A colleague of mine recently wanted to incorporate content from a book I recently edited into a session she was facilitating. Over the course of a multi-session program, issues about oppression and inequity were coming to the forefront. It was if there was a constant hum (like vuvuzelas at the World Cup games in South Africa) that was preventing messages from being heard clearly. Something was in the air, and something needed to happen.

To my colleague’s credit, she listened and she acted. It sounds obvious, but quite often issues related to social identity tensions are not addressed. Why not? Well, because they are often complex and difficult issues to talk about, we don’t see it as “our job” to deal with it, we think it isn’t that big a deal and it’ll go away, and frankly, we don’t know what to do and we don’t want to make the situation any worse.

But guess what? Doing nothing is an action; it isn’t the absence of one.

Doing nothing can give rise to gossip about the leaders’ stance; maybe he or she condones the situation, maybe he or she is on one side and not another, maybe they just don’t care. What can be hard to remember is that problems fester before they are brought to the attention of leaders. It takes a lot of courage to speak up about these issues, and not everyone is willing to take a risk.

Imagine working hard against a stream of negative assumptions and low expectations to finally reach a position you really wanted. Something would have to matter quite a bit for you to risk being seen as a stereotype, again.

If you ever wonder why someone seems to always raise a perspective that is related to their social identity it may be because it matters and they do not feel heard.

If you ever wonder why someone can’t just get over it, ask yourself if you truly understand what you are asking them to “get over.” Take time to listen, ask questions, and get curious about their perspective.

Even if we don’t understand or don’t know what to do, we can at least acknowledge that someone else’s experience is real, that we care, and we may find out that there is something we can do.

How closely do you listen to those around you?

~Kelly Hannum

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