Author Archives: Ilsa Govan

Reflections from the 16th Annual White Privilege Conference

I returned to the White Privilege Conference for a 9th time this March. What keeps me going back? Every year I gain new insights into myself, into my work, and into ways to challenge institutional isms. In addition, the amazing group of people that make WPC special co-create a space that feels like a second home. Seeing the familiar faces and all the new connections keeps me motivated beyond the conference, as I realize just how many people care passionately about making our world a little better.

One theme that stood out was the idea of “calling people in” versus calling them out. Loretta J. Ross spoke about this in her keynote, highlighting the importance of bringing more people into movements for justice. She used a story about talking with her brother to illustrate how loving someone can be a powerful motivation to think critically about oppressive comments. Many other speakers and workshops also touched on this idea. They emphasized the importance of actually caring about the person you’re talking to, not trying to situate yourself as superior to them, asking questions, and relating to their experiences.

I then had the opportunity to practice this in a workshop. When talking in triads, a white woman made a couple of racist remarks, what I would call microaggressions, towards a man of color in our group. Part of her response when we pointed this out was asking him to say stereotypes about her because she said she wanted to be hurt, too.

This reminded me of an experience I once had in an all-white group where a couple of people essentially said, “I want to be called out, not called in. Sometimes that’s what I need.” This is problematic to me for a few reasons. First, more people hurting because of racism is not going to end racism. White allies wallowing in or even embracing the pain of being called out in order to somehow feel better about our unconscious bias or privilege feels messed up. And the idea that stereotypes about white women or calling out a white person would somehow be equivalent to, and therefore off-set, stereotypes or other forms of racism directed at people of color is also false.

In our white caucus I heard many people talking about not having the skills to call in other white people. I posed a few questions to move us beyond thinking of this as simply a skills deficit:

  • What do you fear will happen if you call someone in?
  • What do you get out of your current behavior (calling out)?
  • What would you have to give up?
  • How do you feel about the people you are calling out?
  • What does calling people out have to do with internalized superiority?

These are all questions I continue to ask myself. In the triad, I related a personal story to what the white woman was saying, while still pointing out the problem with her comment along side (not on behalf of) the man of color. She asked me for more resources. It seemed to end with her staying engaged and wanting to learn and change. At the same time, I didn’t really care for her and noticed myself feeling superior to her.

And so I will to return to the White Privilege Conference and other spaces where we can continue this journey of exploring what collective liberation means and what it will take for us to get there.

In Solidarity,

Ilsa

(Special shout out to Heather, Kay, Tilman, Johanna, and Ilana this year!)


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Equity and Social Justice Work is Hard. Seriously Hard Work. No, Really it is.

People push large ball in opposite directionsSignificant change, whether individual or within an organization can be challenging. Even when we want to change, it doesn’t happen easily. I recently heard implicit bias compared to a habit, albeit a bad one. Think about how hard it is to change a habit…

A couple of months ago, my brother in law was coming over to my house to pick up his dog after work. We’d talked earlier and he reminded me to leave the front door open for him. Then he sent me a text about 15 minutes before I was leaving as a second reminder. “Leave the door unlocked, leave the door unlocked,” I chanted in my head as I gathered my things to go. Then I went through my mental list of what I needed to bring with me, made sure I had it all, walked out, locked the door and left. His poor dog was locked inside.

Even though I wanted to change that habit and was focusing a lot of mental energy on doing something different, the moment I got distracted, I forgot and went back to what I do every day.

Now imagine there are a bunch of individuals trying to change an organization. But they’ve all learned and practiced habits of stereotypes, biases, and institutional oppression for years. Some have even gotten rewarded for this behavior by being told they’re a “good fit” at the company and getting promoted. Some are the founders of the organization or have worked there so long they see any mention of needed change as a personal affront. Others have been going along to get along, trying not to make waves by bringing up experiences of marginalization. They may even be telling themselves they imagined it or making excuses for oppressive behavior such as, “I know he didn’t mean it that way.”

When we come in to work with an organization we inform people it will be difficult and will likely bring to the surface issues that have existed for a while but never been said out loud. When we start a workshop, we tell people it is normal to experience discomfort and encourage them to lean into those feelings and wonder about what is going on at the root of the tension.

Yet when those moments happen, it is difficult to stay engaged and see this as a positive sign of change, rather than retreat to old habits. We’ve worked with organizations where after the workshop people of color are deeply concerned about stereotypes their white colleagues are talking openly about for the first time. Sometimes staff will say they feel more divided now that they’ve seen the ways white privilege and stereotypes can come between them and coworkers. The door opens for the conversation and if we’re lucky, people bring their hurt into the room. Unfortunately, we’re not automatically competent in the way we share our pain and can easily end up hurting others in the process.

People will ask for quick fixes and the “right tools”. They think somehow they can learn a strategy that is separate from having an authentic conversation with another person. When change doesn’t happen quickly, sometimes people get frustrated and disengage from conversations about the ways they’ve colluded with racism, insisting the conversation isn’t going to help. We want to protect our identities and don’t want to acknowledge our habits of bias.

This work is hard. It can feel easier to retreat, to blame the facilitator or the activity, to say, “I get it,” and shake our fists at others. In these moments, remember why we’re doing this in the first place.

