I’ve been asked to participate in a session at a conference for academics and activists that is supposed to help set the tone for how academics ought to behave when interacting with community people. It turns out that I am considered to be good at this. This is the kind of accolade that is very dangerous. The minute you think you know what you are doing and are confident of your ability to mix well across lines of culture and privilege, you will mess it up. It is like bragging about how humble you are.
Since I seem to have been anointed, at least temporarily, as having some expertise in this area, I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts, partly in preparation for the session. We agreed I’d begin by giving my own background, but that feels like too long a detour, so I moved it to the bottom of this blog post. Bullet points because it is too much trouble to turn it into an essay.
- Respect the commitment of the other people in the room. Other people are volunteering their time to be in that room, just as you are. They don’t want to feel they are wasting their time any more than you want to waste yours. But you may have different views of which things are a “waste” and which are important. Respect other people’s priorities, not just your own. If you are engaged, you will spend a lot of time in meetings that are not about you and not about your own top priorities.
- Humility goes a long way. Don’t get me wrong. I’m at least as arrogant as the next person, I really do think I’m right most of the time. But I’ve come to understand that other people think they are right, too, and that it often turns out that they know things that I don’t know. Over time, I’ve found that shutting up and listening to other people has often proved to be a valuable experience. And I’ve behaved like a jerk so many times that I’ve gotten pretty used to dealing with the fallout and have learned that most people will accept a sincere apology and stay in relationship with you if you care enough to make the effort to reach out after a breach.
- Cultural competence is very different from the elitist activity of recognizing “authentic” food or artifacts or practices. It does involve recognizing that there are different cultural styles for expressing emotion or disagreement and different practices for having a discussion. But it most importantly involves realizing that you don’t know everything. I’ve been called “culturally competent” by people of color, which of course made me feel good, but also initially puzzled me, as one of my main traits is being socially awkward and frequently annoying other people. What I realized is that my “cultural competence” lies precisely in knowing that I am not culturally competent. It also lies in being comfortable in my own skin, in embracing my own culture and peculiarities without defensiveness but also with understanding that others may not like them. AND in respecting the peculiarities of other people without getting upset because they are not like me. It feels to me that humility and self-acceptance make it easier to accept other people as they are.
- Power and privilege are always issues. If you have privilege in a setting, you cannot make it go away no matter how cool you are, and no matter how much you try to hide it. I bend over backward to make it clear that I can accept criticism easily and think I am warm and friendly. But if I say something that offends a graduate student, they are very unlikely to tell me. Those of us who have education or wealth or occupational status or, especially, power have to accept that other people will be careful around us. The danger of being privileged is that you will be insulated from feedback about how your actions affect or are perceived by others. This makes it hard to learn to correct misbehavior. If you have power over someone else, never ever assume they feel free to correct you.
- Privilege is embodied. Privilege makes us sure that what we have to say is important and that other people will want to hear it. Professors and other teachers are especially at risk. We are used to having everyone take notes when we talk.
- Mansplaining happens, so does the more generalized splaining. My personal style is aggressive and forceful. I have still had white men come up to me after I have given a lecture and presume to tell me about the subject I just lectured on. But I’ve splained in my turn: I have presumed to talk at some length to someone about a topic, only to learn that they obviously know much more about it than I do. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is a hazard that faces anyone who tends to monolog rather than dialog and forgets to draw out other people’s knowledge before launching into a speech.
- Nobody ever likes unsolicited advice. Your children don’t like it, your students don’t like it, your friends don’t like it, your spouse doesn’t like it, and community members certainly don’t. If you think you have idea that might be useful to people, first you have to listen a long time and ask questions about what people are already doing and why they are doing what they are doing, and find out whether they are happy with what they are already doing. And even then you have to take the time and trouble to be tentative, to say that you have had some thoughts that might be useful to them, but you don’t know whether they are interested. And you must really understand that they may reject your advice and you must be comfortable with that.
- Trust is not something you deserve. You don’t get trust just because you want it or it hurts your feelings not to be trusted. Trust is something people give you after they have found you to be trustworthy. You establish trust by showing up again and again, by doing things that help the cause, by acting with integrity, by being reliable. Pretending to be something you are not destroys trust. If someone still does not trust you after a long time, the most likely explanation is that you are not trustworthy. The second most likely explanation is that they have been burned too often in the past to risk trusting you. Either way, complaining because people do not trust you never helps.
- Privileged people tend to assume their own competence and other people’s incompetence. It is important to learn to recognize and respect other people’s competence. If the issues are about poverty, poor people know a lot about them. If the issues are about race, racial minorities know a lot about them. If the issues are about community organizing, community organizers know about them. People of all walks of life read and think and may know all sorts of stuff that don’t fit your stereotypes of them. Sometimes we academics do have something useful to contribute to the conversation, but our contributions are useless unless we find out what other people know and how what we know might fit in.
- It’s really not about you, especially if you are privileged. It is not about whether you are racist or classist or sexist or cis-heterosexist or elitist or whatever. You may or may not be any of these things. Your actions may have consequences that are outside of your intentions, and what you say may be interpreted in light of what other people in your demographic category have said or done. This may seem unfair to you, but stereotyping and prejudice and assumptions are part of the world that everybody has to deal with. Less privileged people deal with this all the time. Just suck it up and try to learn from the experience if people misjudge you or if you realize you’ve done something wrong. Expressing your hurt feelings at being called sexist or racist, going on and on about how bad you feel, asking other people to testify to your credentials as a PC person, or crying are all bad responses.
- Withdrawing from the scene is common when the going gets rough. Less privileged people do it all the time in privileged settings, often hurting their own chances of advancement. More privileged people do it all the time, too, but when privileged people withdraw, they take their privilege with them. Staying in the game and tolerating discomfort and trying to understand where other people are coming from it the only way to move forward in boundary-crossing organizations.
