A Case for Putting Down Your Pitchfork: Curiosity as a Tool for Calling People In

Humans are innately meaning makers. Meaning gives us order and order gives us comfort. We are forever sorting people and attempting to make sense of them, the things that happen to us, and the world. We do that through our interactions and unfortunately mostly based on assumptions. All day, every single day, we make assumptions about people based on their words and actions. We make assumptions about their intentions, values, and character - among other things. As Brene Brown says, we make up stories about people. Sometimes these stories are true and sometimes they are reflections of own insecurities, fears, distastes, experiences, etc.

We are often quick to get defensive and grab our pitchforks based on assumptions without extending to other people/organizations the same things we want for ourselves. I am a flawed and broken human who often gets it wrong. When I misstep, I hope that other people 1. assume I had good intentions and 2. give me an opportunity to explain myself. If that’s what I want for myself, shouldn’t I grant other people the same courtesy? The simplest way to find out if your assumptions about a person or organization are correct is to ask.

As Brene models for us, when I find myself frustrated with someone or even an organization, I try to pause to reflect on what is fact versus what is the story I made up about them. This exercise is so telling. Nine times out of ten, my frustration or distaste comes from my assumptions rather than reality. People are nuanced and far more complicated than we give them credit for and sometimes we over-complicate things that actually have a very simple explanation.

Let me give you an example. I recently sent a draft of an essay to an editor. She sent back some notes and edits. I revised and resent it and then I waited. And I waited. And I waited. After a few weeks I started making up a story about what was going on. She hated my revisions. She was going to pull the essay. I was a terrible writer. The piece was bad. You know what was really happening? She was busy. She had taken on some new assignments and was adjusting to a new routine. She also had a sick kid and a trip that pulled her away from work for a few days. What was going on had very little to do with me or my essay, but I had convinced myself otherwise. I should have stopped and sorted out the truth from the story I was making up. My assumptions were wrong and had led me down a rabbit hole of shame and insecurity.

I’ve found this process useful not just in my personal relationships, but also in social justice and advocacy work. I catch flack sometimes from fellow advocates and social justice minded folks for making too much space for dialogue. They think I am negotiating with terrorists. What I am actually doing is trying to meet someone where they are and move them to a more progressive stance. I’m probably not going to convince someone to do a 180 on an issue in a single conversation, but if I can help them move 5 degrees, that’s something. I am often doing elaborate mental gymnastics to help people unpack their problematic views and recognize within themselves that what they believe is problematic. You know the best person to convince someone that they are wrong? Themselves. Dialogue, questions, and curiosity open us up for unpacking things while pitchforks often shut people down and push us farther into our respective camps.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to police emotions or invalidate disruption and pitchforks as effective tools for change. They absolutely have a role in creating effective and lasting social change. Sometimes dialogue is impossible. Having the time and space to put down your pitchfork comes from holding privilege. Change can be incremental when your life or livelihood don’t depend on it. Sometimes we don’t have the time to wait for incremental change that dialogue brings. Sometimes we don’t have the energy for it. In those cases, have the pitchforks ready.

What I am saying is that curiosity is sometimes the most powerful tool in our toolkit when we have the time and space to strategically create change. Perhaps before we act, before we rally the troops, before we sharpen our pitchforks, maybe we take a deep breath and try to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Maybe we take a beat to strategize about how we can be most effective. Maybe we consider whether this is an opportunity to call people in instead of calling them out. Both approaches have value and sometimes the most effective thing to do is grab the pitchfork, but sometimes we miss opportunities to create lasting change because we are reacting out of emotion and based on faulty assumptions.

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Stop Wasting Your Energy on People Who Don't Give a Sh*t

In the process of becoming a foster parent, you are asked to identify what sort of children you are willing to accept into your home. You can specify age, gender, disability status, race, etc. After a few discussions, Dustin and I decided that we could be open to any child up to age 5 without significant disabilities. I was in graduate school pursuing a doctorate in sociology when we got certified. Having studied a number of social issues (including race), I felt like I was relatively aware of the unique challenges a child of color might encounter and we thought we had a very inclusive community of friends and family, so we checked all of the race boxes. But intellectual awareness and emotional awareness are two very different things and I was about to get a first hand lesson in people not living up to my expectations of who they are. When we brought home a black boy, we were confronted head on with racism. What startled me the most was not the experience of racism, but who it was coming from. People who we loved, people who were "good Christians”, and people who we trusted were engaging in incredibly problematic behavior.

