One thing Chris and Michael asked me to consider when writing this post was the different identities that exist on our team. Three things came to mind: gender, race, and sexuality. Even just by looking at your identity wheels though, you know that identity reaches so much deeper than that. I certainly couldn’t confidently claim to be able to name all the different identities a person can hold. Some are more easily visible than others, but truth is, you can very rarely look at a person and correctly nail down their identity. Race seems like an obvious one, but it’s easy to incorrectly identify a tan white person or a light-skinned person of color. Gender also seems like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been misgendered (called sir) since I cut my hair. Beyond that, the bottom falls out: sexuality is definitely hard, especially if the person you’re trying to figure out doesn’t even know the answer themselves. Disabilities are so often invisible, and socioeconomic status, education, nationality, and spiritual affiliations are often anyone’s guess.
I’ve been interested in social justice since I was 13, when I started scolding my friends for saying “that’s so gay.” I annoyed them mercilessly throughout eighth grade until they’d finally shaken the habit. Eight years later, and I’m still learning new things all the time. When I was about 19, I met someone my age named Connor through mutual friends. For a while now I’d been aware of the concept that gender is a spectrum, but this was the first time I’d ever personally met and become close to someone who identifies as non-binary, or outside of the binary Male and Female. We bonded over shared high school experiences and the woes of being young fast-food employees. Connor had recently come to terms with their identity and didn’t talk about it much to me. I had picked up on it when we became Facebook friends, and I noticed that all their activity showed up with third-person pronouns (they/them/theirs). I respected Connor’s choice not to talk about it with me — partly because I understood why they might think I wouldn’t understand, and partly because I didn’t know how to approach it. I did my best not to use the wrong pronouns when talking to them. When they weren’t around, and I was just chatting with other friends, if Connor’s name came up, I would use the pronouns that fit the gender they were assigned at birth. I knew this was wrong, but I didn’t know how to explain non-binary identities to my other cisgender* friends. I feared judgment. I didn’t want them to make faces or pass judgment on my friend in front of me. In hindsight, I was giving my friends way less credit than they deserved. It wasn’t until after we’d lost touch a few months later that I started using the correct pronouns when speaking to my other friends. We don’t talk anymore, but I keep up with them on Facebook, and we watch each other’s Snap stories.
That experience taught me a lot about how I interact with other people and helped me change some aspects of those things for the better. Within myself, I felt like I had a solid grasp on human identity; I knew all about the complicated ins and outs of gender and sexuality, and I was starting to understand white privilege and supremacy on a deeper level. (Disclaimer: While I do feel like I understand these things more clearly now, the learning process never, ever ends.) I felt insecure with sharing this knowledge with those around me who might not understand, so I just covered it up: I intentionally misgendered** someone who considered me a friend. I have the desire and will continue to work on the desire within myself to feign ignorance on issues I actually do understand in an effort not to alienate those around me who share my privilege. Most importantly, I’ve learned to take these difficult moments and turn them into opportunities to educate those around me, even if it’s uncomfortable — which it will be.
*Cisgender: Your gender matches up with the sex you were assigned at birth.
**Misgender: The act of using the incorrect gender pronouns in reference to someone — like someone calling me “sir” even though I’m female.
Reflection Question: Pick an identity that is very salient to you and imagine a scenario in which you’re provided a “teachable moment.” For example, maybe whatever is most salient to you is getting torn apart at an awkward Thanksgiving dinner, and you know that your family is speaking not with hatred, but with ignorance. It may be easy to say that you’d speak right up, but take a moment to imagine what this situation would feel like. Identify the thoughts and feelings you may have that might hold you back. Think critically about why you think or feel this way, and try to work through resolving these hypothetical reservations.