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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Interrupting the "isms": Doing Your Work Even When They Won't

Very few people are open to hearing that their behavior is problematic. If you’ve ever tried to give someone feedback that their “joke”/language/actions were racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic, etc, you know exactly what I am talking about. Inevitably, the person who said the problematic thing immediately gets defensive and shifts the conversation...suddenly you are no longer discussing what actually happened, but instead you are discussing their intentions and how they would never do anything of the sort. I can almost hear the words now….“But I’m not a racist!”. Everyone suddenly begins to act as if the person who called out the problematic behavior is over-reacting. They downplay the entire thing or worse, say it just didn’t happen. Gaslighting is way too common. The script gets flipped so quickly that you begin to question if what you experienced was problematic at all or maybe if it even happened the way you remember it. You get emotionally exhausted so you disengage from the conversation. And, if this bizarre privileged dismissive defensive cycle has happened to you enough, my guess is you’ve backed off from having these tough conversations altogether. But can I challenge you to consider something? While healthy boundaries are important and your emotional well-being matters, your job, our collective job, is to keep showing up and calling out problematic behavior when we see it regardless of how that feedback will be received. We are not responsible for how people receive that feedback, we are just responsible for how we deliver it.

When I was in graduate school, it suddenly became very apparent to me how problematic a lot of my language was about race, class, gender, and sexuality. I loved putting people in boxes, boxes that I was learning were made up social constructs. My partner, Dustin, was gracious enough to learn alongside me. In the midst of doing this work, we found a handy tool in our apartment to help us recognize when we said over-simplified or problematic things. We had been gifted this tall heavy glass cylinder from Crate & Barrel as a wedding gift. When you thumped the top of it, it rang loudly like a bell…the sound echoing around the room. It became our “stereotype bell”. We started using it on ourselves first. Anytime we would notice the other person using language that was based primarily in a stereotype, we’d ring the bell. It was a non-threatening and disarming way to interrupt and communicate “hey, I think what you just said was problematic”. It was super effective. The bell was ringing loudly and often in our home. We were having hard and important conversations. Suddenly, we found ourselves introducing and utilizing the stereotype bell with most of our friends too. We were pushing back against social norms, challenging ourselves to think outside the box of what gender, sexuality, race, and class were. It was really productive and really effective and completely and totally not well received by some of our friends. They hated that damn bell. They hated that we wouldn’t let them make assumptions about people based on an identity. They hated being called out. They hated the discomfort of challenging their worldview. We literally lost friends over the stereotype bell. After one particularly heated moment with a dear friend, we stopped using the bell. We apologized, gave it away to a thrift shop, and backed off. We were in our early twenties and I am ashamed to say that we were more concerned with making people feel comfortable than with challenging norms. But that’s an incredibly privileged thing to be able to do…to say that my comfort is more important than progress. I know better now. I am trying to do better now. Even though I still retreat to my privilege at times, I am making a conscious effort to show up, to remember that I am not responsible for how the information is received, I am only responsible for delivering it. How I deliver it also matters, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Here are some things to remember when you’ve delivered feedback that was not well-received or if you are afraid to deliver feedback knowing that it won’t be well-received:

  • There is only one person you can control in this situation….yourself. You cannot control the other person’s reaction and you cannot force them to receive the feedback with grace. More often than not, their reaction isn’t even about you….it’s about their own insecurities and ignorance. Do the right thing. Show up. Interrupt racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Do it even when you know it won’t “go well”.

  • Even if you think it’s not going to matter if you speak up, speak up anyway. You never know what seed you are planting, what foundation you are laying, that may help someone do some harder and deeper work down the road. They may never come back around and say “hey, when you called me out, it really made an impact”…but that doesn’t mean you didn’t make an impact. This is often thankless work that we don’t get to reap the harvest of. Do it anyway.

  • Remember, intent and impact are different things and more often than not intent matters less than impact. I’d like to think that I am a mostly kind and thoughtful person. Yet, sometimes I say and do really problematic things. I hope I am surrounded by people who will keep calling me out even though they know my heart. Impact matters.

  • Take care of yourself emotionally and talk through these situations with someone who is committed to “doing the work” too. When you are being gaslighted, it’s important to have a third party to process things with. They can help you keep perspective when you are too far into the weeds of a situation.

Most importantly, the message I hope you walk away with here, is to keep showing up and interrupting problematic behavior when you see it. It will rarely be easy, but it will always be the right thing to do.

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