Identity expression, safe spaces, and advocacy

I recently admitted to a colleague that I had hoped to write in this blog monthly and that my public reflections have become much further apart as my job responsibilities, relationships on campus, and teaching load expands.  I am not able to jump online and immediately share my experiences and reflections, but there is one moment from last month that remains in my mind, and so I’m sharing, and processing some more, now.

As the semester started, I was reminded by April Hathcock of the importance of creating welcoming spaces on campus and of the value in providing microaffirmations to show individuals that they belong.   Since most of my initial interactions with students are in library instruction sessions, I do my best to be approachable and to affirm to students that they belong in the library, that it is my responsibility to help them find and use information resources, and that I am someone that they can rely on and relate to.  In an effort to meet students, I introduce myself by name and pronouns, and ask them to do the same.  Most of the time, this is a non-issue in classes.  Occasionally, students ask what it means to identify their pronouns.  This semester, I had a student refuse, saying he doesn’t believe in “that modern mumbo-jumbo.”  This individual was a white adult male and I was frustrated and baffled about how to deal with the situation.  I blundered my way through a brief conversation with him, while his white male professor stood behind him wide-eyed and silent.  There were a lot of power dynamics at play here and, while I understand that many other things could have happened, I left the class determined that I would handle it better if a similar situation ever happens again.

I later read Veronica Arellano Douglas’ entry about allowing students to create systems of learning that encourage them to “set their own limits and share what they feel comfortable sharing.”  She emphasized that if we require students to share, “it can’t be on the dominant group’s terms.”

So this is where I have landed, though I would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.  When I introduce myself I say, “I would appreciate if you share your pronouns with me, as it helps me perform my job with excellence and not make gender-normative assumptions.”  Should a student say rude things in response, I will tell them that it is out of respect for the diversity of human experience and maintain that they don’t need to participate, but they do need to be respectful.

I realize that this scenario is one in which an individual with privileged identities was communicating that he was uncomfortable, but I think it remains true that we cannot force students to share their pronouns, potentially making a space unsafe.  I do think, however, that it is important for me to make a request students share their pronouns with me, so that I’m not assuming the dominant group’s terms.  This is an example of a situation where I am able to leverage my own privilege in order to ally myself with individuals on the margins.  This is what it is like to be an advocate, it is difficult work that doesn’t always go perfectly the first time.  But through reflection and persistence I hope it goes better the next.

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