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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Social Justice Book Club: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Every now and again we come across a book that literally changes how we see the world. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” was one of those books for me. I suspect it had such an impact on me in part because it was released at a time in my life when I desperately needed it, but in many ways I think Coates’ words would have impacted me deeply no matter when they came to me because they are such a thoughtful and raw account of what it means to be black in America.

In August of 2010, I entered a doctoral program in sociology at Louisiana State University. We spent that first year of graduate school laying the groundwork for what would become our life’s work should we finish the program successfully and enter the world of academia. We were learning sociological theory, stats, and unpacking the social constructs that shaped our culture. I took whole classes dedicated to understanding race. I thought I had a decent handle on how race worked in our culture, but what I failed to see was that my understanding was limited to a solely intellectual understanding. Without the emotional understanding, the empathy of what it might feel like to be black in our culture, my understanding was dangerously incomplete. If I am being totally honest, my whiteness and privilege had allowed me to exempt myself from that work. Why should I try to understand the pain/fears/traumas/etc black people experience when instead I could stay safe and comfortable in my white bubble? Hadn’t I “done enough” by learning and acknowledging the reality of racism? It hurts me to write that now, but owning the ways in which I have used my privilege to exempt me from this deeply emotional work is a critical step in my never allowing it to happen again.

In early 2011, my husband and I started the process of becoming certified foster parents. During the application and interview process we were asked several times what sort of children we would be open to- age, race, gender, disability status, etc. It never crossed my mind to say that I was ill-equipped to raise a child of a different race because I very naively thought that I was in a much better position than most people given my academic experience. I thought I knew all that I needed to know about race. How deeply and dangerously naive of me. We were officially certified as foster parents in early August of 2011 and ready to start taking placements. Just two weeks later, we got a call about a baby being discharged from the hospital. I loaded myself into my car and in a quiet corner of the PICU, I met the tiny black baby that would one day become our son.

We brought him home and reveled in him, but it became apparent to me very quickly that I was not as prepared as I thought I was. I’ve written elsewhere about the racism I started to see when our son was a newborn, but I was thrown into the deep-end after having only stood in a kiddie pool. I know now how much work I had not done. I know now how little my academic experience and book smarts had prepared me for the lived experience of racism. I still know that I will only ever understand a tiny fraction of my son’s experience of the world. I am sorry it took me so long to realize those things, I am so sorry that it took me having something significant to lose to open my eyes, but I am committed to spending the rest of my life continuing to learn and listen.

Our son was in our care for two and a half years before we adopted him. In that time we had five different case workers, a common experience in the foster care system where turn over is high. I will never forget a worker we had for several months about a year and a half into the case. She was a middle aged black woman, kind but assertive (at least that’s how I perceived her at the time). She came to check in on our son once a month and every time she would spend a significant amount of time asking us how we were going to raise him in his culture, how we were going to help him navigate his blackness. And when she left, I was always angry. I felt like she didn’t trust us. I felt like she was questioning our intentions. I felt like she was calling us racist, that we were going to attempt to erase our son’s blackness. I was making a home in my white fragility. What I know now is that she knew what it meant to be black in America and she knew that there was no way I was going to ever be able to understand that experience. I know now that she knew it was inevitable that on some level our son would lose some of his blackness if he was raised in a white family, steeped in white culture. I know now that she was trying to be a really great advocate for our son, to protect him, to push us to think about these issues. I am grateful to her now. I wish I could tell her sorry for pushing back, for getting defensive, for just not getting it at the time.

We finalized his adoption in 2014 and the full weight of what it meant to raise a black boy in America came crashing down on me. Up until the adoption was finalized, it had not solely been my responsibility to keep him safe, and now it absolutely and undeniably was. I was terrified. About seven months after our son’s adoption, Laquan McDonald was killed by a Chicago Police Officer. In the midst of my undoing, Laquan’s murder broke me open. I suddenly realized that it didn’t matter how much I thought I knew if it wouldn’t keep my son alive. I suddenly realized that one day it could be my own son’s name in the headlines, his life literally taken because of racism. I suddenly had something of significant value to lose. I had to set my ego aside and open myself up to continuing to learn and grow, to recognizing how little work I had done up until then- owning the fact that hundreds of hours of reading and research and a degree would never help me to understand what it felt like to navigate our culture as a black person. And then, in July of 2015, “Between the World and Me” was released.

Coates writes this book as an open letter to his son, who was about to turn 15, detailing his experiences as a black person in America while tying those deeply personal experiences back to broader social issues. He reflects on coming to terms with his own blackness and outlines the hopes and fears he has for his son despite the many cultural changes that have happened since his own upbringing. I think it would be impossible not to be moved by Coates’ account. It is poetic and raw in a way that I haven’t seen before. Too often when we talk about racism in America, we fail to adequately account for the lived experience of black people. We spend a lot of time talking about broad structural issues and too little time making space for the emotion of what it feels like to be black in America, the experience of those structures. While Coates’ story is just one of many, it is a great place to start. In my opinion, we cannot forge a path forward until we acknowledge the pain and complexity of those who live this reality, until we engage emotionally as well as intellectually, until we (white people) stop hiding behind our privilege and do the work.

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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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