In these examples, there is an incredibly intimate question being asked that isn’t really appropriate for someone you don’t know very well and might still be upsetting to them even if you did. Rude or inconsiderate questions like this can alienate people and if enough people ask, it might cause the person to leave the organization.
To any marginalized person, it might look like forced ambassadorship where the person in question is asked for their opinions on their own marginalization usually by those who aren’t similarly marginalized. It may be a situation they do not want to be in. It may be information they aren’t interested in volunteering.
Let people bring up their background on their own if they want to talk about it and let the topic stay dead if they choose to end it. If you really want to ask, share your background and wait for that person to volunteer their information if they choose. It’s potentially harmful to follow it up with another question if they choose not to share.
What Do Microaggressions Cause?
In failing to consider a marginalized person or group, there’s a sort of erasure that might happen. When they perceive their identity is not in your awareness, it may send the message that people like them are unwelcome there or are unsafe there. (This usually stems from bigger social problems but the point is that you are intentionally or unintentionally raising a huge red flag that they might not be welcome or safe.)
There is now incentive to do emotionally labour and hide their Othered identity or to risk more by trusting you with their Othered identity that you don’t seem super knowledgeable about. Often being honest when folks say something racist to me invites further racism towards me, but imo, visibility is necessary for growth and learning, and I’ve decided I’m willing to do that work.
On a large scale this means out of 10 marginalized people who enter your event, company, or friend circle, a larger percentage will meet you and not feel great about the conversation. They may avoid you or if it’s a voluntary event, avoid the event.
Litmus Test: Does My Event Have a Culture Problem?
Do you live in a city that isn’t 90% white yet your event is 90% white? Why is that? In Vancouver, about half of the folks living here are white, so it’s a fair ballpark for events that in a perfect world with nothing else affecting things, we’d see roughly a 50-50 split.
Do you regularly see POCs at white events, often different ones, often making up less than a tenth of the attendance? This is something I have noticed at some events. This revolving door of minoritiesis a symptom of the insular culture that acts as one (of many) barriers to participation in dominant culture events by minorities (or white culture events by POCs). Yet there are solutions. I’ve even been able to make some of them work at my current organization and we’ve seen our numbers at least quadruple but there is a long way to go.
Some Quick Thoughts on Change
So how do we change event culture? That’s a whole other post, but it might look like this:
- The leadership agrees that there’s a problem (you bring them examples; they see them).
- The leadership understands the problem (you bring them explanations and potential action steps/solutions).
- Decisions are made to educate the membership to be less insular and more welcoming including an orientation for new people that involves expectations of inclusive conduct.
Potential solutions are numerous but here are some easy quick wins you can try.
- Get them to pay for and post anti-oppression posters that help the membership see the problem. Also posters that help explain the problem. Also posters that help explain the solutions. So I guess Posters.
- Get them to pay for an anti-oppression educator to hold a class teaching anti-oppression ideas.
- Create a space for only minority culture individuals to gather (run by someone from that minority culture).
- It improves buy-in from minorities just knowing the group exists.
- It encourages feelings of safety and being welcome – people will show up to a minority group who would not show up to a main event for all folks.
- It lets you connect with and ask folks what their specific barriers are.
- It might give you help brainstorming solutions or quick wins or long term strategies or changes that need to happen.
- It may come with special challenges like having an undisclosed location so minorities feel safe from dominant culture folks who “disagree” with the initiative.
- Make an effort to greet and be kind to minorities without drawing any attention to their minority status (you can cheat about this one if you are also the same kind of minority).
- Don’t tokenize them by pretending the problem is solved. Tokenization can be when you use people for their identities. It can also be creating a superficial change or the appearance of change without real change actually happening.
- Have you added people of colour to an event picture in a non representative fashion? Do you usually get 5-10% POC attendance yet for some reason they represent 33% of the people in your photoshoots?
- There’s no shame in having culture problems – just try to solve the problem please. If you can figure it out on your own, there are always consultants.
The best suggestions will hopefully come from the pooled lived experience of folks from the specific marginalized community. An exclusive event for folks of that subset of your community can generate great dialogue and unearth useful hard truths.
Barriers can be divided any way you like. I find it sometimes useful to divide them into Systemic (Structural), Community, and Interpersonal.
Structural barriers might be that minorities or marginalized people in your area typically make less money and event price is becoming a barrier to inclusion. Sliding scale pricing is one change that could solve a problem like that.
Community barriers might be that people in your community are primarily from the dominant group so minorities don’t see themselves represented and think the space was not created by people like them nor was it created for people like them. It can lead to a sense of alienation or shame. It can lead to feelings of exclusion or loneliness especially when surrounded by people who don’t understand you or your lived experience.
Interpersonal barriers might look like a minority or marginalized person not having friends like them from that event or organization due to minorities not coming at all. Perhaps after attending several events, they burnt out from doing the mental preparation needed to be in that space (though everyone has different levels of resilience and some stay indefinitely). Interpersonal barriers may have the compounding effect of dissuading minorities from coming because minorities aren’t coming. This is one reason why the minority-only group can be essential to breaking into insular cultures.
If you see something micro-aggressive happening, you can always mention it to the person saying it. There may be defensiveness. You may encounter the Minimize-Deny-Blame cycle (it wasn’t that bad – I didn’t really say that – they came up to me and started talking). You may encounter the Just-A-Joke defense no matter how much it doesn’t make sense.
The best thing you can do as an ally is avoid those responses if someone calls you in. It’s likely it’ll happen eventually as we’re all allies to someone and we’re all fallible humans that make mistakes. Hopefully yours aren’t the particularly harmful kind as those suck the most to grow and learn from.
Wherever possible, you can try to do the emotional labour and call-ins for a marginalized person (i.e.: a POC wanting a white person called in) if you are not marginalized in the way they are (i.e.: if you are white). This makes the issue usually less immediately impactful and therefore reduces the emotional labour cost for you. Leveraging your power and reduced cost of emotional labour (as well as increased credibility), you can make a small difference call-in to call-in.
Wherever possible, you can help uplift marginalized voices. What are people from that group saying about the event. Why are they saying it? What do they think should change? Help those messages get out and stress the importance of listening to the people directly affected. They are the experts here.
Try not to center yourself in spaces not meant to center you. In a very inclusive space that might include you, you may want to “show support,” but in doing so, sometimes allies can take over the space. Be mindful of that pitfall and possibly reach out and ask if it’s an appropriate space in which to show your support. Usually the act of asking is well received and it’s not an issue to go.
Help manage trolls online. It only takes one threatening online post for a whole group to feel unsafe around the people that troll represents. In the case of the CKV group I started, there were folks who didn’t get it and there were two very challenging folks. One meant well, and one was a troll. It was a lot of emotional labour and if I hadn’t kept the location undisclosed, the group would have certainly failed like the only other group like it historically. That group failed because of threatening online messages and fear that the meeting place was unsafe. My group succeeded imho because there was no disclosed address and we were very careful to keep our locations secret. It only takes one dedicated troll to damage or even destroy a group of marginalized people. As an ally, you can leverage your power to call out the troll and have the argument in a powerful way that a marginalized person can’t.
(And for the record, white folks may experience discrimination based on their skin colour; however they do not experience sociological racism which is to say institutionalized oppression. Also, just being in a minority-only space doesn’t mean you’re in a safe space. Watch out for internalized racism.)
I hope this preliminary treatment is able to bring perspective and clarity on some of these problems we face as an organizations becoming more inclusive and creating safer, happier gathering spaces for everyone.
Thanks so much for reading!