One of the most consistent and challenging elements of training on social justice issues is the resistance that members of dominant groups put forth, particularly when talking about how systems of oppression work and the relationship of their privilege to those systems. And while there are ample sources of information that talk about how to respond to resistance (i.e. racial identity development models, Allan Johnson’s “Getting Off the Hook” from his book Privilege, Power and Difference or Elder and Irons research on “Distancing Behaviors”), in my introductory-level trainings I try to keep it simple and explain this resistance as being driven by three primary sources: Ignorance, Fear, and Privilege. I present them in this order because this tends to be the progression of their visibility in a training (a person’s lack of information often being more obviously visible than their blatant privilege), and it is a logical sequence when trying to support resistant people in their learning and growth.
The first layer of resistance, “Ignorance”, refers to a participant’s lack of accurate education and critical awareness with respect to the focus of the training. More specifically this ignorance is either about a participant’s lack of knowledge altogether, their misinformation and mis-education about the topic, or their lack of critical thinking skills when engaging with the topic. In the training itself, the first aspect merely requires time for accurate education and information to be shared, and as such the level of resistance here is comparatively low. An example of this comes from trainings I do on sexism and gender oppression. At some point we get to discussing issues of violence against women and sexual assault, and I pause to ask how many men in the audience will be thinking about the possibility of being sexually assaulted on their way back to the car (very few hands go up) versus how many women will be mindful of this (almost all hands go up). Invariably the men are surprised by this and come to realize that they don’t know as much as they thought they did about the lives of women in this society which lead to a palpable and positive shift in the learning energy of the room.
The next layer of resistance due to ignorance is more complicated in that it first involves the “un-doing” of the participant’s previous knowledge and then a educating of that participant from a social justice perspective. These folks tend to resist more because they are attached emotionally, politically, or intellectually to the misinformation they have been given. I encounter this pattern when I do racial equity trainings and have to undo many layers of mis-education white people have received with respect to race (see James Loewen’s Lies my Teacher Told Me) and then accurately educate them about the history and presence of racial issues throughout U.S. society. Easier said than done, of course, because participants have held their ideas their entire life and are often hard pressed to let them go. Nevertheless, after enough exposure to racial justice content these participants do begin to let go of their resistance.
The final level of resistance out of ignorance stems from a lack of experience with critical thinking which engenders a fair bit of push back because it is touching into the core processes by which people make sense of the world. Critical thinking involves accepting complexities and grappling with multiple perspectives, and for participants who have lived by seeing issues as “either-or” this is a significant challenge for them and they often strongly resist. Examples of this can be seen in trainings I do on the oppression of LBGTQI folks where many heterosexuals have been raised to simply believe that “gay is bad and that’s it”. In these situations, I use a three-part definition of critical thinking and slowly take participants through it using commonplace examples, building eventually to more complicated social issues, and finally to LBGTQI issues. This of course takes considerable time, patience, and repetition but it is essential in aiding these resistant participants in grasping the concept of critical thinking and thereby being ready for the remainder of the training.
The antidote for resistance out of ignorance in trainings is, of course, to have ample amounts of information at your fingertips in order to provide both resources and specific examples for folks who might be struggling with so much new information. As such, I never go into any educational moment regarding social justice content without ample information and resources to help move these folks along.
However, sometimes I encounter participants who actually do have a solid information base and yet still resist social justice content. In these cases the source of the resistance is almost always “Fear”. This second level of resistance has a few key organizing principles: fear of conflict, fear of making a mistake, and an overall fear of the issue being discussed because of its intensity in our society. I live in the Upper Midwest and there is a substantial level of conflict avoidance in this part of the country. As such, many white folks, for example, are reluctant to address issues of race, racism and whiteness because they do not want to create any conflict in their work or homes (not realizing that the mere existence of racial oppression is already a moment of conflict). Likewise, many men will not address issues of sexism or gender oppression when talking to women or trans folks because they are afraid to make a mistake. Unfortunately, this approach is read as tacit approval of sexism / gender oppression and ends up sending the opposite message that these men want to convey. Sometimes, however, the overall intensity of issues tends to keep members of the privileged group quiet. When discussing issues of class and economic access, for example, there is a sense that because these issues cut so deeply in our society they are just too difficult to bring up and are thus avoided. The antidote to these fears is to do the opposite of their inclination and take a risk by speaking up. No growth happens from a place of silence, and no change happens from the inaction brought about by the freezing effect of fear. As such, role play scenarios, moments of paired “practice”, case studies, mock debates, and “what would you do” inventories are important ways to help dominant group members see the absolute necessity of leaning into their fear, speaking up and taking action.
