Last week, I wrote a blog post called “Hey progressives, can we stop using the tools of social justice to tear one another down?” The post resonated with many people, and I received lots of positive feedback from colleagues who felt seen and heard. However, there were also some disconcerting reactions as well. A few people from the opposite end of the political spectrum were gleeful—“Ha ha, the libs are attacking one another! Get the popcorn!”—which is to be expected.
More alarming were a few colleagues who dismissed the nuance and basically used the article to rationalize their fragility—“See, y’all were just meanies when you said I was centering myself as a white person! Stop using the term mansplaining!”—or stereotype whole groups of people—“POCs are always piling on white folks!”
The work we do in this sector is incredibly complex, and we must learn to exist in states that seem to be direct opposites of one another, such as gratitude and impatience, and grace and anger. A while ago, my colleague Tara Smith, who co-founded the Nonprofit Happy Hour and ED Happy Hour Facebook groups with me, pointed me to the concept of Polarity Management. I’m paraphrasing here, but polarities are usually two things that seem completely opposite, and we’ve been conditioned to think they can’t co-exist, but usually both are necessary, both can simultaneously be present, and in fact often are most effective when they are both present. For example, an effective leader being assertive AND humble. An artist being disciplined AND disorganized. An organization being flat AND hierarchical. An org plan being focused AND completely flexible.
A lot of our work would be easier if we learn how to identify and work with polarities instead of choosing one element over its seeming opposite. In this case, the polarities are how to be empathetic with one another and recognizing individuals’ humanity AND also grounding the work in racial, gender, disability, and other forms of equity. Social justice requires us to be understanding with one another AND to strongly call out inequity when we see it, including when we ourselves are perpetuating the inequity we’re trying to fight.
And a big part of this involves white colleagues, cisgender men, able-bodied people, and others with systemic privilege reflecting on their privilege and accepting uncomfortable feedback, sometimes publicly.
This is not always fun. Actually, it often feels pretty awful. I’ve been called out a few times in group settings. For example, when I was gathering input for a post on disability (“25 ways we can all be more disability-inclusive”) and totally screwed that up by asking colleagues who “work with people with disabilities” instead of asking colleagues with disabilities directly, which contributes to the invisibility and marginalization of people with disabilities. Another time, a colleague reminded me that it’s “transgender” not “transgendered.” Yet another time, I made assumptions about a colleague’s gender identity and was immediately corrected in person in the group setting. And then there was the time I was told I tend to dominate the conversation as a dude and should try to talk less. There are endless other examples.
Each time, I felt like a vaguely-human-shaped pile of garbage and wanted to crawl into a hole with wi-fi and just stay there for the rest of my life. It does not feel good to get your mistakes pointed out, especially in public. It sucks to have people think you’re an ignorant a-hole. And it sucks worse to feel like you’ve let down the people around you by making all these terrible and hurtful mistakes.
However, each of those moments were instrumental in my growth as a professional in this sector as well as a general community member. Once I got over my feelings of being hurt, I was able to reflect and learn and be much more effective in my work. I still make mistakes, but it has gotten easier to face them over time.
Our work is complex, with landmines seemingly everywhere. If you are committed to doing to fighting for social justice, you will make mistakes and be called out too. This is what we signed up for. Here are few things to remember, in no particular order:
- When you have privilege, you will have gaps in knowledge: Cisgender men will never know what it is like to be a woman or to be transgender. White colleagues will never truly know the challenges experienced by colleagues of color. People who are currently able-bodied may not yet understand the inaccessibility and discrimination faced by people who use wheelchairs. We must believe the people of marginalized identities when they point out something we, due to our privilege, can never fully know.
- You’re not a bad person when you make a mistake: No one is immune to screw-ups. The only way to avoid making mistakes is to stop doing this work. Your screw-ups are an indication that you are actively in the arena fighting to make the world better. Just like with other polarities, you can make mistakes AND still be a good person.
- It’s OK to feel hurt when you get called out: If your feelings are hurt when someone points out something problematic you did or said, it means you care. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t worry about other people’s opinions. It’s OK to spend some time feeling like crap. The trick, though, is to not stay there in that state, but to use it as a way to grow.
- Weigh your discomfort against the harm done to people: Your (and my) temporary embarrassment at being called out for various missteps is real, but it does not compare to the ongoing systemic discrimination faced by people with disabilities, Black and Indigenous and other people of color, LGBTQIA, women, and others in our society.
- When someone calls you out, it does not mean they hate you: Often, it’s the opposite: People care enough about your personal and professional growth that they are taking the time and energy to provide you with perspective about how your actions and words may be interpreted and the impact they may have on others. Think of it as a friend telling you have spinach stuck in your teeth, and the spinach is radioactive and might poison you and everyone you talk to.
- Stop obsessing over your intentions: Yes, intentions do matter. You have good intentions. I have good intentions. We should recognize one another’s intentions AND we have to address the harm being done when we screw up despite what we had intended to do or say.
- It is exhausting being defensive: It is our first instinct to be defensive, because it is uncomfortable and sometimes existentially threatening to be told we did something wrong, probably because our survival evolutionarily has depended on being an accepted member of a group. But defensiveness takes a lot of energy. I’ve learned that it is so much less exhausting to admit to a mistake, apologize for it, and figure out how to learn from it.
- A genuine apology affirms everyone’s humanity: Somehow we have lost our skill in apologizing. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” is not an apology. A real apology acknowledges the harm that’s done, expresses genuine regret, provides explanation if needed but avoids excuses, and commits the person to doing better. In admitting to our mistakes and committing to be better, we affirm one another’s humanity and strengthen community.
- It is about you AND it is not about you. The polarities of the personal and the systemic are something we all need to keep in mind. When we interact with others, it is thousands of years of human nature coalescing in these dynamics. We did not individually set out to create systems of privilege and oppression. But they do play out every day, and we must try to understand how we personally benefit from these dynamics and how they harm others.
- The burden weighs on those with privilege to effect change: When you have privilege, you consciously and unconsciously have more power and influence. Therefore, the burden must be on you to change things. Because, as Spiderman says, with great power comes great responsibility.
Last week, I railed about the some of the tense and discouraging conversations happening in our field both online and in person. But that does not discount the amazing and inspiring conversations where colleagues challenge one another and help one another learn. I’m incredibly thankful for those who take the time and energy over the years to help me identify my gaps in knowledge and to grow.
If we are to do this work well, we have to acknowledge the polarities inherent in our world and in our work. Yes, we must recognize one another’s humanity. We must assume the best intention. We must have grace. At the same time, we must ground the work in our values of racial, gender, disability, LGBTQ, and other forms of equity. And this means we recognize the areas where we are privileged, be OK with making mistakes, step back when needed or when requested, trust in others’ lived experiences, admit when we are wrong, and embrace the sometimes uncomfortable feedback we receive both in private and in public and use it to grow and further our vital and complex work. This is what you and I signed up for.
Thank you for engaging in this discussion with me, and for all you do. Now, if anyone needs me, I will be writing a grant proposal that’s due today AND freaking out about my org’s budget. I am not sure those are polarities, though.
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