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 Exploiting People's Trauma for Personal Gain

Every time I write something, I ask myself four questions:

  1. Is this my story to tell?

  2. Why do I feel compelled to share it?

  3. Who will be impacted by it and how?

  4. What do I stand to gain from sharing it?

It’s rare that the answers are clear and I’ve chosen not to share some potentially impactful stories because I can’t get clarity on these questions. I spend even more time wrestling with these questions when the story is traumatic or deeply personal to the people involved. Because I’ve been reflecting on these questions in my own life, I’ve become acutely aware of instances where someone is sharing a story that isn’t theirs to tell.

Often it’s well-intentioned. The person sharing the story is trying to bring awareness to an issue. Perhaps they think they are relieving the emotional burden of a marginalized person by doing the emotional labor of sharing the story. Usually they are trying to rally people around a cause. Regardless of intent, it’s important to recognize that when we re-tell a story that is not ours to tell, we insert our own interpretation, we filter it through our own lens, we inevitably use it to promote our own agenda, and ultimately we are the ones who benefit the most. As people in positions of privilege, we need to consider the ways we can elevate the voices of marginalized people rather than exploit their experiences for our own gain.

I’ve recently read several books written by people in positions of privilege where they share stories of people they’ve helped - families who have immigrated illegally, LGBTQIA+ homeless youth, etc. I can’t help but wonder if there was a way the authors could have empowered the people involved to tell their own stories. I wonder if the people involved share the same hopes and goals as the authors. I wonder what it feels like to read about the hardest moment in your life from someone else’s perspective. I wonder if the author is able to be objective about their own involvement. Most of all, I wonder what they do with the proceeds from their books. Do the people they are profiting off of see any of that money? Our nation was built off of exploiting marginalized people and profiting from their labor…is profiting from their trauma all that different?

Even when the intent is good, even when we are attempting to dismantle systems of oppression, we’d be better off to empower people to tell their own stories. When people with power or in positions of privilege choose to center themselves and share a story that is not theirs to tell, they inevitably benefit the most and end up upholding white supremacy culture rather than dismantling it. If we are truly committed to empowering others, if we truly want to dismantle white supremacy culture, if we truly want to share the benefits of our privilege, then we have to be willing to de-center ourselves.

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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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