I was watching a diversity panel years ago (and at a different university than my current home), and there was a lone white man up there on the stage. I suspect he had important and relevant knowledge to share but he didn’t seem to know what it was and the panel never really got to it. Instead he got mixed up in race, gender, and sexual identity conversation that dominated. It was clear he did not know anything about those things. Rather than sharing his important and relevant information, he became the mainstream white male foil for the others. It was cringe-worthy to watch – educational for those in the audience who haven’t spent hours watching or participating in the same take-downs on Black Twitter – but cringe-worthy none the less.
Afterwards, I thought about the panelist. He had not been in a safe space. I knew it. He knew it – he left looking half the size that he had been when he walked in. I struggled with this: Why should the mainstream voice get a “safe space?” Isn’t it his responsibility to do his homework, put in his time, know when to shut up and listen?
Yes to all of that.
However, strategic thinking would require us to take ourselves out of the current situation to consider the big picture. What’s the desired outcome, really? That guy might deserve the shaming. The others on the panel probably deserved the opportunity to shame him. It might have made them feel better, or maybe not. But which is more important: the shaming or the changing of his perspective?
Shame is the least motivating approach to inspiring change. Like all people, the gentleman deserved a safe space to learn. Outreach. Resources. Respectful constructive criticism. Access to conversation. Modeled language and behavior. He should not be put up on that stage to let that happen again. I can’t imagine asking or expecting the others on the panel to do this work, but it’s something that I – as a privileged white woman still in the process of learning- could do. Hypothetically speaking (because it was years ago), I’d like to get him back up on that stage, but for the purpose of talking about what he was there to talk about and not as the foil of others.
Featured Image: Stephen Di Donato, unsplash.com