Tuesday, December 13, 2016

What to say? A toolbox for confronting oppresive language

What do you do when your jaw sort of drops, and you don’t know what to say? Professor of Inclusive Education, Syracuse  University, Mara Sapon-Shevin, shared her thoughts on and strategies for responding to oppressive comments--and gave us a chance to practice using those technique
Each of us has multiple identities, with a race (or more than one), class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity (ethnicicities), language(s), religion(s), abilities/disabilities, etc.  We need to get SMARTER about differences, about oppression, and about what it means to be an ally.

“Color blind” as not noticing differences is an odd construct.  If someone said  “I can’t tell a tree, from shrub, from a…I’m nature blind” we’d feel sorry for them.  Not noticing things that are important to the other party—why isn’t that also the case?
When we (the group) discussed our identities with others here today, we realized that those at different parts of spectrum can feel similar isolation--but also learn more about other points of view that are not relatable from positions of privilege.  We can empathize when identities are difficult to balance, or are both a source of pride and frustration, when identities we see as “+”,are not viewed that way universally.  Some categories are fixed, but others were not, and some more fluid -- disability/ability for instance .  Disability studies may refer to the “TAB” (temporarily able-bodied), as age or injury will catch up with most of us.  If we keep those in mind, what would be designed differently?
How do we respond to differences?  The general tendency is exclusion, mockery, scorn, marginalization.  But, what if, rather than “that’s weird”…the response is "I wonder what life is like for that kid?  Why do you wear that?  I’ve never seen that food before.  How do you celebrate that holiday?" 
What about noticing how people are mis/treated because of their differences?  Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, religious oppression.  Are there areas where you are good at noticing, but holes in others?  (Hard to know what you don’t notice… a prior workshop:  how many have experienced sexism?  No hands raised.  Not even someone yelling on the street “Hey, nice t!1s?” Well, yes, but that’s normal.)  We can notice, or we can turn away. 

“What would you do?  Muslims in America”  

Two actors:  customer in hajib, racist bakery owner refusing to serve her.  Do real customers intervene?  6 praise owner; 13 side with customer and opt not to place orders; a few stand ground and argue, requesting to speak with manager.  Both sides convinced their reaction is patriotic.  But 22 people said or did nothing—which is most frightening to the real Muslim college student whose experiences inspired the experiment, and watched with the camera crew.
Allyship is a process, and everyone has more to learn.  Allyship involves a lot of listening.  Sometimes, people say “doing ally work” or “acting in solidarity with” to reference the fact that “ally” is not an identity, certainly not one bestowed upon oneself

Allies—acting powerfully in the moment.  Addressing structural inequities and oppression for the long haul.
Think about times you either interrupted Oppressive Behavior, or did not.  Sometimes it’s a decision not to respond.  Sometimes it’s because didn’t realize what had happened.   What made it possible to respond?  had a strategy, had a story, had information, a relationship with the offender, power (could be easier to call out my students than dean), boiling point (emotion), body language, an identity that isn’t mine, argument won’t matter (but now my kids are at the table).  What made it difficult? a relationship with the offender, no power, shock/disbelief, ideology, emotion, safety (fear), moral relativity (is it an issue?), an identity that isn’t mine, argument won’t matter, didn’t know what to say, would oppressed want intervention…. will I say it correctly?
Need relationships to ask—What would be supportive in this environment?   Examples:  If a colleague’s idea's are dismissed at staff meetings—ask privately if the next time, would it would be beneficial if you responded “Wait, that’s a great idea!  I want to hear more”? 
Dr. Sapon-Shevin then distributed (drumroll, please!) the STRATEGIES FOR CHALLENGING OPPRESSION that she developed with Robin Smith.  These are intended for interpersonal relationships (that you'd like to preserve), not street harassment.  "The point is to have a BIG TOOLBOX ---- different things will work in different settings, contexts, etc." 
Before any of the responses can be used, you need to "notice what’s going on with you so can think of a strategy ---get centered –get grounded – be calm so that you can think more clearly.  Begin with three slow, deep breaths.  Notice what you’re feeling in your body as well as your thoughts."  You can ask for clarification, which can let someone rephrase appropriately---and also gains you a few moments to get your thoughts in order to calmly give accurate information, make a connection, ask more questions, counter with personal experiences, and if none of these work:  "Stop. I won't listen to this."

She also notes that "No one EVER does this perfectly—the important thing is to keep practicing, and keep trying!"  We look forward to more sessions to roleplay and to bring Dr. Sapon-Shevin back to work with even more of our colleagues! 

This workshop was a collaboration of the ESF Women's Caucus, Committee on Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, and the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion.