Reflections on learning what my inner voice of privilege and oppression sounds like.
I’m sharing a story of one moment where I leaned into discomfort. I hope it will help you learn how to listen for the thoughts that have been ingrained by privilege. For me, it’s instructive to understand my bias towards inaction, see the habits and hear the internal monologue that keeps white people firmly in our comfort zone. It’s our comfort that contributes to the oppression of others.
“It’s a privilege to have uncomfortable conversations rather than live an uncomfortable life.” ~DeRico Symonds
I definitely don’t think I have this sh!t figured out. That’s kind of the point. We simply can’t wait until we think we’ve “got it right” before we try to be better. I also know I probably did 1000 things sub-optimally in this story… I welcome learning about those from others as I keep trying to be and do better.
Context: Everything is uncomfortable right now
The past year has been an awakening. Personally, I’d been wrestling with the systemic inequalities, and seeing how racism has harmed the fabric of everything for a number of years… but the sharp edges of 2020 finally made it impossible to cling to any semblance of comfort in my “normal life”. It feels like there is an opportunity in this moment where real change might be possible.
Earlier this year I tweeted something like “White people, this is our work…” What I was trying to say, is that undoing systemic oppression, the harms of colonization, the f**king patriarchy… cannot and will not happen on the backs of Black, Indigenous, People of Colour or other marginalized groups. If it were possible for their activism to change the foundations, it would already be done.
No. It is not on them. It is on us. Those of us with systemic power. Those with privilege. The world around us has been optimized for our success. We’ve been told we are successful because we deserve it… It’s a lie. Things are this way because it’s come at the expense of generations of others for whom our optimization means systemic racism and oppression. We need to start trying to fix this mess.
For me this year has been about moving beyond learning, beyond saying words and I’ve tried to make each moment an opportunity to live up to my personal commitment. Do the work. Even when it feels hard.
The story I want to share
Early in November I was part of a session on Belonging with One Team Gov at FWD50, a Canadian conference. The plan was to explore diversity and inclusion and try to unpack the things that hold us back. We wanted to help everyone figure out what we can do in our own area of influence to make deep and meaningful inclusion the default. We wanted to create the space for a conversation. We had a team of committed and amazing people working on this together, and so while I felt way out of my depths, I jumped in anyhow. This kind of discomfort and tension is where growth happens for me.
In Canada, it’s customary to give a land acknowledgement at the beginning of an event. Now I don’t know about you, but there’s a pretty wide variance in 2020 in how virtual conferences handle things like land acknowledgements. A well done acknowledgement carries power. As a co-host of this session, I knew I needed to find a way to make a meaningful acknowledgement. And yet… I kept hearing the words of local indigenous activists in Nova Scotia in my ears.
“F**k your land acknowledgements if you won’t do something when actual harm is happening!”
(ICYM there’s been a series of really difficult things happening in Nova Scotia lately… including angry mobs threatening and destroying the property of indigenous fishers when they tried to assert their legal rights.)
I did not want to read the script. Say some words. Check the box and move on. This is the work. Finding each moment of opportunity to do better and acting on it. Be more than someone who learns a bit and says the expected words.
Get over feeling fragile and get on with it
So great. I’m committed to doing better. Now what the f**k does that look like? I wanted to keep it real. I wanted to respect the people here on this land who need people like me to step up. And yet, I was feeling deeply uncomfortable.
What if I say the wrong words?
What if I do more harm than good?
What if I get in shit from my employer for being “political”?
What if an indigenous person tells me to STFU?
Let’s start with that last one. I had to face that one first. I drafted something and then I asked for help from someone I respect deeply. It felt really, really vulnerable. What if they said, “You’re a privileged twat to ask me to help you do your white woman shit”? What if they shredded every last word and told me I had no business giving a land acknowledgement? Ooof. For a “high performer” who cares deeply that might really hurt.
But then again, if that was the worst that could happen… what would it cost me? Some bruised ego? A crack in my fragile shell of “I’m not part of the problem”? How about asking what I could GAIN from that kind of feedback? Maybe being a better human? Maybe striping back more of the colonial, patriarchal bullsh!t I said I wanted to dismantle? Yah… that makes it worth doing. Any perceived risk is really just in my head and my fragile white ego. So step one is to get over yourself, Beth.
