los Angeles in the 1950s as a springboard. She ruminates on childhood experiences and life lessons growing up in the “White House,” her paternal grandparents’ home (p. 1).5 She learned how to navigate the neighborhood from her parents, grandmother, and surroundings, including the sounds of drive-by shootings, helicopters flying above, and sirens wailing through the night. The emotions wrought by these memories resurfaced with the 2020 shooting of Breonna Taylor, who was violently killed by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers when they entered her apartment under a no-knock warrant searching for suspected drugs.

Benjamin eloquently describes Taylor’s case along with countless others, situating their individual lives within the larger political, economic, and social structures in which they are experienced. For example, she describes Taylor’s occupation as an EMT, which put her life in danger every day during the COVID-19 pandemic as she was considered an essential worker. And yet, she died in her sleep at the hands of those who are sworn and paid to protect. Benjamin’s reflection on what it means when a country decides who is (and who is not) considered “essential” is both irrational and a tragic irony (p. 4).

The world’s response to the pandemic holds many lessons that could bring us closer to a more just world.

As Benjamin argues, the world’s response to the pandemic holds many lessons that could bring us closer to a more just world. COVID-19 showed humanity at its best—e.g., community members coming together to ensure that children had what they needed for remote learning—and at its worst—e.g., mass burials and unmarked graves on New York’s Hart Island. Her rallying cry in Viral Justice is to “little by little, day by day, starting in our own backyards … identify our plots, get to the root cause of what’s ailing us, accept our interconnectedness, and finally grow the fuck up” (p. 11).6

Chapters 1–6 present countless ways in which exploitation and injustice impact not just the marginalized but all of humanity. For example, studies have shown that Black women have the highest rate of C-sections in the United States, which one might attribute to poor health among Black Americans. However, when broadening our perspective, Benjamin notes that the United States has the highest rates of C-sections in the world, double that of France, Sweden, and Finland. How can it be that we spend the most per capita on healthcare yet have “the highest rate of chronic diseases, lowest life expectancy, highest suicide rate, fewest physician visits and highest rate of avoidable death” (p. 192)? The answers to these disparities can be found in racist social structures that dehumanize Black women as well as financial incentives that exploit all women by compensating physicians more for performing a C-section delivery rather than a vaginal delivery.

In her 2017 essay “Cultura Obscura: Race, Power, and ‘Culture Talk’ in the Health Sciences,” Benjamin uses critical race theory to examine the ways in which language in the health sciences is used to “conceal the social reality of [marginalized] people [while] hiding the positionality of those who employ cultural generalizations.”7 She compares the divergent language used today as the government responds to the opioid epidemic as a white problem with the 1965 Moynihan Report that described “the Negro Family” as “a tangle of pathology.” The former “medicalizes drug use, treating addicts like patients” while the latter “criminalizes Black and Latino drug users.”8 Patients are given sympathy and criminals evoke scorn.

Viral Justice ‘requires confronting many of the foundational lies—such as the myth of meritocracy—on which our societies have been erected and laying a different foundation … by telling the truth.’

(p. 140)

Viral Justice is not rocket science. In her chapter “Lies,” Benjamin boldly asks, “What are we pretending not to know today?” (p. 111). Research and everyday experiences confirm disparities by race, gender, age, disability, religion, and nationality in our schools, hospitals, prisons, workplaces, places of worship, and social venues. Viral Justice “requires confronting many of the foundational lies—such as the myth of meritocracy—on which our societies have been erected and laying a different foundation … in the hearts and minds of young people … by telling the truth” (p. 140).

A final tenet of autoethnography that applies to Benjamin’s book is that she “balances intellectual and methodological rigor, emotion, and creativity.”9 Whether reflecting on a childhood experience or retelling a story of parenting her sons or her experiences in the academy, Benjamin expertly knits them into the fabric of society. Throughout the text, she separates the discussion of her lived experiences from relevant political, economic, social, cultural, and historic events by inserting the Adinkra symbol, Funtunfunefu Denkyemfunefu (“Siamese crocodiles”). Though the crocodiles share one stomach, they continue to fight over food, harming each other in the process. In this way, Benjamin expresses the meaning and power of a world committed to viral justice. For example, when Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price cut his $1.1 million salary to $70,000, he raised the minimum wage of his staff to $70,000 and was able to offer them unlimited time off—the quintessence of Viral Justice.

In her last chapter, Benjamin sends her readers back to where they began at the White House, which has been rehabbed by new owners and is now La Casa Azul. House colors may change and people may come and go, but the neighborhood nevertheless continues to foster solidarity. Throughout her book, Benjamin captures and holds her readers’ attention while daring us “to weave new patterns of thinking and doing … internally, interpersonally, or institutionally” (p. 284). Viral Justice is an excellent addition to collegiate libraries and should be required reading on college syllabi that embody social justice. Communication and education majors will benefit from Benjamin’s literary style and her ability to draw in diverse readers. Her autoethnographic approach enhances any qualitative methods course in the social sciences. Finally, Viral Justice is a must-read for any practitioner of or advocate for global justice.

Notes

1. Edward B. Tylor,  Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art and Custom, 2v. (3rd American edition, from the 2nd English edition, Henry Holt and Company, 1883).

2. James P. Spradley and David W McCurdy, Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology (13th ed., Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2009).

3. Christopher N. Poulos, “Conceptual Foundations of Autoethnography,” in Essentials of Autoethnography (American Psychological Association, 2021) p. 4.

4. bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, (South End Press, 1990) p. 41.

5. Autoethnography tenets 1 and 3: “uses a researcher’s personal experience to describe and critique cultural beliefs, practices, and experiences … uses deep and careful self-reflection—typically referred to as ‘reflexivity’—to name and interrogate the intersections between self and society, the particular and the general, the personal and the political.” Tony E. Adams, Stacy Holman Jones, and Carolyn Ellis, Autoethnography (Oxford, 2015) p. 2, quoted in Christopher N. Poulos, Essentials of Autoethnography (American Psychological Association, 2021) p. 4.

6. Autoethnography tenet 6: “strives for social justice and to make life better,” Adams, Jones, and Ellis (2015) p. 2, quoted in Poulos (2021) p. 4.

7. Ruha Benjamin, “Cultura Obscura: Race, Power, and ‘Culture Talk’ in the Health Sciences,” American Journal of Law & Medicine 43, no. 2–3 (2017) p. 225, doi:10.1177/0098858817723661.

8. Ibid, p. 227.

9. Autoethnography tenet 6: “strives for social justice and to make life better,” Adams, Jones, and Ellis (2015) p. 2, quoted in Poulos (2021) p. 4.

Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; professionals.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – Sociology

Be sure to also check out Viral Justice in “Resources for Understanding the Ethical Implications of Aritifical Intelligence (AI),” featured on Toward Inclusive Excellence.


Sherri Lawson Clark is Associate Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the American Ethnic Studies program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her research examines the effects of public policies on the lives of low-income families and communities.