Two to three months of not running due to injury now feels like two to three years as I seek to return to my previous level of mediocrity. On Saturday’s long run, I found myself eavesdropping in the back of the pack as two friends commiserated about how markedly their respective work cultures have changed. In simplest terms, an underlying “whose most ‘woke’ competition” has broken out in both their workplaces.
The diversity leaders are attempting to teach their colleagues to respect differences, accept everyone’s social identities, and subvert traditional power dynamics. The participants are learning not to say how they really feel, lest they unwittingly stray from the liberal progressive path laid out before them.
Because the diversity leaders are focused on outcomes and not process, they’re plodding ahead completely unaware of the “go along to get along” self censorship that their work is whipping up. A phenomenon that makes meaningful change nearly impossible.
As a long-time discussion leader, I’ve gotten very good at understanding this dynamic. And disassembling and reassembling it in my classrooms. But as an educator and fallible human being, I’ll never get that challenging work just right. At best, it’s always two steps forward and one back. Just like last week in one of my undergraduate classes. I flailed around a bit and then a student had the courage, and made the time, to enlighten me.
In class, I suggested that as a country maybe we needed to recognize our limits and take some time to lower the temperature on conversations about politics and race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. “Pass the ball backwards” I suggested, before advancing up the pitch again.
My student gave me permission to share most of what he wrote me shortly after class ended. His fourth paragraph makes me think I did not communicate my message as clearly as I could have, but that does not take away at all from his overarching message:
“My takeaway from the conversation was that in the end, politics are simply politics, and one’s views reflect their level of education. This does apply in certain situations, but it is not applicable to basic human rights. As a white cishet (cisgender heterosexual) man, you do not experience these issues and therefore need to do more work to understand them. An important thing to remember is that the burden of your education on an issue does not fall onto those affected by it. As we have discussed in this class, most educators are white. I have had a very slim number of queer educators as well. Because of this, existing in these spaces made for white cishet people is exhausting. I am constantly expected to perform and have these conversations for people to convince them that I should be allowed to exist. Fighting constantly to be permitted to simply exist takes a heavy toll and as an ally in a privileged position it is your responsibility to do research and educate yourself on these topics rather than expect minorities to do the labor of educating you because for those minorities, those conversations can be dangerous.
As a white cishet man, you can have these conversations with certainty that you are safe. As a queer AFAB (assigned female at birth) person these discussions can put me at serious risk.
Furthermore, you need to understand how much more drastic this is with our current administration. Almost immediately after Trump came into office in 2017, his administration removed the official pages on civil rights and LGBTQ+ rights from the official White House website. Earlier this year, the Trump administration removed nondiscrimination protections in healthcare for LGBTQ+ people. Even more recently, with Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court, there has been new potential for marriage equality to be taken away. This is only an incredibly short list of ways that the Trump administration has directly impacted my rights. These conversations are so sensitive and are not as simple as disagreeing. If I meet someone who disagrees with my basic human rights, I am meeting someone who thinks that I do not deserve healthcare as a trans person and as an AFAB person. In a more extreme situation, as is with our vice president Mike Pence, someone disagreeing with me could mean that they believe I should be in a conversion therapy camp or worse. I do not have the privilege of agreeing to disagree because that disagreement can mean the loss of my life.
The human rights that do exist in our country today did not come from accepting or dismissing bigotry. The Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act of 1990 came to be because of disabled people protesting and restricting access to federal buildings, public transport, and other such things. The civil rights movement consisted of endless protests, sitting in the front of busses, and countless other acts. Women’s suffrage was fought for with protests and marches. Child labor laws came to be because of people fighting for children’s rights and safety. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, a riot is the language of the unheard. The expectation to be silent and accept mistreatment in hopes that we will be kindly gifted our rights and safety is ridiculous. This is why these conversations are not as simple as disagreement. I cannot sit and agree to disagree with someone’s opinion if their opinion is that I do not deserve basic human decency and rights.
To close this email, I want to reiterate that I do not mean this to seem like I am telling you exactly what you need to think or believe. My main objective with this is to hopefully bring you more perspective on why this mindset could be harmful. If you wish to discuss any of this further, I would be glad to discuss it over email. I appreciate you having a class environment in which I feel comfortable bringing up these issues and having this conversation.”
My second reply to him:
“Follow up question. Or more accurately, I’d like to practice active reading/listening to see if I understand correctly. Are you saying that some people (or maybe many people since 73m voted for T) are irredeemable and therefore personal safety has to take priority over dialogue? If so, I better understand why because of your thoughtful explanation of your lived experience. But as an educator working with students across the political spectrum, it’s difficult for me to conclude that.”
And his reply to my reply:
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that people are irredeemable, but more so that people that choose to not listen to minorities cannot be educated by them regardless of how much effort those minorities put into the conversation. The burden of those conversations can’t fall on the people affected by it because those people are being silenced, and therefore it becomes nearly impossible to change bigoted people’s mindset unless more privileged people educate themselves and use their voices.”
Obviously, I can’t tell my speedy running friends not to self-censor themselves, but my student has convinced me that opting out until “cooler heads prevail” isn’t an option for me. That doesn’t mean I have a failsafe roadmap on how to proceed. All I know for sure is I have to remain open to being taught by my students, and other people whose life experiences are markedly different than mine, and continue “getting more comfortable being uncomfortable”.