And you know what happened? I received thoughtful, constructive, and provocative feedback. Delivered with kindness and care. I was challenged to really think about what I was doing and what I wanted it to accomplish. It was exactly what I needed to make my words match my intentions. I am grateful for the generosity and wisdom of that feedback. Wela’lin Rebecca.
Discomfort Part 2: Saying the words
Grounded in a small degree of confidence that this was the right path. That my words would not likely create harm for indigenous people in attendance. I practiced how I would deliver these words. I felt confident that this was the right thing to do.
And yet… it was the most nervous I have ever felt speaking to anyone. If you don’t know me, I’ve spoken at conferences before. I really like presenting and telling stories. I’m usually the excited kind of nervous before I speak in public. But this time I felt anxious and worried.
“I want to acknowledge that today I am hosting this session as a guest on the unceded territories of the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet people who have been on this land for thousands of years. The treaties of Peace and Friendship first signed in 1752 by European settlers and Indigenous leaders should reaffirm friendship and respect between all treaty people on this land.”
I was speaking into my webcam, unable to see the reactions of my audience. Unable to know if I was well and truly f**king this up. Then I got to the part where I talked about what was happening to Mi’kmaq people today. The violence and oppression they are experiencing. A photo of Mi’kma’ki burning…
“And yet today, in Mi’kma’ki, on their own territory, Mi’kmaq people are facing systemic racism and oppression. Settlers in Nova Scotia have and continue to be complicit in violence and hatred towards them.”
I could feel my voice starting to crack. I was sitting in the shame I feel about these acts. Touching the edge of some of the pain it has caused and the full weight of it hit me. This is still happening to the Mi’kmaq people. It had been happening to indigenous people, over, and over, and over, for centuries.
“With the privilege and power that comes with my whiteness I can be idle no more. These things are happening here, now, in this place, and it is not okay.”
Inhale. Pull it together, Beth, and say the words. This is nothing to ask of a privileged white woman. If you cannot say these things out loud, how will anything ever change?
“Words of acknowledgement are not enough. The Mi’kmaq people need meaningful action towards making things better. I am committed to taking action within my own daily life to support Mi’kmaq and other indigenous people.”
I just kept going. I needed to say the next words unequivocally.
“If you are indigenous, hear these words, ‘You matter.’ ”
I moved on to the list of things people can do. Actions we can all take. How we all can do better. I had spoken my truth in the moment, and it was okay.
Reflections on this experience
It cost me nothing substantial to try to do better, but it still felt scary. Why? I am profoundly sorry, no I’m angry, that the overwhelming narrative around inclusion and diversity to date has been to tell marginalized people to “speak up”… but try not to sound “too angry” when you do. That is some serious bullsh!t.
In this one small act I learned more about what my inner voice of oppression, colonization, racism sounds like in real life. I was able to see these thoughts for the trap that they are:
You can (and should) remain neutral (in systems there’s no such thing)
You might lose something (pride, respect, influence) so maybe do nothing
This isn’t about you (it’s someone else’s problem) and you have no right (responsibility) to weigh in
Why risk feeling discomfort, when you’re entitled to comfort (the privilege of the status quo)
Getting it wrong is the worst thing that can happen (spoiler: it’s not)
I’ll say it again for the people in the back. White people: This is our work. This is our task. This is our responsibility. We have systemic power. We have opportunities. We have influence. Expectations of us are so deservedly low, we only have to step up to the moment and try and it will make a difference. And each time we try, we become better. Even when we f**k it up we will be better… we will level up for next time… When we leave behind ingrained patterns of expectations, when we silence that inner voice… that is how we chip away at the system that upholds racism and oppression.
Save one person, later in the session, who thanked me and said it meant a lot to them, there was no feedback at all. There was no horrible reaction. The point of this wasn’t about getting feedback good or bad. It was about taking action in the moment. It was about following my own advice about how to do better.
Which leads us back to the final point of this story… It was really important for me to end my acknowledgement with a list of things people can do. Actions we can all take.
If you’re a settler on indigenous land:
Learn more about the territories in which you are a guest, and your responsibilities under any treaties that exist where you are.
Sit in the discomfort of the horrendous ways in which indigenous people have been harmed, displaced, or removed for the benefit of settlers just like you.
Don’t be silent because you are afraid to say the wrong thing. Silence is complicit.
If you have privilege, use it to make things better by:
Asking what you can do to help, and acting on the answers.
Speaking up in support of indigenous people when you see injustice.
Listening to indigenous voices and amplify them so they may be heard.