Why, when we talk about race do we get so uncomfortable that we permit behavior we wouldn’t allow in any other space?
Last October I was told that a prominent outdoor athlete said “White people suck” while serving on a panel, “The Modern-Day Activist,” at the 2018 SHIFT Festival. Also reported was that panelists allowed members of the audience to ask a question only if they fit a specific race, gender and sexual orientation. My heart twisted in my chest.
I started to follow the online conversation in the aftermath of SHIFT and, in a personal interaction, was referred to an “article” that ended with “May we never have to say or explain this sh-- to your sensitive, thin-skinned, snowflake asses again.”
Some of these individuals are supported by the most prominent brands in the outdoor industry. These messages become amplified to an even larger audience by association with the brand’s platform. When I share concerns with others I respect in the industry — even when they agree that this approach is damaging or have also observed or been the recipient of inflammatory or offensive communication — they are unwilling to say anything on the basis that they are white. The conversation is completely shut down and with it any means to speak together and understand each other.
My fear is that because the conversations that took place at SHIFT and continue online are not being conducted in a way that increases understanding, we have the potential to leave more divided and frighteningly more biased and racist than when we entered the room.
The trend of categorizing people by groupings like race and gender with a set of assumptions and preformed arguments has gained traction in conservation and the outdoor industry because those spaces are homogeneously white. In an absence of varied voices, the loudest are being heard and consulted.
If you are engaging in this way, or not engaging at all, consider this an invitation. Delivering a message coated with insults is not engaging. Being afraid that your race or your privilege or your gender or your sexuality or your appearance or whatever else has cost you your voice and you’re afraid of retaliation ... that’s not engaging either. Speaking only online and not in person is also not engaging. It’s much more difficult to be hateful when we’re face to face with each other.
I’ve been in many situations in which as a woman, person of color or youngest in the room I don’t hold the position of power. But in those moments I do have influence, which comes from a foundation of self-awareness and empathy — a continuous aim to understand.
In the “FAQ” posted on Medium, the group calling for the resignation of SHIFT Director Christian Beckwith responds to requests for specifics with more generalities. I can describe the moments when I’ve encountered racially motivated questions and statements, including, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” Or being referred to as “gook.” Traumatic, triggering experiences are difficult to articulate. But they are necessary to articulate when they are the facts behind serious allegations.
The FAQ also states that “redirecting the conversation to question our methods and tone ... diminishes the lived experience of these 17 individuals.”
There is a lot that merits anger in this current time. I am angry. Anger needs to be transformed into a usable form. We have the right to be angry; we don’t have the right to be absolved of responsibility for our conduct just because we are a member of a protected class.
Delivery matters because it’s impossible to hear a message if the method and tone is threatening or offensive. When you are refusing to converse with me or when you insult me, I actually miss your message. We know that our cognitive capacities decline when we are under perceived stress or threat. We either shut down or want to fight.
I’ve decided to support SHIFT and additionally the leadership of Beckwith until specific evidence is presented that indicates otherwise. I do this because SHIFT does great work, and I stand for justice in all forums. This was a difficult decision to make because of my work in social justice.
In the context of conservation and the outdoor industry we are all responsible for creating and violating safe space. We need to hold ourselves and others accountable to a standard of dialogue that does not shut down the conversation or provoke us to fight, but allows us to interact in a way in which we can listen. To create a shared future for the critical issues of our time we need to prioritize understanding.