A DIY workshop on naming

14 Oct

Every once in a while, I’d like to post what I’ll call Do It Yourself (DIY) workshops for personal and professional growth. These will be reflections you can do by yourself to practice the skills and habits of heart and mind that lead to more inclusive and equitable engagement with others.

This DIY workshop is on naming what we see. Take a look at this picture.

Now describe the person in the blue t-shirt. (Do this out loud, if possible).

Notice what you named, what you struggled to name and what you left unnamed. Notice the words you used: which were obvious and easy for you, which you were less certain of, and which you don’t even yet know or have in your vocabulary.

Now describe the person in the blue t-shirt as you would to someone else if you were trying to help that person find this particular child in a room full of people. Again, do this out loud.

Notice which aspects of identity you named, which you omitted and which you added. Notice what you named first or thought was the most important identifier. Notice when you changed your language, hesitated or named something without hesitation.

Now consider:

  • Which aspects of identity are primary identifiers (that we rely on to recognize people) ? Which are secondary? And which, if any, although they’re primary in helping us to recognize someone, did you omit in describing the person in the blue t-shirt?
  • When it came to describing this person, which aspects of identity were easy or comfortable to name? Which didn’t feel OK to say out loud? What’s the difference to you when you describe the person in this photo?

  • In general, which aspects of identity (ex. age, size, race) and which particular traits (ex. physical disability, gender ambiguity) are challenging for you to name? Why?
  • Which aspects of identity do you lack useful vocabulary to name?

We’ve all learned not to talk about some of the things we see, whether because it’s “impolite” or “not important.” Children learn not to describe someone as “fat” and not to inquire about someone’s age (if the person is an adult). Yet, when it comes to people, not naming can mean not acknowledging and not including. Studies of the experiences of obese people reveal a common experience: invisibility. People with visible physical disabilities experience the same phenomenon: a concerted, mutual effort not to see them. Well-intentioned or not, our silence and our blindness often has more to do with us (our discomfort, our biases and our fears) than with other people. At base, we worry, if we see race, does that make us racist? If we see obesity, does that make us sizeist?

No. It’s when we erase someone (because we don’t want to feel uncomfortable) that we’re discriminating against and dehumanizing them. When we let ourselves see them, we can choose not to act in racist and sizeist ways. Because we can see that they’re people, too.

So as an exercise in confronting our own biases, I invite you to practice intentional seeing. On your way home, at the grocery store or while you’re at the BART station, take a look around and notice the people around you. Try to name the diversity that you see. If you like, focus on an aspect of identity that you tend to practice blindness to: age, size, skin color… Practice seeing and see how it feels.

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