How to Start a Safe Discourse on Race, Gender & Intersectionality
I start my classes by asking how a toilet works. Seriously. Try it. Ask each person in your class to raise a hand if they know how a toilet works. Then, ask how many of those people are sure. Watch hands drop. Then ask how many of those people with hands still raised would be able and willing to use the knowledge they just exclaimed they had to stand up and teach the class the mechanics of toilets. As simple as it sounds, the lesson is this: simple, everyday things that we take advantage of, that incorporate themselves into our daily lives, really are a bit more complicated than we really sit down and think about the details to explain them. When we think about how and why we think of things and people the way we do or categorize them in the ways we do, and how our privilege granted by those categories (and the underlying hierarchies of those categories) plays a role in how we think about a treat one another.
Race is our toilet. It is more complicated than we ever imagined and it has a million little moving parts that work together. It has little chains and levers, gravity and water, and when we are done shitting in it, we flush it down and do it all over again, hoping that we don’t have to smell it too badly. Some of us are privileged enough to have one toilet to shit in, and some of us have many, but we all have a general idea of what a toilet is, even though we don’t fully understand how it works. We play a role in its perpetuation.
By asking about something simple and mundane, you’ve effectively inserted humility into the conversation, de-weaponizing privilege in your audience and re-established that, while this is a topic that they may think they are tired of hearing about (that they may think they know something about), they are very much still students of the details. They are learning of intersectionality and power, grit, and the role community plays in all of this discourse, both over the course of history and in today’s systems. I’ve learned that the true signifier of a great leader is the ability to follow: the wisdom to acknowledge gaps in knowledge and ability, the humility to allow someone else to shine in areas where your own light is slightly duller and to fully and enthusiastically support those others as they shine.
So, take the opportunity to teach your students. Don’t just teach your students how to lead, but teach your students how to be GREAT leaders while you help them conceptually work through a difficult topic, address their own privilege and identities, and understand the best ways to remain sensitive and supportive of their classmates as they travel in the same journey (regardless of how different or similar that journey may seem).
Share in your own journey. Make the time and be vulnerable about your process and all the things you’ve learned along the way. Take five minutes to identify the beautiful things that struggle has instilled in you, and be honest about the impatience or hardening that may have also been placed on your spirit, where that may reside and why. Then do the work openly as an example to others.
Finally, use your journey as an opportunity to lead. You may very well change someone’s life with your demonstration.