A guy walks into a bar… he is handsome, middle age, seemingly bright and well respected with an engaging smile. He compliments everyone around him. He liked my dress and told me I seemed like a smart lady when we were in conversation. He asked what I did and why I do it. A lovely conversation to have with a glass of red wine.
At some point… I can probably pinpoint exactly which sentence I utter and the conversation leans to privilege. I try to stop myself but when a person tells me they lead by listening and with empathy I have this deep down black hole inside of me that really needs to know. If you want to know… you roll out a conversation about privilege. Nothing, and I mean nothing works people up into their defense mode like a big ol’ chat about their place in the world and how hard they had to work for it so therefore they do not have privilege but rather they have earned everything that has ever happened to them, especially if they had to overcome traumatic and terrible things in their lives to do so.
I like him. He loves words. He loves controlling them, being witty with them, spinning them and inserting an “ahaa” into them as he makes his important points about privilege. He has my attention with, “ the minute you tell me I have privilege you take my privilege away.” That stopped me and it was when I put my wine down and squared myself to listen a little more closely above the music and the bar din. I had not considered that privilege, for some, may be believed to be a bargaining chip, to be passed back and forth and assigned, or in this case, taken. I think about Andrea and our conversation last week just before going live with Stephen and Doug about structures. Because someone builds a thing or changes a law and declares it’s all ok now – you have what we have so we all have it, does not actually make it equal. In fact, the privilege in making that sweeping statement is daunting and difficult to unravel. There may be good in there but we may have missed the point around reconciliation and relationship.
I listen a little harder. “There is no such thing as privilege. By stating the word we give power to it. If we are going to talk about land then we have to acknowledge that the land never belonged to them anyway. I have a hard time believing that lands belongs to anyone.” I asked if he lived in his own home. I asked if he had ever heard of Niigaan and his piece about the bathroom. I asked if he followed Colinda or Jesse on Twitter. He said, no, I don’t follow politics.” I guess he felt he did not have to.
He was passionate. He was warm. He wielded his privilege like a golden sword. He was so steeped in his own belief I could not budge him.
I needed to take one more gage, one more. We chatted about equity and privilege among LGTBQ+ folks. We settled on the personal rights of folks who want to change their pronouns. We talked about people who transition from one gender to another, about fluidity, about gender expression, sexual preference and who I believe I am in the world. He thought to ask if he might assume that I am a woman, that I present as one and that I have a vagina and therefore am a woman. He felt battered by the folks who are offended when he makes a mistake about pronouns and that in a world with two genders, there was a chance he was going to make a mistake but demanding he acknowledge his error and apologize for something that had already been assigned was ridiculous. My friend Cael flooded into me and I truly knew, understanding privilege was not going to happen today. I was grateful for his perspective. It made me check mine. Even standing there in that bar having that conversation was deeply privileged. I was going to walk out of a bar in small town Ontario and walk to my car safely and unnoticed – privilege.
I believe that #sitbeside is how we learn. We will only learn from people who think differently. He did not change my mind, nor me his. We walked out promising to continue our conversation. Maybe. I have more to think about all of it. I let it rattle around for 4 days before putting it to paper. It made me feel sick and want to scream and yet I understood.
A conversation with a person who has made their way in the world speaking to people about leadership and learning and relationships took my temperature. He dismissed almost everything I said. I had a bright moment when he followed up with something I said, “there could be a marketing strategy in that.”
I did not finish my wine. In true 50 fashion I knew that more wine would make me sarcastic and ironic and I would stop listening and merely respond to be right.
I did not nod.
He concluded, “that really in the end, all that matters is love.”
A: I read that three times. I want to read that 3 more. I will probably still feel shock and horror. The unravelling of this man, this conversation is exactly what you do. And as you say “so juicy”.
K: I had to wait to write it down. Even the words above, itchy and angry. But, as I was sitting here in the dark and read them again before you typed your first words… they became scary, insidious. He was not a red-neck nor was he offensive to look at or smell. He was lovely at face value. He travels and speaks and works with companies. Everything that we spoke about he had an answer as to how it did not really exist as I believed it did and brought it around to himself and his story. He smiled widely and I felt no empathy. I also got in the car and drove in complete silence all the way home (about 30 minutes) and kept circling back over and over in my head. Privilege was muddy and dark and I had trouble understanding my own let alone his beside mine in the world.
