For those who consider themselves white partners, champions, or allies you may be anticipating the inevitable cringe worthy comments made by friends and relatives during the holiday season. Let’s be real. It’s 2017 and the truth is there are still a lot of people in our circles who don’t recognize comments that are problematically racist, homophobic, sexist, etc.
It’s frustrating. And I don’t know about you but, I find myself struggling when people (A) don’t know AND (B) don’t care they don’t know.
But let’s be real about something else. For many of those who consider themselves a partner, champion or, if you’ve been named as an ally, we’re still learning too. And for some of us, it wasn’t that long ago we were the ones making ignorant comments.
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I didn’t critically examine my social identities until graduate school. Once the awakening process began it was like a snowball effect of deconstructing and consuming information. I could tell there was a lot to re-examine. I was intimidated to have these critical conversations on my own with family and friends. This “woke” lens was still new. Did I know enough? Would I say the “right” thing? Would I exercise the function of my privilege to not say anything? And even if I did know all the “right” things to say, would it make a difference?
I vividly remember, as my first break home approached, the SNL Thanksgiving Skit aired. How great would it be to interrupt the uncomfortable conversations about politics and insensitive comments with playing “Hello” by Adele?
Opting out of conversations because you don’t want to be uncomfortable is a function of privilege. The purpose of speaking up to share perspective or add missing information is to move us all toward the goal of equity and inclusion. It’s no skin off your nose to respond to those comments because they aren’t directed at you.
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It takes discernment to engage in difficult conversations with the people in your circle. As someone who works in education, I lean toward a developmental approach realizing people might be in different stages of their meaning making process. You may need to have the conversation in pieces. Also, none of us are creating “social justice converts” in a day. Sometimes, we have to sit with others as they make sense of white fragility, shame, or guilt the same as how people helped us. People who disengage from this process will most likely keep operating from a framework that perpetuates oppressive systems. This is why I like the approach of patient persistence.
Patient persistence means you are committed to the long game of moving toward equity and inclusion. Remind yourself why you’re having these conversations anyway? It’s not about pointing out every problematic comment. Depending on your sphere of influence, navigating difficult conversations will require different approaches. What does it look like for you to not stay silent or, be the person to slam anyone who says something insensitive? Be persistent because the reality is you won’t win over everyone but, you may have the opportunity to speak into a space other people won’t.
Patient persistence means challenging yourself. Continuing to do your own identity work is important. As someone who is a white/hetersexual/female I was socialized to see and think about the world in a certain way. I’ve learned it’s important to push myself to reexamine my history and the history of other marginalized communities in the United States. Even though it’s the same story, the lens might change depending on your social location and different intersecting social identities. For example, I’ve been reflecting on my role as a white/educated/young woman in a position of authority at a higher education institution. I understand holding my current position as Director of Student Activities is a result of the privilege have different educational opportunities. I also understand challenges I encounter being a young woman is how people are socialized to expect certain qualities from individuals in leader roles. This is why I encourage deconstructing the intersections of privileged and/or marginalized identities by examining how they hold power in different spaces. Persist in finding ways to use privilege to empower others. Speaking from personal experiences about how you process identities that hold power can be an influential resource for others. Then, when you are open about your own experience it models a critical lens for others.
Patient persistence is also maintaining a gracious attitude. We’re all imperfect people having these conversations. There are bound to be some mishandled conversations, missed opportunities, and problematic examples shared when trying to advocate about someone’s experience that isn’t my own. Being mindful of emotions in a conversation can help discern how to best navigate it. Is there fear, anger, frustration? I would encourage leaning into conversations without building anger. It’s easy to get emotional- particularly when it turns personal. This evidences the importance of patience. Getting upset and checking out doesn’t help anyone.
Even as I write this post I’m questioning how this blog post will be received by people in my circle and how I’ll respond to conversations. On one side, how will naming the tension I feel about having conversations about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and other social identities land with people who don’t share my perspective? Will people interpret what I’ve said as hurtful? Will I get emotional and make it personal? On the other side, have I made words and concepts more palatable for people who don’t see systems of privilege and oppression? Have I been too exclusive by not mentioning other marginalized social identities? Did I leave out anything else partners/champions/allies do when having these conversations like appropriating other’s stories? There are layers to every relationship. It’s our history, the context of conversations, emotions, communication styles, etc. I also have my own issues to work through. If I engage in a difficult conversation on a day I’m feeling emotionally depleted I’ll probably be a hypocrite to this whole blog. I’ll be emotional, impatient, and less gracious.
For a lot of these questions— I’m guilty of doing these things in an effort to hold things together that are in tension. But, I had to start somewhere before getting to a place where I could even ask those questions of myself. It took patient persistence to stay in the process of learning how to be a better advocate.
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For myself the purpose of having difficult conversations with friends and family who hold multiple privileged identities is because I want them to move from a place of fear and alienation to love and belonging. I don’t think people consider privilege being alienating but, I’ve began to see how ideologies lessens an individual’s humanity hurts both sides. My motivation for people to move toward love and belonging is also a function of my faith. For me, reflecting the life of Christ looks moving toward grace, hope, and love by wanting people to experience life through reconciliation and liberation.
bell hooks, a writer and educator, in her book All About Love says: “When we choose to love, we choose to move against fear, against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect, to find ourselves in the other.” If you’re still nervous about going home to have these conversations with family and friends perhaps start with thinking about what’s at the heart of why you care?
Rebecca DeRose, M.Ed.
Rebecca DeRose is a higher education professional working at North Park University. Her undergraduate degree was from Cedarville University in 2013 and she received an M.Ed. in 2017 from Loyola University Chicago. In her free time she enjoys exploring coffee shops in Chicago, visiting her family in Buffalo, NY, and finding new books to dive into. This blog serves as a platform to share her reflections on higher education, social justice, faith, and the messiness of life at the intersections of those things. Happy reading!