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Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education

reviewed by Sherry L. Deckman & Tanya Kinigstein

coverTitle: Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education
Author(s): Ozlem Sensoy, Robin DiAngelo, & James A. Banks (Ed.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758612, Pages: 288, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo take on an important yet challenging task in Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education (2nd edition): providing a primer that strives to balance complexity and accessibility in critical social justice education for a broad audience. Part of James A. Banks’ Multicultural Education Series, the book’s foreword, preface, prologue, twelve chapters, and glossary cover a great deal of ground in promoting “social justice literacy” with chapters combining theoretical explanations of and practical engagement with concepts ranging from culture and socialization to oppression and power to racism, classism, and ableism. Consequently, faculty who teach undergraduate courses related to social justice, multicultural education, and educational foundations in particular will find Is Everyone Really Equal? relevant to their work.


This second edition begins with an updated foreword, situating it in the current political context. Banks, citing this historical moment, including the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, Brexit, and the xenophobic response to the Syrian refugee migration, argues that we are living in a time where social justice work is under attack and that this book is positioned to bolster knowledge and practice associated with these essential concepts. Following this provocative foreword, in the preface, the authors differentiate “social justice,” which they define as “principles of ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ for all people and respect for their basic human rights” (p. xix), from “critical social justice,” an approach grounded in understandings of social stratification and the recognition of “inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society” (p. xx). This critical lens is employed throughout the book in both the text and in the end-of-chapter discussion questions, extension activities, and “patterns to practice seeing” exercises meant to help readers interrogate taken-for-granted patterns in the world; for example, how “whiteness [is] exported globally in various domains,” such as education, beauty, and sports (p. 152).


The groundwork for having students understand critical social justice is laid out in the prologue through a parable about two strangers meeting from unfamiliar cultures. The parable pushes readers to consider how perspective and social location impact worldview. Noting that differences are not neutral, however, the authors introduce the issue of power. This also previews the authors’ use of stories throughout the text to elucidate key constructs.


What was formerly the appendix in the first edition, an overview for students of how to engage in the context of a critical social justice class, has become the first chapter. This chapter raises points worthy of discussion as students begin the often contentious work of understanding oppression, addressing head-on the issue of “resistance” that regularly comes up in such courses, particularly among white students (see Pollock, Deckman, Mira, & Shalaby, 2010). The authors suggest that students do not have to agree with the theories and frameworks presented, but before they disagree, they must first seek to understand the theories put forward and try using them as lenses through which to view the world. In an appeal to logical reasoning to validate social justice scholarship, the authors also explain peer review and stress that all evidence provided in this text has undergone a rigorous vetting process. This is a theme returned to throughout the book and may help to convince those who would otherwise be skeptical of the material presented.


Chapters Two through Five illuminate foundational concepts in critical social justice education, namely critical theory, culture and socialization, prejudice and discrimination, and oppression and power. For instance, Chapter Three provides a clear frame for “seeing” culture and socialization and understanding how the two work together and form (or inform) our experiences in the world. The authors draw on the iceberg theory of culture to help students understand that much about who we are lies “below the surface,” resulting in deeply ingrained (and difficult to consciously notice) patterns of thoughts and behaviors. Similarly, Chapter Four focuses on defining, differentiating, and providing examples of prejudice and discrimination, while Chapter Five offers complexity and vocabulary for considering the “isms” (e.g., racism and sexism) and how they work collectively in the construction of dominant culture. This framing helps readers consider the difference between individual discrimination and institutionalized oppression. Taken together, then, these first few chapters position students to be analytical thinkers who engage with potentially painful and challenging material by helping them develop a foundational critical social justice vocabulary.


Building on this base, Chapters Six through Ten apply the concepts from the first half of the book to social “isms.” In Chapter Six, for instance, the authors draw upon nuanced examples and scenarios of privilege and ableism to explain concepts such as “normality” and the invisibility of privilege to those who have it. The chapter further illuminates how these issues play into the myth of meritocracy and the internalization of entitlement by people with dominant identities. An example, “Disability Bingo” (p. 94), a bingo card of “annoying and unpleasant” things people with physical disabilities hear regularly, provides a humorous and penetrating visual representation of widespread ableism and how it is connected to narratives of normalization and superiority of able-bodied people. The authors also address school segregation for students with disabilities and show how they are often essentially exiled from schooling with those who have able-body privilege, and they name segregation as “a basic component of oppression” (p. 84). Part of the authors’ definition of privilege here clarifies that “it isn’t even necessary to agree that we should receive [privileges]” to still benefit from them (p. 83), a concept which is essential in developing critical social justice literacy. When considering privilege, the authors offer a helpful question to pose to any given situation or phenomenon: “Whom does this belief benefit?” (p. 92).


The authors have included important updates to several of the chapters in the second half of the text. Chapter Seven relays updated examples of sexism from popular culture and current events. Similarly, Chapter Ten is new to this edition and provides an especially insightful description of the amorphous construction of “class,” arguing that at its root, class is about political power. Understanding how these systems (e.g., ableism and classism) have worked historically and in contemporary society prepares education students to interrogate how these systems also work in terms of educational opportunities and denials of opportunity.


In the concluding chapters, the authors explore common rebuttals to social justice education and offer a path forward in terms of social justice perspectives and skills that readers can translate into actions. They also offer a useful extension activity for readers to examine their own autobiographies through the lens of the concepts and theories discussed in the book. This provides an opportunity for students to question how their own stories have been impacted by privilege and oppression, and is exemplary among the other extension activities provided by the authors at the end of each chapter to support students’ further learning.

While Is Everyone Really Equal? is a valuable text for learning to see the world (and oneself) through systems of oppression, two key issues must be considered to that end. First, the beginning of the book may strike some as targeted at white readers, which is not entirely surprising given that the majority of students preparing to be teachers are white women (Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckery, 2014). Nonetheless, the authors address this issue by (a) stating that we are all part of minoritized and dominant groups (e.g., one might be a straight, cisgender, able-bodied, black male and belong to several dominant groups as well as a minoritized racial group); (b) stating that minoritized students can benefit from the theoretical constructs put forward in the book and deepen their discussion of issues they have faced; and (c) arguing that this can be empowering because it removes blame and stigma from the challenges faced by minoritized groups. These are important points as students of color may arrive at introductory courses with little familiarity with the theoretical constructions of oppression, white supremacy, structural racism, etc., even if they have the lived experiences and everyday knowledge to name and critique these phenomena. However, minoritized students might be less concerned with removing blame and stigma and more interested in looking for community uplift and liberation, for instance. Additionally, in the “Sexism Today” section, the authors detail examples of violence against women, which could be triggering for some readers. While the lists on these pages are powerful, they are also painful to read. That is likely part of the point, though caution is warranted so as to not further harm people through retraumatization.

We would encourage professors who choose to use this text for a course to ensure that their classroom community is configured so that the direct way the book deals with painful topics can be engaged with in a way that is not damaging to groups that are already disenfranchised and marginalized in dominant educational settings. In such a context, Is Everyone Really Equal? can optimally forward the authors’ aim of “inspir[ing] readers to actively engage in critical social justice practice” (p. xxi).



Ingersoll, R., Merrill, L., & Stuckery, D. (2014). Seven trends: The transformation of the teaching force (CPRE Report # RR-80). Philadelphia, PA: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.

Pollock, M., Deckman, S. L., Mira, M., & Shalaby, C. (2010). But what can I do? Three necessary tensions in teaching teachers about race. Journal of Teacher Education, 61, 211–222.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22345, Date Accessed: 10/18/2018 12:22:38 AM

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