On Privilege, Leadership, and Passing the Mic
White people: when a group asks you to come speak on social and racial justice issues and organizing, please ask if you can also put them in touch with an African American, or Latina, or… and be willing to give up your slot if need be.
Men, do the same with women.
Heterosexual people, do the same with LGBQ.
Cis, with trans*.
Christians, do the same with minority religions.
(We can keep filling in examples. I figure you get the idea.)
Regardless of the topic, community is served when we inquire: “Who else is speaking? Would you like an introduction to this transman/Hindu/Black activist/female tech guru…I know their work. They’re really great.”
Systems will not change if we do not do this part of the work.
This piece hit home. I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve been invited to speak or give a quote while uncomfortably aware that I’m speaking in part to experiences that are not my own, sometimes to a roomful of people who may have those experiences.
I’ve also been the sex worker, or the trans person, sitting silent while someone else without those experiences talks about my life as though I’m not in the room with them.
(This is especially pronounced for racially charged discussions and trans issues, since there’s an assumption that all the “others” in the space will be visible as other.)[¹]
Always remember: The people you’re talking about may be in the room with you, even if you can’t visually identify them. They should have their experiences respected and reflected.
As a speaker or a source, always ask yourself: “Who is not in this room that should be?”
When I offer to pass on underrepresented leads for a group, organization, or journalist that has reached out to me, I do notice who appreciates it and jumps on it and who looks for another “relatable” speaker instead. I also notice the trainers and speakers that pass the mic or collaborate vs. those that are happy to be paid experts on someone else’s experiences.
If you’re a go-to source, trainer, or speaker and you don’t have a list of folks to bring in or refer to, start by looking on the edges of your bubble for up and coming voices. Keep expanding. And ask your colleagues who they know. You’ll meet great folks and learn a lot.
This is in no way meant to encourage those who are speaking out to shrink back. This is too important for any of us to shrink back. But if you find yourself in the position of talking about an experience or perspective that is not your own on a regular basis because of work you do, you’ll find that collaboration will enrich the work. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the best thing to do.
There’s a piece of intersectional privilege that’s hard to talk about, and that’s the way that some of us have more internal (and cultural) permission to speak up and step up than others. We’ve had others look to us early on, or reinforce us when we shared an opinion, in a way that others didn’t.
What this means in practice is that even if you step back, sit down, and are silent, media may not reach out to voices that have been sidelined but will instead go hunting for more voices like yours. In practice, members of marginalized groups have been told so many times that they’re not enough that they often won’t put in to speak or to lead without a lot of encouragement, because they know they’ll probably be held to a higher standard of qualification.
This is where people can use their privilege for good. When you see someone who is ready to step up and lead, tell them so. Reflect their qualifications to them, because it matters, especially for those with a non-traditional life or career path. Encourage them. Signal boost them. Share your privilege by putting together a panel or a co-presentation and making sure they’re on it.
People who might not listen to them if you weren’t in the room, or who might not give them a chance if you weren’t on the ticket, will have their minds blown. People who might be unconsciously passed over will have a chance to shine.
Pass the mic. Hold the door open. And listen.
[¹] As a visibly-white person whose relatives aren’t, I know what I look like, and I know what that’s meant for me, and I know what not looking like me meant for other members of my family. I also know that discussions about race take a funny turn when everyone in the room is read as white. Aside from that, there is so much I don’t know, and won’t pretend to. This is why it’s crucial to pass the mic to those who can speak to different experiences of race.