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“She/her/hers”… thanks for sharing?

23 Oct

When I added my pronouns to the signature line of my work emails, a couple of colleagues and friends asked: what’s up with that?

While I was certainly not the first to do, I was, for some of my contacts, the first they had noticed. And I want to say how grateful I am that they asked. We live in a time when there’s a lot of felt pressure to “get it right,” to “be woke,” and to already know what is socially correct to others.

Good luck with that.

All we can do is accept that we live in a world of people who aren’t us, notice whatever we think is normal (and how much it may mean to us), decide whether we care about connecting with others, and if we do, then get curious and learn.

So a sincere thanks to those who asked, who cared enough to take a minute to get curious and have a conversation. I ended up writing a couple of emails about how the English language ends up assigning gender through 3rd person pronouns (“Alison founded Blink Consulting. She has been a consultant for almost 15 years…”), and that I work with a lot of people–some of whom I haven’t met yet, and many of whom have never asked and I’ve never told which pronouns to use when referring to me. And since we use pronouns like names for people, doesn’t it make sense to let others know which ones we respond to? I don’t get emails addressed to “Alex” or “Buttons,” probably because people have taken the time to find out to whom they should address their correspondence. And if they care enough to know my name, it makes sense that they would want to know my pronouns, so they can refer clearly to me, not Buttons.

This brings me to today, when I noticed another colleague’s signature line. After her pronouns, she’s inserted: (What’s this?)

That link takes you to a blog post: “Why sharing gender pronouns at work matters” on Culture Amp by Alexis Croswell. It’s a useful read, that addresses the practice and  underlying beliefs about pronoun sharing, including this framing for those of us who are wondering what’s the big deal:

If a person has never had to worry about which pronoun others use for them, gender pronouns might not seem important. [Culture Amp’s Insights Strategist Steven] Huang says, “For most, their singular and visible gender identity is a privilege. Not everybody has this privilege; those that are referred to with the wrong pronoun can feel disrespected, invalidated, and alienated.” You can’t always tell what someone’s gender pronouns are by looking at them. Knowing and using someone’s gender pronouns is a positive way to support the people you work with.

The article is now hyperlinked in my signature as well. And I’m happy to continue having the conversation.

*Thanks to my colleague SL for the resource.

Care about body safety?

11 Oct

Just a quick post from Upworthy about a 3rd grade teacher’s developmentally supportive and scaffolding lesson about consent. While I think body safety is an issue that should be universal and nonpartisan (at least for anybody with a body who knows other people with bodies), if this isn’t an issue of concern for you, I think there are still takeaways here about how to have vital conversation that matter to you and that you believe matter for the well-being of children and youth.

And while we’re on the topic of body safety, I think it’s a great opportunity to practice equity and inclusion, which is to say:

  • Address body safety for every individual and all people
  • Address body safety as an issue which impacts different groups of people unfairly.

Does it surprise you to hear that in my work, I come across a common concern about gender and sexuality inclusion, specifically regarding safety in bathrooms, locker rooms, dormitories, and camping and other housing accommodations for students?

Let me be clearer: whether or not folks name it, the concern is for the safety of cisgender and heterosexual students, who may be preyed upon by transgender and queer classmates. And the concern about sexuality inclusion also extends to queer kids acting sexually inappropriately with each other.

Here is where it’s helpful to distinguish between stereotypes and what my colleague D. King refers to as “research-based generalizations”:

  • A stereotype is a fixed idea about what a group of people is like, based on inevitably limited personal experience, social biases and assumptions, and a “made up my mind” (consciously or not) mindset.
  • A research-based generalization not a 100% and forever proven fact, but a theory grounded in some study.

It is a stereotype that transgender and LGBQQ people are more sexually active and inappropriate or predatory than cisgender and heterosexual people. And this isn’t just an unfortunate stereotype; it’s one that drives exclusionary, unfair and even mortally endangering policies and practices. While examples of cisgender and heterosexual sexual misconduct abound, it signals the privilege of these identities that we don’t seem inclined as a society to theorize that cisgender and heterosexual people group may be even more dangerous than transgender and LGBQQ folks combined.

Here’s perhaps a hybrid of stereotype and research-based generalization: locker rooms can be body-unsafe place for any students. While I haven’t found a robust study, different groups have written about bullying in locker rooms as a general issue that is not-limited-to gender identity or sexuality.

