Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Building Trust & Creating Online Safe Spaces for Marginalized Participants

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I think about this a lot. I know there are articles on it. There isn’t one that comes to mind immediately, and there are many angles to this one, including from the angle of data privacy and security, from the angle if policy making, and from other angles as well. I want to focus on the social aspect in a more generic sense and give concrete practical tips that can work for teaching but also scholarly places, as I have recently had several experiences where minorities/marginalized folks may have been made to feel unsafe.

1. Beyond codes of conduct: Treating everyone the same is not the way to best care for those farthest from justice

This may sound patronizing, but caring differently does not mean coddling, but it means recognizing that their needs are the same. For example, codes of conduct are developed usually collaboratively within a community. But does everyone have an equal voice in developing it? Do new members have opportunities to challenge or extend it? How well are people reminded of the code of conduct (at a conference, at a discussion forum) and how often does a moderator step into the middle of a conversation to remind people if they have violated the code of conduct? Is the code of conduct updated when people realize it does not cover an incident which seemed harmful to minorities?

Reporting is often something moderators rely on. But do they realize the minorities are often so used to microaggression happening to them, and to them being dismissed by the dominant majority, that they rarely ever report? There is a form of internalized oppression where they may not even notice it. Or they notice but do not expect action to be taken on their behalf. Or they fear being ostracized. If you are a moderator/teacher or ally in such a space, you may consider reaching out directly to minorities to check in on them when you are unsure if a situation is harming them. You may also, if overwhelmed, consider asking allies in the group to help you know what’s happening. For example, I had a class session once where a student said something that offended some minorities. Some non-minorities showed allyship and responded, and they also spoke to me, and I contacted every minority individually to ask about them. One came to my office, one chatted on Slack and became one of my closest friends (that’s you,Ramez) and one said they were OK. No matter whether they wish to pursue this or give it more energy, giving them personal attention and care makes all the difference because they have no reason to trust that you care unless you show care.

2. Build diverse, non-tokenistic teams and practice radical, epistemic listening

When forming your team, and especially a team meant to respond to diversity, inclusion,equity, form as diverse a team as you possibly can to represent your population whole ALSO not overburdening the minorities to do all the work. Make sure minorities have political power to make decisions and drive the vision but plenty of allies to implement that vision. Non-tokenism is important. Don’t like bring a team of 10, make half of them white men, and then add one black person, one Asian person, one LGBTQ person, etc… that’s tokenisitic. And think about what 50% dominant of similar identity means for a voting process. Remember that minority perspective come from a historical and social space you can only imagine and you may not easily understand. Take time to listen carefully to their concerns and empower them to choose how they would like the issues addressed. Remember this diversity across all your functions and not just your diversity/inclusion TEAM. Or else you will be burdening that team with constantly fixing the mistakes of everyone else. And don’t bring the minorities who don’t challenge you either! Those who have adapted to temper their message to be accessible and a soft challenge to you without making you feel too bad about. yourself.

3. Words can be triggers.

People underestimate how a word can trigger traumatic memories or reactions. Mentioning and citing abusers without recognizing the impact on those abused is problematic. Using harsh words to critique a minority can have amplified painful consequences it’s not that you should walk on egg shells to avoid offending them, but to understand that you may be slightly more considerate in your wording to have the desired effect. Remember that minorities are CONSTANTLY self-censoring in order not to offend the dominant majority with their anger and resentment and they are constantly speaking the language of the dominant in order to be HEARD at all!

4. Commitment means always striving

Committing to social justice means always striving, at every opportunity, to show support in whatever capacity you can. If doing so publicly in a personal way has political implications or risks, you can start by showing solidarity privately. Or publicly in more generic ways without pointing fingers at offenders. Or privately with offenders. The thing is, eventually you need to do it publicly to let all minorities, including those silent ones who had not spoken, know where you stand.

5. Recognize and Center Different Cultures

Whose culture is being foregrounded in your class readings, discussions? In your community forum? Are people talking about articles and speeches by white men or others? How can you bring in other perspectives not necessarily by asking minorities in the group to do the labor of being or bringing those perspectives, but for example by finding what has already been written by minorities, whether in peer-reviewed r non-peer-reviewed spaces. Also invite minorities to bring their own choices, but do the hard work yourself as well, and look for anthologies of minority work.

6. Step Back When Needed

Sometimes, you just need to step back and recognize the agency minorities have to handle it. But you cannot assume you know when that is until you have had years of checking in and doing this work… and different people will respond differently. It depends on the particular offense, the dynamic of the community, and how well you know the offender and offended.

7. Rethink The Design of Your Learning Space with Intentionally Equitable Hospitality

In what ways might your space be less hospitable to certain groups? What can you remove (e.g. requiring cameras on during video calls, recognizing only particular forms of participation, requiring vulnerability in public spaces that affects participants inequitably). I say this as someone who facilitates a lot of online spaces – it is so so so so easy to make a mistake even when you intend otherwise. I recently “included” someone into a community with a history, people they don’t know at all, and never did a proper orientation or onboarding. I’m hoping to rectify that!

7. Reading Material: Check Your Organizational Culture for White Supremacy Culture Indicators

This is an excellent list by Tema Okun and the late Kenneth Jones on characteristics of a White Supremacy Culture. Read it, and think through each and every one – does your organization have a culture of perfectionism, defensiveness, counting quantity over quality, paternalism, power hoarding or anything else on the list? This concise article explains each of these and offers antidotes!

Also, read Sara Ahmed when you can. She has an excellent book On Being Included where she talks about research she did on diversity/equity/inclusion work (and why it often fails because organizations are not genuinely committed to the work) and her blog is also excellent.

Read black and minority authors more, follow them on Twitter, check the hashtags for things like #BlackLivesMatter and #ShutDownAcademia – retweet and amplify those voices. Commit to spending time each day to learn about this. Count the number of close friends you have who are culturally different from yourself and strive to do better in your relationships with people who are minorities, meet them on their own terms.

This list is in no way comprehensive… it is just what’s been on my mind since last night… If you’re reading this and have concrete steps to contribute, please add them in the comments! Thanks!

Note: I use several terms here interchangeably to refer to participants who are “farthest from justice” in the space, including “minorites” as a shorthand. Please note that this is highly contextual and refers to power differences. It may be anything along the matrix/axes of oppression from POC, to indigenous people, to non-cis-male, to LGBTQ, to global South, to ppl with disabilities, to people facing economic difficulties. I personally identify as a woman from global south, Muslim so majority in my country but not the world, upper middle class in my country but in an economically disadvantaged country.

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