Saturday, March 7, 2015

Secrets, Identities, and Power

One Halloween, when I was in middle school, I was trick-or-treating with my brothers and some other kids stole our candy.

My brothers and I were about five blocks from our house, walking up a street between neighborhoods, away from any houses. A car pulled up next to us, older kids jumped out, there was a scuffle, and they took our bags of candy. My brother had been picked on at school; it may have been those kids and their older friends and brothers. It may have just been a random act of meanness. 
We walked and ran the five blocks home.
I was scared. I was frustrated. And I was angry.
I was scared.

I open with this story because I want you to know that I have very vivid memories of being scared walking home at night.

Fast-forward about two decades and I’m working in Student Life at a small university in Oregon. 
One of the first Residence Life team meetings I attended, the Director of Residence Life led the group both (professional and student staff) through an activity called “The Power Shuffle”. Essentially, it’s an exercise designed to help reveal differences in the backgrounds of members of the group. We all have different histories and some of us have certain advantages merely based on our circumstances. The exercise opens people’s eyes to these facts, hopefully fostering empathy and understanding.

Here is how the Power Shuffle works:
Everyone is on one side of the room. No one speaks throughout the activity except the facilitator. The facilitator reads a number of identities or circumstances, asking for a response from the group.
For example:
Walk to the other side of the room if you are the first person in your family to go to college
Walk to the other side of the room if you typically have to work on your religious holy days.
Walk to the other side of the room if English is not your native language.
Walk to the other side of the room if you have never had to worry about accessibility to public places due to a disability.
…and so forth.

There are many versions of the exercise online. I couldn’t find the exact version we used, but if you Google it, you’ll get the idea.

Now, in light of everything I’ve said so far by way of introduction, you might think that if my supervisor said:
“Walk to the other side of the room if you’ve ever been scared walking home at night.” would think that I would walk to the other side of the room.

But he did say this,
…and I did not walk.

The Identity Secret

Honestly, I’m not self aware enough to fully grasp why I didn’t walk.
Here is what I told myself at the time:
I thought that my experience wasn’t legitimate enough to identify with that statement.
That incident had specific circumstances. It wasn’t enough of an “identity” issue.
Only women moved to the other side of the room and I told myself that their stories were more “pure” than mine, more recent than mine, more in line with the spirit of the exercise than mine.
I told myself that if I walked I might take away from more legitimate experiences.

But that was all rationalization.
The truth is I was scared.
Maybe I didn’t want to admit that I’d been weak.
Maybe I didn’t want to open up that much, in that way, that soon, in a new place of employment.
Maybe part of me didn’t want to make that incident real by acknowledging it, by identifying myself with it.
Maybe I didn’t want to appear “feminine” (whatever that means)
Maybe I was just embarrassed to participate in the activity insofar as it was outside my comfort zone.

Maybe it was a complicated combination of all that and more.

My point is, that I avoided the truth because of fear.

And in doing so, I missed out.
I missed out on that group of people getting to know me to some degree.
I missed out on creating empathy with the others who did identify with that statement.
I missed out on an opportunity to foster future conversations.
I missed an opportunity to practice and grow in both vulnerability and courage.

The Power of Identity

Have you ever hidden who you are due to a sense of embarrassment or fear?

There is power in acknowledging identity.
I don’t mean that some people with certain identities have more power than others (although that’s certainly true as well). I mean that there is a strength in publicly admitting parts of yourself.

Side note: I’m not saying that all identities are morally neutral.
One simple example, I’m a person of faith, I identify as a monotheist, a Christian. I try to cultivate a relationship with Jesus Christ, who I believe lived, died, rose, and reigns. If you identify as, say, an atheist, I believe you’re wrong and I believe your lack of believe has negative ramifications.
HOWEVER, I think you should ALWAYS feel safe declaring your identity. Whether you’re walking across the room in a team building exercise, sitting with me in a coffee shop, or even exploring my culture in a place of worship. I should always be kind to you, I should always be welcoming to you, I should always accept the truth that you identify as an atheist, even if I don’t think atheism is a true view. There is virtue in truth, even if the truth is about something unvirtuous

Obviously issues of identity are emotionally charged and can lead to complicated discussions. These are discussions that won’t exist if we don’t first create a safe place, if we don’t publicly acknowledge our own identities.

How can we come to agreement? How can we come to respect, empathy, understanding? How can we come to Truth if I don’t create a safe environment for you to acknowledge who you are? …And if you don’t have the courage to take advantage of opportunities to acknowledge the fullness of who you are?
…an opportunity I failed to take.

Take those opportunities.
Walk across the room.
Connections can be made. Relationships can be built. Walls can be broken.  Truth can be found (if applicable).
…but not if you hold back.

I write this today to encourage you not to make the same mistake I made.
Find a place you can admit who you are. 
Take opportunities to share yourself.
Share the truth of who you are.
Stop hiding.
Walk across the room.

Who knows what you’ll find.

Photo Credit: Michael Matti

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