And here’s a research-based generalization:

Trans kids suicide stats

Of all the reasons why trans kids may be more susceptible to suicidal ideation, we have to include their cognizance of the stereotypes about people who identify within the cisgender binary.

Which is why we need to teach body safety both as a universal and also with a commitment to bias reduction and anti-discrimination. We need to:

  • Honor the importance of body safety for all.
  • Name homophobia and transphobia and their basis (fact or low-hanging fruit of prejudice?)
  • Point out that focusing only on the behaviors of trans and queer kids creates a blind spot that enables inappropriate and dangerous cis and hetero behavior. And that we have reason to be concerned that a group of kids who are all hetero and cisgender are not, in fact, guaranteed to be body safe.
  • Recognize that this isn’t just an individual behavior issue: it’s a cultural behavioral issue, and an institutional design question. Dorms, locker rooms, bathrooms and other facilities were traditionally designed in the US on the assumption that gender determined sexuality. And that is just not the case. So we need to talk to all kids about body and sexuality safety, include people in the assignments we make about where we presume they will be/feel safe, and offer options to include and empower everyone in our communities to thrive (and here’s the catch) without requiring them to disclose who they are.
  • What?! Kids don’t have to tell us? Yes, I said that. First of all, identity is life-long in formation. Or as Jack Kornfield says, “We think of ourselves as nouns, and we’re really verbs.” So I may not be able to tell you accurately for all time how I identify. Secondly, it may not be safe to disclose. You may want to know, but you don’t have the right to compel me to tell you, especially if I don’t feel safe. Third, it’s not about stereotyping people’s behaviors based on their identities. How people behave is definitely a nature-nurture question, and what communities need to do is focus where they have agency, which is not how someone got born, but how we empower them to be in community with us and us to be in community with them.



On millennials, GenXers and Baby Boomers and gender identity

10 Oct

A colleague recently wrote to me, asking my thoughts on something they were experiencing with their friends: a consensus that Millennials are “overreacting” about gender pronouns. I interpreted “overreacting” to indicate a perception that as a group, millennials are “making a big deal” (perhaps insincerely) out of not identifying as “she” or “he.”

What do I think about that perception? First of all, we need to frame whose perception we’re talking about: a group of people who don’t identify as Millennials (as evidenced by their talking about Millennials). I believe the group having the conversation may Gen Xers, maybe with some Baby Boomers in the mix.

Re: Millennials, here’s what they have right:

 Identify as LGBTQ
What this research confirms is that what we’re experiencing regarding gender identification is generationally diverse. (Like so many other things: the #MeToo movement, religious identification and participation, access to and valuation of marriage, employment opportunities…) And what’s true of gender diversity in a generationally diverse society, is understandably not making sense to Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, if our frame of reference for “normal” is limited to and defined by our own age group.

And I get it. Everyone has their perception of “normal”: consider financial diversity. You, like me, like everyone else, has a sense of what’s normal for a person or family financially–and what’s, frankly unfathomable or weird to us. But as Dorothy Parker said, “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.” Similarly, a particular bandwidth of financial means and limitations is just common for some of us–not normal for everyone. And back to cisgender identity: it’s definitely still common… but that doesn’t make it normal.

So what do I do when I’m having an “oh come on, really?” moment because I’ve let myself believe that my “common” is “normal”? I try to invite consideration of what doesn’t make sense to me (and “my people”) by thinking “yes, and…”

Yes, one theory is that Millennials are “overreacting.” And, what could also explain a trend of preferred pronouns beyond “he/she”?

