Loaded language: Fragility

This week my second excursion into the powerful world of language and phrases. Once again I’ll be exploring a term or phrase that I think is misunderstood or wilfully misconstrued. So let’s talk about fragility and I’ll start with a definition.

fragility: the quality of being delicate or vulnerable

There is an irony in this definition as often those displaying fragility are not actually the vulnerable ones but the conversation, action or situation makes them perceive that they are in a vulnerable position. At its worst fragility, can be shrouded in gaslighting – but that’s a term for another day…

So what is fragility in the world of inclusion and what impact does it have? What I have seen is an individual or an under represented group raising concern about their experience or how they are being treated. Author Robin DiAngelo first coined the phrase ‘White Fragility’ in the title of her 2018 book. However, the fragility I see extends beyond matters of race and covers all under represented groups. This is how I see it show up.

  • It is in part a denial of someone’s lived experience
  • It is a defensive position that fails to, or refuses to, acknowledge how you may have benefited from existing social structures and hierarchies
  • A negative reaction to any strong terms that are used to describe that experience
  • A rejection of ownership of being complicit in the problem, leading to centering the feelings and emotions of the individual from the ‘majority’ group at the expense of the individual from the under represented group

I’ll give you an example. An employee goes to speak to their boss about their experience of racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism in the work place. The boss starts off with a couple of gaslighting blows: asking them questions such as are you sure that is what was intended? They then move on to say that the terms the employee is using to describe the event are potentially overinflating the problem “I’m not sure I would say that was racist” or “those are really strong terms to describe that”. Then comes the fragility gut punch “I’ve been trying really hard to improve things for the team here” or “I’ve introduced policies and processes and we’ve given everyone training” a defensive reaction that centres themselves as the innocent victim in all of this.

This is painful to hear when you’ve experienced trauma. It is hard enough to muster the courage to share but your overriding hope is that your experience will be acknowledged, you will feel heard and your manager / the organisation will take action. It is not ok to have to fight your corner. It is not ok to be compelled to explain that you did experience racism, sexism, ableism or homophobia. It is not ok to have argue that the training hasn’t gone far enough, the revised policies aren’t working or that the organisation has to work harder to embed meaningful sustainable change. And it is definitely not ok for the conversation to become centred on the manager’s emotions and not the employees.

If you are the manager or leader in this scenario I understand how daunting, nerve wracking and challenging leading for this work can be for you, especially if you have minimal lived experience that you can draw on. Humility and curiosity are your strengths here. Listen to understand, be open to reviewing or revising your interventions and be brave enough to take action to support your under represented colleagues. If you can tap into your fragility but use it as a warning system rather than a response mechanism it could aid your work to being a better ally and inclusive leader.

Loaded language: Privilege

This week will be my first dedicated foray into exploring a term or phrase that I think is misunderstood or wilfully misconstrued. This week let’s talk about privilege and I’ll start with a definition.

privilege : a special right or advantage that a particular person or group of people has 

I think there are two key challenges with how this definition is understood. The first is a perception that privilege is material and that when you have it you are aware that you have it. The second is a subconscious correlation between privilege and wealth, birthright and access to riches. The phrase ‘born with a silver spoon in their mouth’ may well come to mind when the concept of privilege is raised. Both of these interpretations can lead people to assume that a suggestion that they have privilege means they have never faced hardship. This is fundamentally untrue. Privilege is not binary and you can simultaneously hold privilege and lack it. I’ll use myself as an example…

I’m black, grew up in a working class family and have an invisible disability. So in some aspects of my life I have to deal with challenge and disadvantage simply because of my identity. I have experiences that go right across the spectrum from explicit in your face racism to disapproving glances when my MS has led me to need to use an accessible toilet.

On the other hand I am heterosexual so have never had to keep secret my relationships or not hold my partner’s hand in public. I am male so have not faced issues of sexism in the workplace. I was fortunate enough to be privately educated which I believe gave me a helping hand in gaining qualifications and experiences that have underpinned my career. I’m not a wheelchair user and don’t have sight loss so I don’t have to plan in detail every journey where I need to use public transport.

In the video below John Ameachi explores privilege through the lens of race and eloquently talks about privilege as “an absence of an inconvenience, impediment or challenge”. It is this lack of tangibility that causes some of the problems. If you are not automatically aware of the privilege you hold, how can you understand how it positively impacts on your life on a day to day basis?

John Amaechi on BBC Bitesize eloquently explaining the concept of white privilege

Understanding your privilege is important. It helps you be a better ally. It improves your ability to be mindful of potentially affinity bias and your blind spots. But most importantly, it allows you to be more consciously aware of inequality of experience, boosting your empathy and inclusive practice. If you would like to understand more about privilege I recommend registering for this free two hour live streamed webinar on July 1st run by the Privilege Project.

We need to talk about privilege more openly and in a non guarded and non judgemental way. I believe the term has most power when used to explore difference rather than criticise or chastise. I hope to see many more regular, balanced conversations about privilege and how it affects us all in the not too distant future. #ImNotTired