Two Basic Ingredients for Inclusive Action

I had an interesting experience recently. I have been working with a group of students and LGBT community members on producing stories for children of the transgender community. Actually, the stories are already written and illustrated. We are now presenting them at different venues through a reader’s theater production and are looking for a publisher to get the stories produced in book form. But we didn’t want just any publisher, knowing that a major publisher might not be so welcoming, or might impose all kinds of restrictions. This project has been a community effort with many different players from the start, so we wanted a publisher that was people oriented as well as business oriented.

Based on a referral we found a small publisher of multicultural children’s books that we thought was ideal. Dedicated to the stories of “those” children that were generally overlooked in the literature, this publisher seemed perfect. The owner asked to see some of the illustrations and so I sent a few. They thought the illustrations were very professional, but obviously American in style, and not Dutch, and therefore very commercial. The conversation continued pleasantly, but did end with “I don’t think you would be a good fit for our business.” After hanging up the phone I wasn’t even disappointed, but more flabbergasted at the realization… Did this company that promotes inclusion just use exclusionary practices on us? Did this company that caters towards children that don’t fit the box just reject us because we didn’t fit in their box? All I could do was shake my head and let it go.

I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence, but it is not. In my training as an anthropologist one of the first things I had to learn was the difference between emic and etic perspective. I quickly taught myself the little trick of linking M to “inside” and T to “outside”. That’s how I would always remember that emic refers to the insider’s perspective, while etic relates to the outsider’s perspective. A lot of our training is based on getting that understanding, and the respect for the difference. Good anthropologists are fully aware that they will never gain true emic, or insider’s perspective. No matter how close you think you get to know a particular group, you are still an outsider, even when you write about your own people. This is why I like to use anthropology to help people write their own stories, but I digress.

The more I do this diversity and inclusion work, the more I am convinced that the biggest challenge is the ability to connect with the story of the other. Secondly, I am convinced that the biggest misconception is that there is a division between us and them. There is only us. Now I don’t mean to sound idyllic, or break into a kumbaya let’s all love each other hymn. There is only us and there are plenty of differences within us. The problem is not the difference, the problem is that some of our stories have been deemed as more valid, while other stories have been silenced, marginalized, or overlooked. We have to be honest about that. These power differentials have been there for as long as we can remember and what is different now is that those counter voices are louder or at least refuse to be silenced. Some of us are forced to listen for the first time, and it is painful.

Dutch people are known for being down to earth, polite, direct but removed. Of course this is a broad generalization, because in my short experience with Dutch people I have learned that there are definite regional differences. Yet, in general I find them to be quite sensitive. Going from the outsider to the insider perspective requires a shift. It requires the effort to try and connect with someone’s story and stand in their shoes. This requires only two things: care and bravery. Do you care enough? Furthermore, are you brave enough to try and do something different, to step out of the comfort zone, or worse to consider giving up some power? Notice I didn’t say skill. Skill you can learn and work on. But if you are not brave enough it doesn’t matter how many skills trainings you have under your belt.

You would be surprised how many people just don’t care. For me, when people clearly don’t care, I quickly move on to those who do. The publisher cared, but wasn’t brave enough to step outside of the norm that they knew. Unfortunately, I encounter that a lot in this diversity work. I meet plenty of people who care. They are sincerely moved by these new issues they are confronted with, and they wholeheartedly agree that something needs to be done. But the thought of actually doing something differently, now that’s another question. Time and time again I find that people are not brave enough to step outside their routine. Stepping out and taking a stand for something comes at a price. You might stand alone. You might be judged. You might be attacked. You might lose your benefits in whatever form they may present themselves. Ultimately, however you will be changed into a different person, and that is probably the scariest thing of all. When you actually step out and stand for something you also have to look into the mirror to see whether you are in alignment with who you proclaim to be. And once you know better, you are expected to act better. Can you live up to that? Sometimes it is just easier to fall into the mold and go back to thinking about us versus them, rather than getting your M’s and T’s crossed or merged.

So where does that leave us? We start with showing some compassion and understanding for where people are in this process. Don’t get angry at people for not acting. Understand that they are not brave,.. yet. Understand that you might not be brave… yet. If there is compassion there is at least some hope. If they don’t care, don’t waste your time. Move on and do your thing. If they do care there is some hope. If you care, there is some hope. Work that bravery muscle again and again and again. If you fail, dust yourself off and try again. Get inspired by other people’s bravery. Be authentic in your own bravery. Be a bravery role model. Act as if your bravery is the most normal thing in the world. And if it is not, pretend like it is. Fake it till you make it. It is harder to go back to your old ways then to move forward, trust me. Because once you know, you will never quite be comfortable again in your status quo, at least we hope not.

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