  • Changing social understandings, norms and ability to identify otherwise these days
  • A greater openness and readiness by younger folks to see themselves in the greater spectrum of boxes than by older folks, who have spent more time in the only two boxes previously available (and may, regardless of how we see ourselves, be habituated to identifying within them)
  • Greater social safety to identify as other than cisgender female or male.  Note: this is not to say that identifying as transgender or non-binary gender is safe. In fact, it’s clear that the social and personal perils and risks persist, with sometimes life-threatening and ending consequences. At the same time, it may be safer for some individuals and groups, whose privileges in other aspects of their identities may create greater perceived or actual safety for them in identifying outside of the cisgender binary.
  • A biological and social truth that gender has historically, incorrectly been oversimplified. Consider race as an example. Some people feel that racial identity is too complex to be simplified into white, black, Latino/a/x, Asian, Native American/Indian and multiracial (6+ categories). Yet, dominant US society has bought into gender being as simple as an “either-or”?
  • Normative developmental identity exploration. Rather than “overreacting,” maybe Millennials are doing what makes developmental sense across all domains of their identities: exploring and defining and redefining not just themselves, but how the world thinks them. Are we as intolerant of Millennials’ work identities shifting, morphing and redefining the old boxes? (Yes, sometimes.) The point is, that we older folks may be more tolerant of some identity exploration than other identity exploration. And yet, it’s all identity exploration. It’s human.
  • Which brings me to wondering whether the perception of Millennials “overreacting” might be about how Millennial bias (more broadly) drives a tendency to dismiss their experiences and perspectives. In the history of generationally diverse societies, there’s a pattern of older generations wondering “what’s up with kids these days?” How Gen Xers and Baby Boomers view Millennials with a touch of disbelief and dismissal is both historic and common… but we don’t have to practice it as normal.
  • And. I can’t help likening the characterization that Millennials are “overreacting” about gender expansion to the impression that people of color “are always bringing” or “making everything about” race. Whether this perspective is coming from white folks or other POC, it’s the same idea, right? Why do those people have to make a big deal out of something that from my perspective (and for that matter “our” perspective) doesn’t matter? I think David Gaider, gamer and game designer, says it best: “Privilege is when you think that something’s not a problem because it’s not a problem for you personally.”

** Thanks, David. And thanks to my colleague KS for the question.

John McCain and “gooks”

3 Sep

I’ve read this article a few times, during the coverage of John McCain this past week. “When McCain’s anti-Asian slur stalled his ‘Straight Talk Express,’ he doubled down. Then, he apologized” speaks to two of many questions about identity language that come up in conversations that I facilitate:

  • Why is it OK for some people to use identity slurs and not others?
  • Is it really OK?

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “gook,” its etymology as a derogatory term for Asians is murky, but one theory is that it derives from the Korean word for Korea, which is “Hanguk.” (Incidentally, “guk” means people–hardly an insult in and of itself. But its abbreviation, transliteration and usage have imbued “gook” with its disparaging connotation.)

McCain used this word openly. His unapologetic defense of using “gook” in 2000 even involved repeating the term):

“I was referring to my prison guards, and I will continue to refer to them in language that might offend some people because of the beating and torture of my friends. I hated the gooks, and I will hate them as long as I live.”

At this point, identity politics might dictate that no one has the right to tell a POW how to refer to the people who didn’t just detain him, but tortured and permanently disabled him.

I believe that the rules of what you get to say about a group do indeed depend in part on your relationship to that group. So when non-black people complain that black people “get” to say the n-word, but they themselves don’t, I agree with them that the rules are different. But the question of whether those rules are unfair requires us to consider that black people have to live with the impact of the n-word, while non-black people who may want to say it get to do so without living its impact.

In McCain’s case, the rule had a twist: do you get to use a slur for a group that has treated you badly and even inhumanely? That’s the question that also underlies the controversy about Sarah Jeong’s anti-white people tweets: does experiencing racism give you permission to say derogatory, dehumanizing things about white people? Please know that I am not comparing Jeong’s experiences with McCain’s. I wouldn’t even know where to begin or what the point would be. I’m just connecting the dots of a theme across their very different stories about discerning when it’s OK to speak inhumanely about another group of people. What’s the answer?

I appreciate the response from the San Jose Mercury News, in response to McCain’s defense of his language:

“No one expects the former POW to speak kindly of his torturers. But their sin was being sadistic thugs, not being Asian.”

It’s notable that McCain did apologize for repeating the slur and promised not to continue doing so. The question remains: was that the right thing to do?

I believe there is no easy, clear, universal answer. However, I would invite that it’s worth considering the question the Mercury News implied, which is basically: Is an identity slur the most accurate way to get at what you’re trying to say about the group, or may it confuse the real issue of what they did with who they are?

Because in the end, if McCain was standing up against the use of torture, and if Jeong was speaking out against racism, it ultimately wasn’t just “offensive” or “insensitive” to choose the words they did. It was potentially ineffective to their causes.

How to respond when someone tells you what you just said is racist

2 Sep

I can’t take it anymore.