An additional dimension of fear to be considered with respect to dominant group resistant is the fear dominant group members have of backlash from their peers. As a university professor I often heard this from men as we discussed issues of sexism: they knew the joke being said or the comment being made was wrong and oppressive to women, but they were too scared of the “crap” they would get from their male peers if they spoke up so they stayed silent. In this case it was clearly not a matter of not knowing right from wrong, it was purely a moment of men policing other men around their collusion with sexism. To try and find an ally in the middle of these situations is a difficult task and this is where the practice options in the previous paragraph become critically important: if men who want to end sexism speak up before these situations arise and engage their male peers in less contentious instances, they will be more skilled and able speak up in these more difficult moments despite the threat of backlash. Once again the need for ongoing action and practice is a critical feature in reducing dominant group resistance because of fear.
The core reason why members of dominant groups resist equity conversations, however, is connected to their “Privilege” and the benefits they receive via systems of oppression. Whether these responses range from “I’ve worked for everything I’ve got and have no privilege” to “I feel guilty and don’t know what to do” to “I did not even know I had privilege”, the benefits that men, whites, and professional middle class / owning class people (just to name a few) get are so substantial that it is the core reason these participants resist talking about issues of oppression.
I find that one of the many viable approaches in these moments is to a) get participants to understand and agree that systems of oppression exist, b) get them to understand and agree that within each system of oppression there is a group targeted and a group that benefits, and then c) remind these dominant group participants of their core values and how the mere existence of a system that oppresses some for the benefit of others is against who we say we are as a nation, who we want to be as a community, and who they want to be as people in this world. This last point is often connected to the context I am training in, so if I am working with teachers I remind them of their commitment to educate all children, if the audience is doctors and nurses I remind them that they took an oath to serve all people, if it is faculty at a law school I remind them of their commitment to truly fair adjudication in this country, if they are a religious organization I remind them that benefitting from systems of oppression and doing nothing about it fundamentally compromises their core spiritual beliefs (see last week’s blog). In these ways, we can lead resistant participants to a place of not only cognitive dissonance regarding their work in the world, but also a place of moral dissonance where they are urged to tap into their deeply held values and beliefs in the service of dropping their resistance and opening up to social justice content and action. In this way we help resistant participants see that the existence of privilege for some at the expense of others is a toxin to our entire society and will inevitably harm all of us – an injury to one is an injury to all. Sharing from my personal experience I stress to these resistant participants that acknowledging my white privilege, for example, is not about guilt or shame or being blamed for the ills of the world, but is instead a moment where I can recognize all that has transpired before me regarding race, racism and whiteness, and using that knowledge make a different choice – a choice for justice, a choice for my core values of compassion and equity and peace, a choice that cannot undo the past but that absolutely can help us all heal from its wounds and move forward as a more whole, more safe, more generous and loving society.
Resistance out of privilege is intense, sometimes angry, but underneath it is uncertainty on the part of these dominant group members – What kind of world will it be if I’m not on top? What will happen to me? How will I know how to be in this new world? The normativity of their lives as members of dominant groups makes the dismantling of privilege feel like the end of the world altogether. And this, again, is where the appeal to deep and profound aspects of the human condition can sometimes help these participants make the leap and learn how much better it feels to be on the right side of history, to be a sower of equity not enmity, and to be doing the hard and heavy work of healing that which has divided us for so long. Although it may sound like it, this is not Polyanna. This is about the deep truths of who we are as humans. We are a collective species, and we do need each other…not just “our” kind, all of humankind. And in the face of this deep connection we have to each other and to the needs of the human heart, privilege is anathema and a socially just world is the salve.
So, while there are innumerable ways to address the deeper psychological, sociological, and physical complexities of why dominant group members resist training on social justice and equity issues, my experience has shown that framing resistance using these three levels gives introductory level participants a fairly accessible way to understand it and a visible course of action for confronting it. In my 20 years of teaching and training on this content, I have had countless (truly, countless) experiences with white people who resist racial equity work, men who resist gender equity work, and well resourced people who resist class equity work and have found that addressing this resistance on one or more of these three levels resonated with participants and created some space for them to (albeit slowly) release the grip on their resistance and more readily embrace the training.
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