A: His leadership shtick is to live without fear. Denying his own privilege or any other self-checking mechanism is some kind of messed up bliss? Privilege isn’t about how hard you work. It’s about how white people/settlers don’t even have to think about hard. It just comes along. Of course it does. One thing that really struck me: how you might be taking his privilege my naming it. It’s sucking and blowing (obvi by the love quote) when he gives power to a concept but not to a pronoun.
K: Thank you. I read your words as you typed them… over and over. He told me about his childhood – extreme trauma throughout. He tells it like he has from the front of the room – empowering others with his story of overcoming. But he holds it like a staff and his story is the reason, he explains, that he has no privilege. He did not understand that standing there in that place, while we drank our fancy drinks, discussing privilege 10 miles from a Territory that is finally getting the water treatment that they need, is actual privilege. He would have none of it and just wove and wove and wove as to how we give power to word – and yes he went to the N word and how African Americans need to take back the power of that word – he sighted a writer I did not know to illustrate his point. He smiled and flitted and danced over every word and had an answer for everything. There was NO self-checking, gut-checking nor examination of bias. But there was “love.”
A: So ironic that this is a “leadership” strategy. Avoid all gut-checking and make your way to the top folks! I’m the greatest because I didn’t check! Lol I should think about leadership more than I do, but I know that you cannot lead without empathy. You cannot lead well, that is. Living without fear or relationships or hard conversations should not be the prize of power and leadership.
K: I should think about leadership more than I do… I just took myself back to the bar for a moment – sat there listening… wanting to ask a million questions – but knowing that the answers are quick, ironic, thin and are to prove rather than push. I have an office 🙂 People come to my office to ask me questions all day long… some answers are quick but the amount of effort and time it takes to not answer is never lost on me…like choosing not to nod. You taught me this Andrea – you never ever had to think about it. That has never been lost on me. You also made MADE me check my bias a million times – just when I thought I knew something…Oh Kelly, do you really? This person… in this bar, was my drive home gut check. He was not rude, nor a fist slammer nor did he feel redneck. It was scarier than that. Your last line above – the prize and power of leadership. Much scarier.
A: Just when you think you know… Why do they come to you for answers when the goal is to have a conversation to think it through? What would it look like to be aware of this as an organization? Are we looking up to gut-check instead of looking within or beside?
K: Seeking answers to confirm bias is habit. It can be broken and shifted and the conversation becomes the reason for the knock and the question. It becomes the juiciest part. But it is never quick. I love when time runs out and there is no answer and an educator smiles and me and says thanks for nothing and knows it does not lie with me. BUT I also have to come to realize, that for me, I can miss a gut check. In the busy of the doing… the listening and the empathy are the condition – without it there is no beside. I go inside and go back around because of that feeling of uneasiness and itchy tag. If I barge through my day, handing out answers then I have not learned a thing, nor will I. It probably doesn’t look like leadership at all.
A: “Thanks for nothing” made me laugh out loud. Answers are quicker and also the scariness of the guy in the bar who thinks he knows whose land and which gender. Messy and grey not- answers aren’t his style. He says he leads with listening and empathy? Huh?
K: He never said it. He ingratiated. He complimented and he told me stories. I talked about empathy and listening. He humoured me. He gave me reasons and metaphors and more stories – proof. When I left to drive home I sat in the car for a moment. I knew a bomb had gone off in my brain. I could not change his mind and barely got a word in. He left unchanged for having been in the room with me. The fear I had was connected to his beliefs and to his power and privilege. I was sitting in my car, he had paid no mind. I thought about you and The Beast and our love of the itchy tag. This went far beyond that. But, he made me think about leadership… and the front of the room and my why. He was supposed to.
A: Talking about empathy like posting a quote about empathy on social media. Pardon my sarcasm but I often feel that this is proof of insincerity. A one way conversation where you barely get a word in is his barrier. He won’t be itchy or vulnerable. At least not in front of you. These are strategies of power and oppression. I’m not vulnerable but you are. I will withhold information until you pay for it and so you don’t know who you are. Ugh.
K: Empathy – not a thing to quote about but rather to be beside. To say I have listened is a far cry from here are your words and this is why I am changed. So much harder. You have to want the words to change you first. That condition comes from within, from the crave of the gut check. If you spend your life proving your point or trying to convince the masses you will never move off of your square. #sitbeside is the hardest leadership “strategy” to pull off. You really have to mean it.
A: Sincerely mean it.