By “it,” I mean the coverage of Andrew Gillum’s candidacy in the Florida governor’s race. I have no idea what Gillum’s platform or policy ideas are because that critical information has virtually been eclipsed by his opponent Ron DeSantis’ comments, and an opposition robocall that, if not from DeSantis’ campaign, is at the very least for it.

In short, after referring to Gillum as “an articulate spokesman,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis warned of a Gillum victory, “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.”

When DeSantis was called out for racist comments, his campaign responded thusly:

Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses. To characterize it as anything else is absurd.”

Then, today, the NY Times reported on an anti-Gillum robo-call to Florida voters:

Well, hello there,” the call begins as the sounds of drums and monkeys can be heard in the background. I is Andrew Gillum. We Negroes . . . done made mud huts while white folk waste a bunch of time making their home out of wood an’ stone.”

Once again, the DeSantis campaign responded, calling the robocall: “appalling and disgusting.”

And current Governor Rick Scott tweeted:

There is no room for any racial politics here in Florida — none. Florida is a melting pot of people from all over the globe, and we are proud of it. No attempts to divide people by race or ethnicity will be tolerated, from anyone. THIS. STOPS. NOW.”

To respond in kind myself, I’ll post here (because I don’t tweet):

Politics in Florida and everywhere have always been racial. And gendered. And socioeconomically and class-informed. And otherwise fundamentally human and thus inextricably linked to our social identities, even if we don’t think a particular identity matters. In fact, especially when we don’t think it matters because that’s a reasonable indicator of exclusion. With all due respect to Governor Scott, when all the candidates are white men, politics are still about race and gender and class, sexuality, religion, abilities and every other aspect of identity that informs our status, access to resources and opportunities and systemically entrenched privileges and disadvantages. Not only because of who the candidates are, but because of the diversity of people whom they are tasked with serving.

And can we just call what’s racist, racist? I agree that the robocall is “appalling and disgusting,” but let’s be clear that what makes it “appalling and disgusting” is that it activates racial stereotypes denigrating black people as a group with the impact of  perpetuating and gaining advantage from discrimination. And that these stereotypes are part of a historic and current system of beliefs and attitudes that continue to incite violence and marginalization on a mass scale against black and brown people.

But wait, you say, how do you know someone’s motives? What if, like DeSantis, whoever is behind the robocall didn’t intend anything racist?

To that I say, racism doesn’t require individual intent to have not just individual but greater social impact. Social norms provide all the intent needed. Furthermore, I don’t even have to do or say anything to advance or sustain racism. All I have to do is not act. Or deny that racism is even a thing.

And that brings me to how the DeSantis campaign handled being informed that what DeSantis said was racist. But enough about them. Let me ask you: how would you handle it if someone told you that what you just said is racist? (Or how have you handled it in the past?)

Personally, I’ll say it stings. And that then, I’ve had a choice about what to do with that hurt.

Here’s how I try to respond.

  • Notice my instinct to recoil, and perhaps to deny, explain, erase my impact by championing my intent, protest or turn the tables (maybe by “what about-ing” what someone else has said)
  • Shut up for a moment.
  • Find my gratitude that someone has–even if harshly–bothered to let me know how they heard what I said. Because they had other options, including letting me continue to say things like that and also writing me off as an ignorant bigot.
  • Add that perspective to what I thought I already knew, instead of trying to cancel out or zero-sum our perspectives. Because the truth is that it is possible for someone to use the word “monkey” without racist intent, and it is well-documented that monkeys and apes have been racist tropes across ages and world cultures. What does that add up to? Not that “monkey” is either innocent or racist. That “monkey” is both innocent and racist, and I don’t get to choose what you hear. People have made that word mean more than its original denotation. And we can’t unring that bell. On that note: It’s OK if I didn’t know something I said was racist, but once I know, I have to decide if I care. Because if I don’t care that what I said is also racist, I should admit, if only to myself, that that’s what my reaction is really about, instead of pretending it’s about how they’re wrong.
  • Thank them.
  • Notice if the sting persists, and figure out what I can do differently to avoid making the same mistake, and also to be present for my next, new mistake.


Being “kind and brave” with our own

20 Jun

There’s a common struggle I encounter in communities, when it comes to holding members and peers accountable for their actions and speech. The options seem to be:

A. Abide whatever was said or done, because the person “didn’t mean it” or “has a good heart.”

B. Kick them out!

This is, of course, a false dichotomy. And it masks the underlying issue of our own fears,  and lack of skills and practice putting bravery born of love into action.

