Thursday, January 16, 2020

On Growth & Progress

2020 is here, and I’ve spent some time reflecting on the last decade: ups and downs, lessons learned, triumphs, and challenges. Looking back on my own growth since 2010, a lot of feelings bubble up. There’s joy, for relationships cultivated. There’s gratification, for some progress made and successful activism of which I’ve been a part. There’s also shame and anger at the world and at myself—because ten years ago there was so much I didn’t know I didn’t know. As a result of my ignorance (whether willful or unintentional) I hurt people. I’ve made mistakes for which I am 100% responsible; I’m aware of only some of them. As I exist in the world as a White person and try to engage in anti-racism and other anti-oppression work, this will surely continue. 

I like to think that I’ve embraced the kind of shame that Nina described on this blog as “instructive if the owner is open to it.”  I can’t deny those feelings, but what I do with them is up to me. As I reflect on all of this, a few throughlines emerge. In the spirit of learning and looking forward to the next ten years (and beyond), I’m sharing them below.

Changing Outcomes Over Minds

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi wrote in How To Be An Anti-Racist,  “An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change.” Dr. Kendi’s examination of history suggests that anti-racist policies can influence changes in perspectives held by people in oppressor groups—but changing someone’s mindset doesn’t often influence policy. 

It is easy for me to spend a lot of time thinking about changing hearts and minds. Changing minds and changing policies can go hand in hand, but if I am more focused on changing the thoughts of the privileged than I am concerned with anti-racist outcomes, I am centering those from oppressor groups and falling into what Paul Gorski has described as a “racial equity detour.”

I don’t think this means I should stop interrupting racism when I see it, or refuse to engage when opportunities for learning and growth arise for myself or others. This is not necessarily an either/or. (Let’s remember binary thinking is rooted in White supremacy culture.) What it does mean is that learning and thinking are not action alone, and it is naive to assume that changing people’s minds will end oppression. 

Change Requires Discomfort

Comfort is not a word I use to describe any big shifts, whether mental, behavioral, or political. As a result of my socialization, a degree of defensiveness and discomfort will always be present when the mirror is held up to me. Owning this is easier said than done, but when I think about how some of my biggest moments of growth have also been some of the most uncomfortable, I get a sense of clarity. 

Looking back, only through direct communication (and in some instances SERIOUS PRESSURE) from others did I “move” on an issue or change my behavior. It took courage and intentionality for people to tell me that I was wrong or that my thoughts or actions hurt them. Every time I reflect on an uncomfortable moment of progress for myself, I notice that someone cared enough to help me see the need for change. They could have just walked away (and if I had hurt them, they had every right to) but they didn’t, and that means something.

Feedback can come in many forms. (We White people need to check our tone policing, especially when it masquerades as White cries for “calling in.”) No matter how the criticism feels, it is a gift. My actions and my responses are my responsibility. It is probably still going to be hard, but that discomfort is where learning happens.

I Am Not Entitled to Forgiveness

In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo shared this scenario:

Say you get drunk in a bar and punch a stranger in the face, spend the night in jail, realize that your life has taken a turn for the worse, get treatment, stop drinking, and dedicate your life to anti-violence work. To the person that you punched that night, you may forever be the person who assaulted them. The person who made them scared to go into bars for a while. The person who made them feel violated. To the people you have helped since, you may always be a hero. The person who made them feel safer in the world.

These are both who you are, they are both valid and do not cancel each other out. If you run into the person you punched years later, they may well still be afraid of you, they may react with anger. They will treat you like someone who punched them, because you are. And even if you respond to that anger and fear like someone who abhors violence, because that is also who you are, you have no right to demand that they see you differently.

It can be really difficult to know, that as Oluo writes, “to some people [I] will forever be the person who harmed them.” Working to do better and working to earn forgiveness might be connected endeavors, but they are not the same thing. While both are certainly context specific, I believe time spent on the former should be prioritized. It is, after all, that over which I have (and should have) control. Forgiveness may or may not come—but no one is entitled to it. 

(Privilege is also tied up with forgiveness and how White people have systematically been afforded more chances to “try again,” as Dr. Ruha Benjamin details here.)

Change is Constant

There’s one specific pattern of equity pushback that I’ve noticed in recent years when it comes to change. It looks like this:
Once upon a time, I supported X.
My mind/actions around X shifted (likely as a result of feedback).
I talk about my learning and work for change against X.
Person in support of X declares, “You used to support X. Here’s proof! Therefore, you are in no  place to push against it and you are the thing that is oppressive, not X!”

This type of pushback is a non-argument and a form of  whataboutism. It is a distraction that makes use of something true (past support of X) and throws in a nonsensical curveball. “You used to love X” does not mean that X is not racist, sexist, ableist, heterosexist, classist, or oppressive in myriad ways. Evidence of past support is just that: evidence of past support. 

Change alone is neither ethical nor unethical, but purity and perfectionism are ideals in White supremacy culture. Stagnation is never the only option, nor are any people or institutions doomed to be frozen in one place and time forever. History exists, and new histories are created every day. How we acknowledge the past and what we decide to do today are up to us. 

This last discussion is one I expect to see more of in the #kidlit world well into the 2020s. 

Change might look like me raving about a book and later retracting that recommendation after listening to critical perspectives from people with insights and identities different than my own. It wouldn’t be the first or last time I deemed a book “excellent” and had my mind changed. (If creators, publishers, or review journals make edits to their work as a result of feedback, this also wouldn’t be new.) It’s worth noting the importance of aiming for transparency in these experiences; if I try to brush a mistake under the rug, the learning stops with me and I am not taking full accountability.

Change might look like celebrating the evolution of a book award, even when I once uncritically supported that award as-is. 

It might look like increased interrogation of norms that have been embedded into my professional networks: conventions like organizations expecting free labor and financial sacrifices to be made by people in their membership without any questions asked; conventions like book criticism’s “Look at each book for what it is, rather than what it is not.” (Vicky Smith has already pointed out the limits of taking some of our field’s esteemed guidelines as a be-all and end-all.)

Change might mean embracing ambiguity and challenging interpretations of librarianship’s critical terminology, especially when those interpretations conflict with the profession’s core values. I believe “professionalism” and “intellectual freedom” are important for everyone and I believe it is necessary to question what it means that not everybody has equal power to define these values for the masses—and gatekeep what these values can look like in active, everyday practice. 

Change might mean a lot of things, only a few of which I’ve shared here. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that wondering what “2030 Elisa” will think of me right now kind of freaks me out. Still, worrying about that is energy better spent elsewhere, and doing nothing only supports the oppressive status-quo

As I look forward to the next decade, I’m left with hope and resolve, and also with these words recently shared by Edi Campbell: “There’s no ‘woke.’ Only ‘waking’.”


Unknown said...

Once again Elise, I am so grateful for your voice. Thank you for your work, for your honesty and for the continuing reminder that our work as white librarians and educators is never done.

Unknown said...

Just happened across this post randomly, and I found it very informative. Thanks for your thoughts on your ongoing evolution!

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your description of change. Thank you!