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I was asked by the Berkeley Women Leaders in Business at Berkeley Haas to kick off their evening Manbassadors session, convening a conversation with men and students of all genders next month. That came on the heels of presenting to an affinity group of people of color at a large corporation. I must be an expert! Hah. I’m so not! I am learning though, and the reason why is quite simple: I keep trying, testing, messing up and trying some more.
I am a slow learner. I tried and tested 35 years ago when I really thought my fiance should take my name. I made my case. I said “one family.” “Yes,” she said, and she continued, “so just take my name!” I all but scoffed: “Come on, Jen! It’s a simple tradition,” I said. “Whose tradition?” she asked. “Slavery was a tradition, too.” I had never been put on my heels quite like that. I was glad for the learning and the resolution.*
I now see that my thinking was pretty typically privileged, a word I would not hear used in this type of context for a couple decades. When I did begin to hear it, I tested it, inquired about the term – sometimes with privileged irritation, sometimes with genuine curiosity. And I am still thinking and risking asking with both mindsets – irritation and curiosity – one of which generates learning. I hope those of you who, like me, are white and/or male and/or straight and/or cisgendered**, will test your irritations, confusions, and honest ignorance, too. Don’t be afraid to push back . . . but listen to what you hear. It’s risky to test your opinions like this. But one of the huge marks of privilege is WE get to stay safe and silent; we choose when we want to risk. We don’t have to explain ourselves:
- in the way that a woman engineer has to prove herself, or
- an African American in a “white” neighborhood has to explain himself, or
- a trans woman has to explain why it’s “moral” to be so, whether she is mistaken about her own self-identity, or why she should get to marry
What if you had to face these questions – spoken or simply harbored inside by those privileged not to have to deal with them – every day?! My son invited to me a series for white folks about race. Over three evenings, I got tested a lot (and felt pretty testy at times). I came away with one big thing, reinforced in a challenging book I am reading called White Fragility (and, if you feel some resentment about that title, then you’re probably feeling…you guessed it…white fragility). This was my takeaway:
I am not a “good white person.” I am so much just a white person. It’s time to quit patting myself on the back while mentally punching “Trump and the racists” in the nose. I need to help myself to a heaping plate of ignorance, served up in the form of honest questions about what it means for me to be white in America. We need to figure out a whole lot of our own stuff before we start telling “those people” – whether those people are African Americans or racists whites – what they need to do.
I always appreciate comments (or direct messages to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I encourage you to do so today, especially if what I am writing is triggering for you. Triggers can be great gifts. They’re not great if we lash out – i.e., fight, or if we just flee, the easy privileged white thing to do. Triggers are great if we can inspect them with curiosity and compassion. In too many ways, we white folks are afraid to let each other have our mixed feelings – our moral indignation and sadness, but also our confusion (“what did I do that was racist?”) and shame (“when have I ever really stood up when little or big racist things have been said?) and our feelings of helplessness. These mixed feelings are often the hardest to grapple with, so instead of doing the hard work of resolving our ambivalence, we cop out. Leader: opt in to
Lead with your best self!
* I suggested (saving face and seeking win-win): let’s take each other’s last names as our middle names. We did.
** In case this word “cisgendered” may be unfamiliar to you, it means those “whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.” (Wikipedia). Sometimes I have felt about words like cisgendered or gender fluidity or prounouns: “Geez this all used to be so simple. Why do we have to make all these adjustments?” This is an aspect of privilege, in the sense that when a person is gay but raised straight, or when their gender identity is different than the way they were assigned at birth, they have had to deal with the fact instead, that “this ‘simple’ normativity is for them so hard!!!” Our sacrifice – if we can call it that – in being tolerant with complexity, is minor compared to the inner conflict and often social abuse that people experience in cultures that are rigid in their definitions of what is “normal.”