My first instinct was to offer grace and to help them see their words and actions as racist. I loved these people, I shared years and years of memories with some of them, and I desperately wanted them to remain in our lives but I could not continue to tolerate their behavior. Too much was at stake. A few people were willing to do the work, to self reflect, and change. But several people weren’t and that left us with an incredibly difficult choice to make. We could either cut ties with them, setting some very hard boundaries about what we were going to allow in our lives….or continue to expose our son to people who were deeply committed to white supremacy culture. Ultimately we walked away from some people we loved who were also toxic, inflexible, and more committed to their racism than they were to remaining a part of our lives.

It’s okay to do and say problematic things, we all have room to grow. It is not okay to refuse to do any self-reflection or remain open to feedback from the people you claim to care about. I am done wasting my energy on people who do not give a shit. There are people who I know and love who are ready to come to the table and do the work to disengage from white supremacy culture and dismantle racism and other systems of oppression. My time is better spent investing in those relationships than mourning the people we’ve lost along the way, even the ones I loved dearly. I could spend all my time and energy on those people, begging them to get it, but ultimately they are responsible for their own growth. It is not my job to save people. It is not my responsibility to continually and repeatedly spend my emotions, energy, and time on people who have zero interest in changing and have little regard for what I want/need in a relationship. I do not have to demand less of people simply because I love them and I am scared of alienating them. I am done lowering my expectations, biting my tongue, or writing problematic behavior off because “that’s just who they are”. My time, energy, and emotions are the most precious commodities I have and I am done wasting them on people who are committed to upholding systems of oppression.

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What does it mean to be an "ally"?

You won’t ever hear me refer to myself as an “ally” to a cause. While I intentionally work to support the efforts of people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups in their fight for equity, I don’t think “ally” is a title that I should give myself. I interact with the world as a cis-gender, heterosexual, middle class white lady. No matter how much work I do or how much I learn, I will always view the world through that lens and I will always be able to retreat to my privilege when it serves me to do so. Because of that, I am resistant to calling myself an ally. Who am I, as a person in a position of privilege, to tell a marginalized person that I am their ally? They should have the opportunity to give me that label should they find my actions to be in alignment with their cause. What a privileged thing it is for me to label my own actions and define my own character in relation to such deeply personal experiences, speaking over a marginalized person’s experience of me.

Too often in our nation’s history, people in positions of privilege have told people in marginalized communities that they were on their side when in reality they were there for much more nefarious reasons. Too often people in positions of privilege have acted in ways that we thought were in alignment with a cause, but were actually damaging to it. Too often we get caught up in labels and our willingness to serve as an ally becomes more performative than it is substantive. Too often we are willing to serve as allies when it is convenient and safe for us to do so, but then retreat to our privilege when we actually stand to lose something. Too often our actions are not actually alleviating the emotional burden of marginalized people, but instead are about centering ourselves.

I recently got entangled in a situation where I had to really confront my willingness to use my privilege to further a cause. It was the first time in a long time that I really felt like I might lose something significant if I chose to take a stand. The easier and safer thing to do would be to keep my mouth shut, to put my head down and pretend that I didn’t see this particular injustice. This time, I chose to fight, but I wonder how many times in my life I have retreated to my privilege because I was afraid of losing my sense of safety, stability, or comfort- luxuries I am only afforded because of my identity.

At the end of the day, the title doesn’t matter to me. The work matters. So I don’t care what people call me as long as my actions align with my intent to promote justice and equity.

If you are a person in a position of privilege, I would urge you to do a few things:

  • Consider what you are willing to risk for the sake of a cause. If you are not willing to “go to the mat” on an issue, if you are not willing to actually risk something of value, even if that is simply your emotional comfort, are you really an ally? There are lots of ways to get involved and many of those do feel safe and comfortable, but marginalized people desperately need people in positions of privilege who are actually willing to risk something.

  • Examine whether your status as an “ally” or “social justice warrior” or whatever you aspire to be known as has become more performative than it has substantive. If you can’t remember the last time you felt truly afraid, uncomfortable, or vulnerable then you might need to examine the work you are doing. That looks different for everyone. What might feel uncomfortable or scary to one person might not feel that way to another person. I am not saying that you need to literally risk your life for every cause BUT I am saying you need to consider if you are willing to risk anything for a cause or if your comfort is more important.

  • Stop worrying so much about being seen doing the work and spend a lot more time actually doing the work. It doesn’t matter if anyone ever sees the work you do, as long as you are enacting change. Credit, visibility, and acknowledgement are the last things we should be worried about.

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