What the fuck? What the fucking fuck? How DARE they get forty people in a room to discuss privilege and then fuck it up so fucking monu-fucking-mentally? I’d like to say “un-fucking-believable,” but in truth, it’s all too plausible. It’s one of the (many) reasons I barely ever bother with the “anarcho/alternative/non-hierarchical/whatever-they-are-calling-themselves-these-days” scene. Good riddance to bad rubbish, basically.
So, it started more or less on time, with two facilitators introducing themselves and starting to talk. Just as I write “really innovative format” on a bit of paper and show it to my friend, they announce a spectrum. I scribble down “Ok, I’m wrong” and stand up.
Fuck me if it isn’t the most pointless (actually, actively counter-productive) tokenistic and nonsensical spectrum of all time.
We were to put ourselves on a line of “privilege” from least to most. That’s it. No then “talk to the person you’re nearest”. No problematising of the concept of privilege. No other spectra. Nothing.
We then all sat down, and they admitted that “well, that was supposed to be chaos, and it was even more than we thought.”
You. Can’t. Do. That. If you’re going to use these tools, use them well, use them to create fruitful confusion, fruitful challenges. You don’t just plonk everyone back down and then witter a bit.
And you don’t then “open the floor” for discussions and questions, because what will happen – what DID happen – is that the people who speak will be the ones full of confidence/ideology/privilege.
And so it came to pass. After this droned on for a bit, complete with the inevitable contribution(s) from someone whose background allows endless drivelling without fear of challenge.
We then broke down into three groups. No mixing up of people, no strategic assessment of whether it was a good or bad idea for people who knew each other well to clump together in the same groups. Not spontaneous, just random. And the groups were far too big (10 to 12 people) and so the same shitty dynamic – of a few people talking lots and everyone else sitting there bored or seething – replicated itself. And in our group, we just didn’t know what we were supposed to be discussing. There was nothing written down for us, no facilitator. Several times people asked “what are we supposed to be doing?” So it was boring chaos, and – as my friend pointed out – people just making random dog-chasing-tail statements for fear of silence.
I earwigged the other groups, and saw that the same people who had talked drivel in the big discussion were doing the same, and getting away with it.
We then briefly formed a big group again, but I can’t remember what if anything was discussed in the final couple of minutes. I think there was some reading out from an article that the facilitators had written, but I was too busy listening to my heart break into a thousand tiny fragments.
Forty-ish people – at least 12 white women, 19 white men, five women of colour and one man of colour – had gathered together to discuss a crucial topic. And they’d been so poorly served by the ‘design’ (there wasn’t any) and execution of the workshop that nothing was gained. Criminal.
How it could have been worse
The only way that could have been worse is if we’d all – forty – of us been invited to say our names and a little about ourselves. Actually, that might have made the whole thing BETTER, since I might have spotted some people worth talking to.
The presence or absence of sensitivity/awareness about privilege has little if anything to do with the movement’s death throes. (But it would be nice to get it right, no?) The movement – if you choose to believe it exists – has bigger problems than policing the “obvious” privilege within it. One of the big privileges – oddly not mentioned – is of people who can be “full-time activists”, and who have the social/cultural capital to get their boring articles published and then to – without challenge – deliver staggeringly lousy “workshops.”
What could have happened in the same space, with the same time, and the same money.
“Hi, we’re here to try to share some ideas about privilege, and hear some ideas, and help everyone ask questions and share concerns and experiences. One of the privileges we don’t talk about, because we talk so much about race class gender and sexual orientation, is how connected people are, and how confident they are in a particular social setting. There are people in this room who might only know one or two other people by name. There might even be people who know no-one. We welcome those people especially. We hope that you find this space welcoming enough that you join this movement for a fairer, saner world.
“So, could we all look around the room, and do a rough count of how many people we know by name. How many people here know more than half the people in this room?
How many people know 10 or more people?
How many people know 5 or more?
[stop there – you don't want to force people who don't know many people to own up!]
“Before we start, a health warning; this discussion might bring up some really powerful, and distressing, emotions and memories. If you decide the workshop is too much, or you need to take five minutes out or whatever, don’t wait, don’t ask anyone’s permission, just go. And if you see someone going, don’t ask them to explain themselves. If you want to talk to someone though, we have a couple of folks willing to listen to you on hand. They’re over there (points to them, or asks them to volunteer themselves)
“Right. Could everyone find someone they don’t know, and introduce themselves. Just your name and a little bit about yourself. And because this is a workshop and discussion about privilege, we want the two of you to share an experience where you feel that something about you – your age, your skin, your height, your looks, your confidence levels, your class – whatever you choose! – either gave you more privilege or less privilege in a situation. We won’t be sharing that back, we just want to get you talking and thinking with someone.
[Let that happen for a few minutes.]
“Right, before we do a bit about the article we’ve written, we want to find out who is in the room.
“So we’re going to do some spectrums” (and some carefully chosen ones – might be level of education, physical size, how many times have been on the receiving end of police brutality, discrimination, financial security, secure employment, parents who you could turn to if you had major crisis, etc etc. Obviously have to be sensitive about this, and not expect people to reveal personal stuff.)
[Bit from whatever dire article you've written]
“OK, if we go into a big discussion now, what will probably happen is that a few people, who feel especially empowered to speak, will speak a lot, and other people – who probably have just as interesting things – will be crowded out.”
“So, instead of that, we’re gonna have you in small groups of three or at most four for just a couple of minutes, and then we’re going to have each group call out ONE sentence. And that sentence can either be a question, or a statement, or a challenge around the question of “privilege in the movement and privilege in society – how do they relate?”. And the rest of the workshop is going to be structured around those statements, so we hope you choose wisely!
[Once all the groups have done their call outs (and be strict on the one sentence rule!), then there needs to be a five minute break while the facilitators reframe/shape the questions that various groups will tackle.]
“Right everyone. We’re going to count you off into small groups, and we want you, for five minutes at least, to stay in those groups. But after five minutes, if the discussion is not working for you, feel free to move to another group. However, when you arrive in a new group, you are NOT allowed to speak until you have heard three people in that group speak. We want someone to scribe, and we will type up what we can of the observations and discussions. We are going to do a super-brief plenary at the end.”
“So, please, everyone in a big circle. We’ve got 40 people, and we want groups of no more than 5. So the sentence we are going to call out is “The people united will never be defeated. Venceremos!” (or some such).
“Ok, all the “thes” over in that corner. All the “peoples” over there…
“In your groups, introduce yourselves. One of the facilitators will be arriving imminently with your question for discussion. Remember, stick it in one group until you hear the five minute buzzer. Then, if you have a burning passion for a different group, go to it. We will have put up a flipchart of which group is discussing what question by then…..”
After those discussions have been going a while, call everyone back into a big circle.
“Thank you everyone for participating. We know it’s a different format, but our point is this – the people-at-the-front-having-discussions-with-their-friends-in-the-audience model is NOT a reflection of the politics we say we aspire to. And it doesn’t work to build connection and confidence.
“These issues – of power and privilege – are really difficult, and our own opinions are forever shifting. We hope though, that you’ve heard some new ideas, and met some people today with whom you can continue those discussions. Could you turn to whoever you are stood next to, and thank them for their participation. Thank you.”