Here is a very tired scenario: you, the minority (lived experience or disability or race/ethnicity or gender identity and etc.) find yourself in a group (conference, advisory committee, edited book compilation) and immediately realize you’re the only one of your kind, at least in any visible way, exactly the ‘kind’ the conference or committee or book is about. Is this not glaringly obvious, you think to yourself, but bite your tongue, and tell yourself “let’s approach this by trying to be as polite and non-confrontational as possible, point out the disparity and offer to discuss or provide suggestions.” Your concerns are promptly dismissed. Because you have already heard that tone of voice, these strategies for communicating the message that while yes, you do have “a point”, not enough of one.
Now the blood begins to rise. You think to yourself, “should I now try to elicit support from other members of the group, whose opinions might actually have an impact on the organizers?” Or will it all backfire (which happens most of the time, and because you have done this so many times, you know it, that’s your bet.) In this case, you go ahead and email the others anyway. It does; it works, it also backfires. It works at the cost that you have now (1) placed yourself into a role you manifestly do not in fact want to occupy—the token person whose cool rationality, as the stereotypes themselves already suggest, cannot be maintained; the token identity-category person who is over-sensitive, the token identity-category person who has now burned bridges because of what you’ve done, and the social capital you had to expend, precisely to achieve this pyrrhic non-victory.
Because you have had versions of this conversation with dozens and dozens of friends and colleagues over the years, you know that for most people who fall into these categories, the above narrative hardly even needs the amount of detail given it here. The question is not, therefore, do those who have repeatedly fallen into such roles understand, but do those who have not, understand—can they, would they, might they? Or is the polarization we currently find, in which overly rigid identities (that, I would be the first to admit, can be deeply problematic) can only rigidify still further? Till “us” and “them” are no longer just cultural and symbolic categories, but bindingly tangible, visceral, structural.
The TRP Collaborative would welcome dialogue and deep thinking as to how we ever get past such impasses, and to do so we believe it must be actual dialogue. Willing to write some reflections on these issues here or in another space?—please let us know, or do it and we’ll cross-link here.