Hello friends, and welcome back to Productivity, Without Privilege! My name is Alan Henry, and I come in peace. And I come to, yet again, ask you to pre-order a copy of Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized, coming out on June 7th! Sheesh, it’s only a few months away, isn’t it?
It’s almost time to start planning book launch activities, and I have more than a few in the hopper that I can’t talk too much about just yet, but I do have one I can discuss: I’m the keynote speaker at the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference this spring, May 1-2, 2022. If you’ll happen to be in the NY/NJ area and want to both attend an informative conference with amazing panels and also hear me kick the whole thing off by talking about how to get into the industry and convincing people to let you tell your stories, check it out!
But let’s get into this week’s topic though, shall we? This week I want to talk about who gets to be marginalized. Spoiler: The answer is everyone. All of us. So now that you know where we’re going, walk with me while we get there.
A lot of this comes down to a single word: intersectionality. As in, many (arguably most) of us have multiple identities—we contain multitudes after all—and those identities play off of the identities of the people around us in different ways.
So while of course a person of color can be marginalized in a workplace where they’re a minority or in an industry where they’re underrepresented, and women are marginalized in almost every industry because of the general social power dynamics of misogyny and sexism, one challenge we face is reminding people that certain identities don’t make you immune from marginalization, while some may make it easier for you to avoid it. That statement has two parts, and we’ll tackle them in order.
The easiest example of someone who has the kind of privilege that this newsletter, Productivity, Without Privilege, is named to help you succeed without. The kind your kind of bog-standard white male, at least in western countries, and especially here in the United States, has. In general, white men don’t have to worry about the social baggage they may bring to work, right? Well….it’s not that simple. White men have to worry about other issues in their workplace, like whether or not they have class privilege or academic privilege (remember when I worked at The New York Times? The school you went to and exactly how wealthy you came off were definitely factors when it came to how seriously some people took your ideas. That’s not a broad statement about The Times, to be fair, just about some people who were there when I was too.)
So even people who are, socially, the most privileged on the outside can still wind up bringing some kind of baggage to work. If that white man is queer, or transgender, or chronically ill, or has an invisible disability, they have that to worry about, and then have a unique challenge that people of color may (emphasis on the may, because you can imagine what it’s like if they also have to worry about those same things!) not have—whether they should reveal themselves to their peers (that’s an individual choice) or whether they should use their privilege to advocate for others (they absolutely should.) And all of us have intersections with our identities.
I’m a Black man, and that’s something I can’t hide or put away. I have to carry the wealth and the baggage of my Blackness everywhere I go. But I also have to be aware of is the privilege I have simply by being male. No one is going to assign me the “office housework,” so to speak, unless they’d be inclined to do it to any person of color. No one is going to ask me to fetch coffee for the boys in the boardroom, and I’m more likely to be on the receiving end of said coffee run. No one’s going to complain about whether what I wore to work—or to a Zoom meeting even—is too revealing because they don’t understand the concept of bodily autonomy.
So privilege, and lack thereof, takes many many forms. Some people have privilege when they leave the office that they don’t have when they’re in the office, and vice versa.
The second part of that statement earlier is about how certain identities are “easy” to hide, and some people have the ability to “pass” in their environments….until they can’t. And while that may sound enviable to someone who has to deal with a specific part of their identity being front and center, it actually creates a completely different, and incomparable, challenge.
This is what people of color mean we snark on Twitter about “oppression olympics.” It doesn’t help anyone to compare their challenges to one another as though one is more important than another—but it does help when we all recognize that we have different challenges based on our identities and work to collectively create spaces where we can lift each other up and celebrate those identities instead of marginalizing one another based on them.
If we go back to our white male example, let’s say he goes to work every day and no one perceives him as anything but a white man. But, as we mentioned, let’s say he’s transgender and gay. Now, as he navigates his workplace, generally automatically accepted into privileged spaces, he has to struggle with whether or not to be open about who he is to his potential coworkers, or tiptoe around it, possibly for years, or as long as he chooses to keep this job. That could be allowing people to assume he’s heterosexual and refer to him having “she” and “her” partners, or question whether or not he should be allowed to use the men’s room at the office (he should, hard stop.)
To be clear, I cherry-picked a few examples here to make the point. Not many people talk about what it’s like to find yourself aging out of an industry because you have all the experience but you make so much no one wants to hire you, or are afraid you’re going to retire, or have some other preconceived notion about your age (as in, you’re marginalized because of agism.) Few people talk about what it’s like to try and navigate spaces when you’re disabled, either with a visible or invisible disability (as in, you’re marginalized because of ableism.)
Bottom line, as I said at the top, everyone can be marginalized in some way or another, based on their environment.
How do we fix it? What do we do about it? That’s a whole other conversation. But for now, your takeaway from this should be—if it’s not already—to be empathetic to the people around you, and active allies when it comes to protecting them from marginalization. If you find yourself one of the “cool kids” in a space, make the effort to bring in the people who are on the sidelines. If you find yourself with all the plum assignments, consider sharing the load with the people who would love to have them but for some reason never seem to get the same opportunities. Be kind to each other.
How the Best Bosses Interrupt Bias on Their Teams, by Joan C Williams and Sky Mihaylo: Joan C. Williams is an incredible researcher and was an invaluable resource when I was writing my book. She was one of the people who more or less popularized the concept of “office housework,” and one of the researchers who pointed out that many social dynamics at play systemically in our society work their way into offices and onto teams. She’s also done a great deal of writing on the topic of creating more fair teams, and how to break out of the biases that shape the way we assign work and judge career success. So that all said, if you do manage a team, or are close to people who do, read this story, and keep it in mind. Implicit bias training isn’t enough—you have to do the work, and Williams explains how.
New digital tools are helping travelers avoid discrimination, by Alexandra Gillespie: Remember The Grene Book? No, the actual one—the one that Black Americans used to determine where it was safe to travel, where it was safe to stay, and where it was safe to vacation in America, published from 1936 to 1966. While optimistically we may want to believe that no one would need resources like that anymore, well, reality intrudes and reminds us that’s not the case. Whether it’s Black travelers getting their Airbnb bookings denied, the TSA outing trans people at airports, Anti-Asian hate crimes on the rise, or anything else, it’s natural to want to plan a travel experience that’s safe, no matter who you are. And a new generation of travelers want to help, and they’re building tech-forward tools to do it.
The Elite Jerkiness of Journalistic “Genius,” aka, Advanced White-Mansplaining, by Donald Earl Collins: I feel a little bad about including this one in the newsletter because it’s really the level of catharsis that I wish I had written, because I’ve encountered many many people that Collins describes, and my background is much like his. But his indictment of a particular journalistic class of people who demand that you listen to and absorb their regurgitated, intellectually dishonest (at best) and lazy (at worst) arguments is worth reading and considering before you pay for anyone’s Substack.
Okay, we talked about a pretty difficult and thorny topic for a while, and that was barely scratching the surface of it. People far more well-studied than I have written entire books on intersectionality. So let’s take a load off with a simple poem recommendation: Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver.
I won’t paste it here, but the poem is a great reminder to slow down a little bit, focus on what’s important, and give yourself the flexibility and self-compassion to forgive yourself for not being busy, active, or engaged all the time. Sometimes, you just need to be you–and nothing more, nothing less, right here, in the moment.
I’ll see you back here in two.