We exist in an age that permits endless opportunities for the expression of our identities and opinions. It’s a gift and a curse, really. Like a rubber band, identity can function to keep something of many parts together. However, in my professional experience, I’ve also seen this rubber band turned into a weapon.
We are social beings wired for connection with others, which requires letting other people know who we are, and what we stand for. Now, perhaps more than ever, people are more openly expressing their unique identities and giving profound meaning to their “I.”
And now, more than ever, we are becoming more aware of how language has implications and consequences.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Verbally navigating through these identities can feel like you are walking through a battlefield: no matter how cautious you are, you might just step on a landmine. Some navigating this minefield can have an approach and delivery that is overt, rather aggressive, and offensive. Then there are those who practice on what I call a “sensitivity scale” of expression.
A good indicator that you are engaging with someone who is operating on said “sensitivity scale” is when you hear something like, “No offense, but…” I hear this phrase often. These words trigger a personal response that sounds an alarm to all of my internal warrior Beyoncés indicating that a rubber band is coming my way, i.e. “This person is about to say something fucked up.” Prefacing an exchange with an attempt to eliminate accountability and seemingly “not offend” can’t reverse the damage.
In fact, I hear phrases of this sort from people who are not asshats but, instead, generally intelligent, compassionate, and pleasant. I hear them ask the infertile person how many kids they have, or tell the biracial woman that she doesn’t even “look black.” I hear them commenting on how “gay” it is to order a passion fruit tea, and then how “retarded” they are for choosing the word “gay.”
Inclusivity as a mindset
If the phrase “politically correct” makes you dry heave, I am there with you. This isn’t about that. Political correctness in many ways is a well-intentioned, progressive form of social control. You may put on your PC police badge because people tell you that you should. You can be politically correct, and also an aggressive, intolerant person who crumbles up cookies in bed sheets for fun.
There are substantial differences between political correctness and inclusiveness.
Being inclusive is a mindset, a way of being. It is about wanting to form deeper connections through demonstrating the desire to understand and to letting go of the need to understand when you cannot. Difficult, uncomfortable discussions and differences should be talked through.
You will make a valiant effort and still fall short. And that’s okay.
It is important to be mindful that some people LIVE on the frontlines of these battlefields, carrying identities that are marginalized, stigmatized, and simply misunderstood. Some people are healing from injuries, carrying scars, and constantly anticipating their next rubber band or non-affirming explosion. It’s shitty to feel like you are not accepted.
Here are some ways in which you could start growing and maintaining your own personal inclusivity offspring:
- Define your “I”: Deconstructing our own identities through critical self-exploration promotes awareness and development of a robust self-concept. A great platform to do this work is through personal psychotherapy. Be curious, think critically, challenge yourself, ask questions, identify your own biases, privilege, prejudices, and emotional reactions. Once you begin this process, you will probably immediately regret your decision. I welcome you to consciousness. It is here where we create meaning to our experiences, give definition to our “I”, and commit to learning more.
- Step out of your comfort zone, walk through the warzone: People who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways that you may not understand or know anything about. Interact with difference and expose yourself to diversity. It may not feel comfortable, but it is necessary to the evolution of you as a person.
- Don’t be afraid to ask…kinda: A good rule of thumb is to allow people an opportunity to tell YOU who they ARE without you putting a label on them first. However, if you have a question that you feel will enhance your connection with another, most people don’t mind being asked questions. Just keep your inquiries respectful. Understand that some people may not want to participate in activism, or wear their activist hat all the time. They just want to live their lives. There are many resources that can be utilized to build your diversity knowledge base.
- Safety: Consider someone’s identity as their property. It is their story, their life and, therefore, it is not yours to share. Many people are at risk for physical and psychological abuse for simply being who they are. Believe me when I say that you cannot predict how anyone will react to difference. You don’t want to be responsible for compromising someone else’s safety.
- Stereotypes should disappear: Pay attention and listen closely. Inclusivity means you also critically challenge stereotypes. In fact, dispose of them entirely. Light them on fire. Or, if flames aren’t your thing, feed them to the hungry baby pigeons that none of us have ever seen. Stereotypes maintain social distance, disconnect, and misunderstanding. Don’t be basic. People are individuals, and cannot be lumped together to provide anyone with generalized understanding.
- The NEW ME sounds NOT FUN: I promise you can still be fun. When it comes to having difficult conversations, sugar always helps the medicine go down. At the same time, you have now taken a sip of the Inclusivity Kool-Aid and may become more aware of all the rubber band bullets flying around your everyday experience. Assess situations. Inclusivity always should be prioritized, but sometimes you can be more relaxed.
- You will fuck up: When you screw up, don’t unpack and live there. Take responsibility for your words, the effect, and do better next time. Challenge others when they screw up, even if it makes them feel a little uncomfortable. Discomfort breeds change. The desire to practice inclusivity demands that you acknowledge it as practice in that it cannot be perfected. This work is never complete, and if you ever get the sense that it is refer back to no. 1.
By wanting and learning how to practice inclusivity, you are taking care of yourself as well as others, and that is significant.
By Kristin Lyons, MHC-LP
KIP Senior Fellow