Introducing the Social Justice Toolbox
A small group of strangers sat crowded around a small conference room table. As I glanced around the room in my naturally wary, introverted way, I tried to decipher from the looks on the other residents’ faces whether I was the only one who wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into. My silent worrying was interrupted. “Welcome everyone. Please introduce yourself to the group by sharing your name, where you’re from, what organization you’re working for, and your preferred gender pronouns.” Huh?
It was day one of orientation for the Tzedek Social Justice Residency and the first time in my life that I’d been asked to specify what gender pronouns I ascribe to myself. I wasn’t sure what to say. Eventually introductions moved around the circle to me.
“Hi my name is Gwen. I recently relocated to Asheville from Brooklyn and I’m working at Green Opportunities on the communications and fundraising team,” I stated. “And my preferred pronouns are…she, her…and hers,” I sputtered in closing, following the lead of others who had (thankfully) introduced themselves before me.
Relearning the English language
One day into this year-long commitment and my new role as a Tzedek Resident already had me questioning and unlearning years of experience with the English language. I had just scratched the surface.
On our third day together, language (or more specifically, my limited vocabulary) reared its head again, this time in the form of a session on gender and sexuality identity. Finding ourselves again in a circle, but this time seated cross-legged on the carpeted floor of a retreat center, we were asked to share how we personally identify. A mix of words both familiar and foreign to me were scribbled on a chart at the front of the room: queer, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, cisgender. Cisgender?
The facilitator took the lead this time to kick things off. “I identify as Jewish, a lesbian, and a cat lover” she stated quickly and matter-of-factly before ceding the floor to me. I had no idea what to say. A small panic overcame me as I quickly scanned the list of words on the whiteboard, and found none that fit. “Can I pass for now?” I offered weakly. Eventually I introduced myself as a straight woman, clumsily clarified that I had never been a girly-girl, and concluded with the caveat that I had no personal attachment to the term “female.” Clearly I was struggling.
The truth was, I had no idea how to describe my identity, because as a straight, white, cisgender woman in the US, I had never thought very much about it. What I have a stronger grasp on now, nearly a year later, is why I had never thought about it.
After many hours invested at social justice conferences and workshops, and in reading countless think-pieces (many of which I wouldn’t have naturally gravitated to before I became a resident) I have come to understand the extent to which my identity is consistently validated, centered, and normalized by our culture, in everything from pop culture and the media, to everyday conversation. Our society has made a collective decision that we don’t need words to describe “normal” people (read white, straight, usually male), we only need words to describe all the “others”.
I of course have been complicit in this as well. I openly admit to being pretty perplexed by and hesitant to embrace the term cisgender when I first heard it many months ago. Honestly, describing myself as cisgender still doesn’t come naturally. The difference now is that I’ve learned how to identify the source of discomfort that arises in me when faced with something new, lean into it, and learn from it. I am newly committed to being a lifelong, albeit imperfect, learner.
Creating Change Conference
I spent my first hours at January’s Creating Change Conference participating in an all-day LGBTQ Ally Institute. The handouts provided to me included an eight page definition list, mostly dedicated to terminology describing gender and sexuality. I was so excited. Finally, I thought to myself, I have some tools to communicate about this new world of gender, sexuality, and systemic oppression that I’d been bumbling through for six months.
Language is a Tool
Looking back on the past year, I’m particularly struck by how the experiences, questioning, and reflection I’ve taken part in as a resident have pushed me to grapple with just how powerful the words we use are. How language is a tool that can both empower and disempower us; can bring us together or drive us apart. Mostly, I’ve come to believe that having more words at our disposal is preferable to fewer. We don’t do each other any favors when we refuse to acknowledge our similarities and our differences, or the multitude of identities we each hold within us, simultaneously.
I think it’s fair to say that most of us learn pretty early on in life not to use certain words because they are harmful to others. Naturally, as our society’s understanding and acceptance of each other has expanded, so has the list of words that we have collectively decided are off-limits. Some suggest that we still have a long way to go, but I do believe we are continuously making progress in this arena.
But what can be said about our individual and collective resistance to adopting new words that are actually helpful? I’ve come to understand that words like cisgender and gender non-conforming, and concepts like white privilege and the non-binary gender spectrum expand our view of the world, rather than diminish it. I am a white, cisgender woman. I understand more clearly now how my racial and gender identities shape my interactions with and perceptions of the world. Naming them legitimizes that.
National Conversation Around Language and Social Justice
My Tzedek residency has coincided with a surge in national conversations around the use of language, microaggressions, and “political correctness.” A candidate for the presidency of the United States speaks unabashedly of “making America great again”. The statement is simultaneously ambiguous and hostile, and I’m afraid that’s part of the point. Whose America? Return to what? By keeping the language vague, the slogan upholds the status quo of our nation’s current identity politics. It doesn’t need to be iterated that the “America” in question is centered around white, cisgender men. It is implicitly understood. The same purposefully vague, binary rhetoric is used to rationalize the need to build a wall between “us” and “them”, as if all people who live in the United States were one way and all people who live in Mexico were another. Resorting to over-simplified language over-simplifies our world-view.
It has been argued, for instance by proponents of the illusive “colorblind society”, that labels are used solely to divide us. While I suspect there may be a grain of truth in that sentiment (largely dependent on who is doing the labelling and for what purpose), it’s important to recognize that words can also be used as constructive tools. More language equates to more tools in our collective toolbox.
Words that illuminate differences don’t have to be divisive. On the contrary, they can help us describe and validate our experiences, identify commonalities, and empathize with those who hold different identities and experiences.
Sitting around that conference table back in August, I worried about whether I would be able to make it through this year. All this stuff about gender, identity, pronouns–it was all too much, too new, too different from what I was used to, too unrelated to my day-to-day life and work. Despite my anxiety, I was committed to the pursuit of social justice and to challenging myself not only for my own sake, but for our collective well-being, so I stuck with it. Yes, it was at times overwhelming, but it was also empowering. I have more tools in my toolbox now, and I plan to use them not to build walls, but to help break them down.