When I’m facilitating a training, I frequently provide examples of whatever it is that I’m talking about. So if I’m talking about microaggressions based on race, I may provide some examples that I’ve overheard or witnessed (Where are you really from?) Another example that I’ve used to talk about privilege is the relative privilege that faculty have over staff at an institution of higher education. I think examples of concepts (in this case, a specific microaggression) highlights the reality of the concepts that I’m training on. It allows people to “see” a real life example and use that to fully understand the concept.
That’s the purpose anyway.
Most of the time it goes to plan with some quick conversation on the validity of the example. Sometimes the dialogue goes completely off the rails because people apply their critical lens to the example instead of using the example to critically consider how their experiences or thinking may be limited and then to learn using the example. Those are the times that I want to discuss for a brief moment.
If we are so stuck to what we believe to be true we can never learn anything. That means that hearing an example of a microaggression or privilege and then trying to find ways to dismantle the example is avoiding learning. What it does is misdirect the conversation to finding ways in which the example is somehow flawed. What this means is that we’re applying the same knowledge or lens (which could be inherently flawed or informed through privilege) that we’ve always had to the example instead of understanding how the example can change our perspectives and knowledge.
I’ve seen this play out in conversations where a person telling a story about how they’ve been the target of a microaggression is told that must not be what the other person meant. Which essentially is defending the person who said something ignorant. And while it isn’t necessarily the microaggressors’ fault that they said a microaggression (because privilege usually prevents those with it from understanding what they’ve said is harmful), it is harmful to defend the ignorance of a statement once it’s been defined as inherently ignorant.
Or sometimes it’s finding ways that one small piece of the conversation may not fit entirely within the conversation. I’ve heard one conversation about faculty relative privilege over staff derailed by bringing up the fact that some staff members’ salaries are higher than some faculty salaries. While this is true for a few cases, overall staff are at a disadvantage and using a small example erases the other issues in the different treatments that staff and faculty receive.
All of this is to say that when we’re in a space designed for us to learn, we need to critically reflect on how we’re engaging with the material. Are we asking questions that poke holes in examples? Or are we using the examples and the dialogue to poke holes in our thinking? Those are important self-reflective questions to consider within the context of social justice education trainings that if we do not answer for ourselves we can end up learning nothing and preventing the learning of others.