Being “kind and brave” is something I first saw clearly articulated in the Color Brave Space principles (inspired by Mellody Hobson’s TED Talk “Color blind or color brave?“) shared on the Fakequity blog. According to Fakequity‘s team:

Fakequity=Fake Equity. Fakequity is bad.

It shows up as all talk and no action.

Being kind and brave is considering intention and impact, not pretending you can choose between them.

Is speaking up because you care.

Is holding someone accountable especially because you believe they’re a good person. 

Is coming from love, which isn’t just being nice: it’s being real.

This formal complaint against US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, issued by 640+ Methodist laity and clergy embodies the practice of being “kind and brave.” Even if you disagree with their position, notice how they present it:

  • They begin from a place of community that includes Sessions, rather than trying to deny or revoke his Methodist identity. (Consider all the times a community has claimed to be “shocked” by what someone has said or done because “that’s not who we are.” Actually, the facts would indicate that as egregious as the actions or words may be, that is also who your community is.)
  • They explicitly name their intention: reconciliation (not punishment or ostracization. This is not to say that there would be no consequences, but the intention in this complaint is that those consequences be decided and experienced within a community framework, not in isolation or excommunication).
  • They focus on what he has done, not who he is. When they do talk about who he is, they talk about him as a Methodist (in a really powerful public position) first and foremost, which is not used as an accusation but as a premise for why they must speak up. Because Jeff is family.
  • They offer hope. Not a simplistic “say you’re sorry and we’re good,” but a realistic and commitment-requiring (on all sides) aspiration to be on a “journey  with  him  towards  reconciliation  and  faithful  living  into  the  gospel.”

I keep re-reading this letter because it impels me to try to be more kind and brave, which fundamentally requires me to continue growing my recognition of how I’m family, whether by blood, organization or just humanity, with people whose ideas, actions and speech run contrary–sometimes deeply–to my own.


This is what kicking the (coffee) can down the road looks like.

16 May

In response to the racial profiling, harassment, humiliation and discrimination incident at one of their Philadelphia stores last month, Starbucks has changed its policy to allow anyone, whether or not they’ve made a purchase, to use the bathroom at Starbucks. 

Which is not the point. 

What happened isn’t about bathroom access. It’s about racial bias leading to racist consequences that will just find the next opportunity to rear its head, if not in denying a request to use the bathroom, then in disapproving of the way someone else smells. Or in not tolerating their simply occupying space near you. And yes, in all three of these incidents, white people called the police on black people. This isn’t to say this is only about white people’s bias against black people, but the phenomenon and underlying issue is certainly, persistently and significantly inclusive of white people’s bias against black people.

My issue with this “open bathroom” announcement is that it (toilet) papers over the real issue, allowing Starbucks to think it’s addressing racial bias, when it’s really just removing one of the more public ways racial bias in its culture (and yes, broader US culture) may manifest.

What’s worse, now anyone who disagrees with the open restroom policy (fearing, perhaps, an influx of whomever they’ve come to expect Starbucks will call the police on) can blame it on black people, as if racial inclusion and equity are wreaking havoc on society.

(Which, actually, they should—at least on those aspects of society that are unfair, denigrating and divisive.) 

But we can’t advance equity and inclusion by eliminating people’s everyday opportunities and responsibilities to practice them. What’s next for Starbucks, an “open hiring” policy that eliminates applications and interviews, so as to avoid any incidence of bias in hiring? I would hope instead that Starbucks would vet and improve its hiring processes, sustaining and evolving its bona fide practices and criteria, and eliminating and educating managers about unintentional, unhelpful bias in hiring. Similarly, whether or not Starbucks chooses to stop policing its bathrooms, it still needs to educate its employees about the inevitability that they’ll profile some customers as more respectable and preferable to others (based on perceived race, age, gender, socioeconomic status, physical and mental abilities) and to train their employees to discern how to engage with the diversity of the public at the cash register, when closing up their stores, when someone asks for change or directions, when someone pays for their order with change scrounged from the bottom of their bag or when someone has lingered over one cup of tea for several hours.

Because the only way to realize the promise of equity and inclusion in our collective experience and impact is to practice doing what we need to do, everyday, with a commitment to learning and growing.