- However, sometimes it is a principled decision to withdraw. I recall a series of meetings in the 1990s of religious leaders trying to address local conflicts about gay/lesbian issues, where groups were picketing pro-gay churches and in retaliation pro-gay activists were picketing anti-gay ministers. Most of the attendees were pro-gay or at least anti-anti-gay. A trio of ministers including a lesbian Unitarian, and a straight White man from a pro-gay congregation, and a straight White man from a conservative Evangelical congregation wrote a statement about respecting each other. But when it was time to pass a resolution endorsing the statement he had helped write, the Evangelical man kept raising objections. He finally realized that his problem was that theologically he could not agree to disagree and announced that he really needed to leave the meeting because he was blocking the process. He hugged the lesbian Unitarian minister on the way out. I disagreed with his theology and his politics, but I still respect the way he realized he was obstructing others and just needed to leave. We can all learn that lesson sometimes.
- Academics often want to do drop-in or fly-by advising. We have classes to teach and research to do and articles to write. Community activism involves lots of meetings, meetings where people are discussing things that are not necessarily about what interests us. If we are really going to be involved and be taken seriously, we have to invest the face time sitting in meetings, listening to other people, and not being the center of attention. It is, quite honestly, often boring and draining. It does not advance your career. Sometimes all we really want to do is the drop-in version. If that is so, we need to be upfront and honest about the level of commitment we are willing to make, and not expect others to treat us as if we are a reliable group member, much less a leader.
- Our academic skills are often useful to movements. Movements often need data and other research about the problems they are fighting. We academics have the skills and the access to university libraries and data repositories that lots of people don’t have. The research that is useful to the movement is most often descriptive and not necessarily what will be an academic publication. We can provide useful information even if we are not doing activist work, but we do need to be enough in touch with activist groups that we know what they need.
- If we have our own “bee in our bonnet” about a social justice issue and pursue it doggedly from our own standpoint, we may gain the respect of others and influence people. I stuck with the racial disparities issue even when the [White dominated] advocacy group I was a member of de-prioritized it. (They re-prioritized it later.) Sometimes an issue needs a lone ranger who just won’t give up. But in the process, we have to be willing to engage others and listen to them as well as talk if we want to raise the issue on other people’s priority lists.
- Academic work is not propaganda. I believe in the scientific/scholarly value of truth above all. There is no legitimate place in the academy for anyone who would falsify or distort data to make a point. Sometimes the role of an academic is to tell activists facts they do not want to hear. That said, there are always issues of standpoint about what facts you go looking for and what sense you make of them. And certainly there are moral and value stances that tell us whether the facts are acceptable or whether we want to go about changing them.
Introductory (or post-ductory?) remarks about myself.
First, we agreed it would help if I gave some background about myself. I was raised to be someone who gets involved in things; in college I was a Girl Scout leader and then joined NOW. In grad school I did some activism in NOW and in a socialist-feminist group, and I did socialist and neighborhood group activism as an assistant professor. At that time, I explicitly divorced my activism from my academic work. My academic work was about collective action, and sometimes my theoretical discussions seemed useful to activists, but my activism was going to meetings, writing leaflets and newsletter—doing the work. I felt that academics often deluded themselves in believing that their radical theorizing and teaching was the same as activism. I also learned from this period that I am not a leader. A leader has to be optimistic and have vision and take risks and motivate people. I learned I do better as the pessimistic staff support who researches issues and provides the background that helps the leaders decide what issues to work on. I think this early learning about myself has made me better at understanding how to be useful to a movement without being all things to all people.
I took an activism hiatus when my children were young, then went looking for a way to reengage when they were older. I stumbled into the racial disparities issue while looking for a way to reengage, and used my academic skills to produce information that I thought would be useful for the movement. Although I turned the racial disparities work into an academic project, there has always been a bottom-up advocacy part of it. I’ve given over 100 public talks on racial disparities using my PowerPoint slides. I call this my “missionary work,” as it involved bringing the issue to the attention of anyone who would listen. The audiences have included community groups of various race/class mixtures and lots of criminal justice officials. In all these talks I would listen to what audience members said about the issue and carry the comments from one type of group to other types of groups, in the process trying to create a dialog about the issue and different perspectives on it. In addition to events where I’m the star, I have been involved in several long-term advocacy groups and a number of quasi-governmental commissions, task forces and committees that have involved sitting through and participating in hundreds of meetings. Many of these meetings, candidly, have been boring or frustrating. Some of them have been productive and a few even exciting. In the process, I have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in mixed-race groups with no or only one or two other academics, and some time in groups where the majority were not White. I have grown to have a great deal of respect for the diverse people I’ve worked with, even when they disagreed or were angry with me or each other. They also have logged hundreds or thousands of hours of volunteer time working for causes they believe in. They have put their bodies on the line and they know a lot of stuff I don’t know.
I’ve been told by some people color that I have a high level of cultural competence. While this made me feel all self-important, it also took me aback, because anyone who knows me knows that my actual level of cultural competence is extremely low. I am constantly offending people unintentionally, I am one of those people who says weird things at meetings and is viewed as a crank by lots of other people, and I generally stand out as awkward and weird. But what I came to realize is that I’m viewed by at least some others as culturally competent precisely because I know I am not. People tolerate me because I’m quick to apologize if I give offense and because I try hard to adopt a stance of humility. Once when a group of Black people were talking about something a White person had done that they considered to be racist, I said, “I can imagine myself doing that.” One of them said, “Yes, you could. But you are ok because you know you would do it.” I believe the lesson is that humility and openness to criticism go a long way.