Maybe it is for children, who we want to face fewer barriers in life. Maybe it is so we can bring our full selves into work and genuinely connect with other people. Maybe it is for the increased health benefits of not having to deal with the stress of racism. Maybe it is for our collective humanity. Because living with daily oppression is hard work. No, really it is. Seriously hard work.

And keep in mind, when we work collectively, it can also provide momentum for change. We can remind each other to leave the door unlocked and we’ll likely have multiple sets of keys.


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The Introvert Excuse: A Convenient Label to Protect Privilege

White Man with His Hand on His ForeheadYou’ve probably seen articles or videos lately about introverts. Possibly you have friends you never would have suspected who’ve made references to being introverted. “Really?! You? But we met at a party where you were wearing hot pants!” Okay, maybe your friends don’t go to those kinds of parties, but many people who I’ve always thought of as extroverted are now coming out, as it were, as introverts.

At first, I was excited to see and learn more about this. I live with someone who fits every characteristic on the misunderstood introvert list, including dating an extrovert, and I thought it might be helpful for me to better empathize with him.

However, the more I’ve read, the greater my skepticism. I’ve been trying to figure out why this introvert stuff bothers me so much. It’s not because I think people are lying about their personalities matching the 23 Signs you’re Secretly an Introvert list on Huffington Post. It reminds me of horoscopes. I wonder what the science is behind this and who is making money doing the introvert speaking circuit?

And because any time labels divide the complexity of human expression, perspective and experience into two kinds of people (the poor ambiverts always get left out), I suspect they are far too simplistic and most likely based on dominant cultural norms. How could the categories of introvert or extrovert alone possibly apply cross-culturally, given the extent to which our gendered, racialized, class, language, disability, etc. experiences are so different?

Clearly the label of extrovert is based on white, hetero-patriarchal, Christo-normative culture. Although they don’t put it quite that way, the articles about introverts usually mention the pressure they feel by not fitting with dominant cultural norms. But that’s part of the problem. They don’t put it that way. And in so doing, take culture, privilege and power out of the picture.

I could let all of this go if it really were just some new pop culture phenomenon that made people feel better about themselves and helped us recognize and respect our many differences. However, another dynamic I’m seeing as a result of the introversion conversion, is privilege protection.

For as long as I’ve been facilitating conversations about race, I’ve had people saying they were shy, and that’s why they wouldn’t engage in the discussions. This holds weight to a point, and that point is when white people in particular use shy, and now the introvert label, as an excuse to disengage from race conversations.

Examples of privilege protection I’ve seen increasing lately:

  • “Introverts” only talking with other people they know agree with them that racism isn’t really a problem. This reinforces their beliefs and keeps them insulated from those whose experiences and perspectives would prove otherwise.
  • White “Introverts” not saying anything in front of the large group while people of color do the heavy lifting in conversations about stereotypes and white privilege.
  • White “Introverts” looking at their phones during small group discussions when everyone else in the room is engaged in conversations about race.
  • “Introverts” not sharing their vulnerabilities with coworkers, especially in situations where someone has just told them a story about the deep pain racism caused in their lives. The introvert is quiet and the first person wonders if they’ve revealed too much, if their story will later be used against them as they so often have.
  • White “Introverts” refusing to attend training on cultural competency because they say workshops where they have to talk with others don’t fit their learning style.

Rather than introversion, much of this behavior actually lies in the fear of making mistakes, especially in public. In the fear that if we make mistakes people will assume we are racist and therefore irredeemably bad people. So in trying to protect ourselves from embarrassment or having to question our biases, we instead stay safe behind a convenient label.

The impact of this is we don’t let in new learning about ourselves that might reveal the ways we’ve colluded with systems of oppression, and therefore learn to change those behaviors. We don’t engage in conversations that can lead to deeper understanding of differences and significant change. By saying, respect my difference as an introvert, a person has a great excuse not to be involved in social change movements.

This doesn’t mean everyone who identifies as an introvert is practicing privilege protection, I know quite a few activists who identify with this label. But I’ll maintain my skepticism as long as I see the label introvert being used for overly simplistic groupings of people and the popularity of this idea providing a convenient way to maintain those same dominant cultural norms they want you to know don’t apply to them.


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Hands Up! Don’t Shoot! Resources on Ferguson

Michael Brown's family asks for supportThe killing of Michael Brown and response from the community and police in Ferguson, Missouri, has shown us once again how far we have to go to address racism in the 21st century. We hope this pivotal moment will motivate people to have courageous conversations that result in taking action in our lives, workplaces, and institutions. Here are a few resources we’ve pulled together for you to reflect on and share with others.

Ferguson in Context

Resources for Educators

Arts and Inspiration

What Can I Do?

Please share other resources you’ve come across in the comments.

In Hope and Solidarity,

Ilsa and Caprice


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I’m Not the Bad One

“I was totally disgusted by those racist images. I would never laugh at them!”
“I never would have thought of Native Americans being alcoholic. Based on my experience, that’s not what I think of….”
“I’ve never heard that slur for Mexicans. I’d be interested in researching where that comes from.”

These are all approximations of quotes I’ve heard many times in workshops and conferences in the past three months. They are always said by people who are not members of the group being stereotyped. Usually there is strong emotion behind the statement, even a sense of righteousness, as it is proclaimed in front of a large group.

I’ve been wondering about the times I feel compelled to make that type of statement. How does that serve me and how does it serve the interest of social justice? Here are a few ideas I came up with.


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