Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Presenting While White


--by Angie Manfredi

For an extrovert like me, there is nothing quite like standing in front of a group of your peers and colleagues and presenting information.  Ever since I have been in library services, back to when I was a paraprofessional without a college degree, I have loved presenting and sharing information at workshops and conferences. Hard to believe, but I have been presenting for fourteen years.  I hope that over that time I have helped others learn and grow.  I know that, as a presenter, I am constantly learning and challenging myself.  I want to be better.  I want to be engaging.  I want to be constantly innovating.  

A few weeks ago, I traveled up to Wyoming to present at the Mountain Plains Library Association/Wyoming Library Association Conference.  (I have a personal goal to present at every state and Cheyenne is only a day’s drive from my home.) One of my presentations was about the We Need Diverse Books Campaign - helping recommend titles for librarians to add to their libraries.  But I also wanted to take this presentation to the next level and discuss what I feel is a fundamental duty for librarians and educators: demanding more from the literature we put on our shelves and asking hard questions about it.

I expected a few things out of this presentation.  I expected that my audience would be largely White and that turned out to be true.  I expected that the conversation would make some people uncomfortable, both in the books I was presenting and the statistics I was sharing.  I anticipated this and addressed it directly with my audience. Sure enough, I could see many people averting their eyes from my gaze and shifting in their seats.  At times, the discomfort in the room was almost palpable.

And, to be frank, I expected that there would be some people who walked out. That happened all right - but it happened at a rate I didn’t expect.  In all my years presenting I have never had as many people walk out as walked out during this presentation. I started with a room of about 30 people and by the time it was over, about half the crowd had walked out.  It was a distinctly jarring experience to watch so many people stream out of the room as I talked for two hours. I know that some of the people who walked out were tired of the conference (it was the last session) or just didn’t like my style of presentation.  There are always reasons for people to walk out and they always do.  But the sheer number of people in a mostly White crowd who walked out combined with the palpable discomfort in the room - what happened in that room was something bigger than the usual walk-outs.

It was the big, White elephant in the room - the unspoken and uncomfortable truth so many of librarians and educators live with.  There are more children’s books about elephants than there are children of color.  We all know this.  How can you not know this if you select children’s materials or if you work with them?  Surely you’ve noticed there are more books about teens with terminal illnesses than books about Muslim teens. We know it. We just pretend we don’t.  I, personally, am done with pretending.  

I have decided that I will start taking accountability for my Whiteness..  And one way I will do that is by using the opportunities I have to speak the truth.  If this means that half of the crowds I’m presenting in front of walk out, I can live with that.  I will talk about race and racism in our industry, I will call on other White people to do the same and to be accountable for their privileges and their mistakes  I will try to connect with and boost the voices of my peers of color and I will let them know that their voices count and they are not alone. As much as anything, this was my goal with my presentation at Mountain Plains Library Association/Wyoming Library Association Conference.  It was hard to see people walk out.  But it was also incredibly rewarding to have conversations with my peers of color afterwards and to see that I was getting through to some White people in the room, who were writing down my suggestions and nodding in agreement.

And maybe, just maybe, I gave the people who walked out a few things to think about.  Maybe they took one thing I said and it’s starting a thought inside them that will be hard to shake the next time they see another elephant book.  

I am here to have the hard conversations.  Are you?

21 comments:

Lisa N said...

One metaphor I've heard that I like for this is "staying at the table." It's the easiest thing to just get up and leave, rather than stay and engage. Engaging doesn't you "lose" or "submit" or any of those other ways of ascribing power to conversations - the first step to learning is listening. So imagining the conversation as a table helps me stay when I feel uncomfortable. It has lots of other meanings as well, in terms of thinking about when to speak, and calling friends to the table.

Melissa said...

I love what you do and who you are. One of the best things in my life is that I have a front row seat and sometimes even get called onstage to assist.

Nina Lindsay said...

Lisa, this makes me think too about how easy it is to use someone else's exit as an excuse for one's own. It can happen in innocuous ways...for instance, end of conference, I'm more tired than I thought and am not really paying attention but feel it's impolite to leave and call attention to it... but as soon as one person leaves, it feels like there's a very short window of "permission" to do the same, because they have already interrupted. So, it also becomes easy to leave when the message makes you uncomfortable, if someone else is doing it do.

Can we create the same kind of "group act" re staying? Just sitting and listening feels passive. What kind of engagement can we model, in a situation like this, to get others to as well?

You said some were nodding in agreement. Did any audience members speak out about the number of people leaving, not afterwards but during?

Laura Atkins said...

Thanks so much for this post. I agree - and would love to know more about the content of your presentation. We could share and model ways of raising issues and being part of discussions that will make many White people uncomfortable. I want to do this too - speak out and up. But looking at language that we use, and what we are saying, that could be a powerful resource you guys could provide on this blog. Which may already be the plan...

K T Horning said...

I had wondered the same thing as Nina -- if anyone asked any questions or made any comments during or after your presentation. But, Nina, are you talking about someone saying, "Hey, where are you going?"

At a SEEDED group I attend (like SEED 2.0), one of the leaders is always saying that we have to "speak into the listening." I initially sort of dismissed that as the latest psychobabble, but now I take it seriously because what it means is that in order to get people thinking, they have to be in a place, both physically and mentally, where they can listen. So how do we as speakers first get White people to listen?

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

There is always a moment during any presentation I give where I can feel the discomfort of some of the audience members. I have had some people walk out and I've always wondered if it was bc it was too much. But I am always thankful for those who stay and really listen. I'm hoping the people who stay will always far outnumber those who walk away.

Nina Lindsay said...

Yes, KT that's it. How do we "call people in?" I think that speaker/ audience format has got to be particularly challenging.

Sharon said...

THANK YOU for this! It could have been an interesting teachable moment, but like Nina said, how do we call people on something like this? It could be the one or two people you question were planning on leaving early. It would be great to get that person who is willing to talk about/talk through their discomfort. I remember giving book talks at preschools and watching parents cross their arms when I book talked King and King. No one ever walked out though and I wonder if in the liberal Bay Area if there would have been backlash against that action.

Monica Edinger said...

A few thoughts.

First of all, starting with "For an extrovert like me..." had me, a life-long introvert, wondering about how much intersectionality is a factor. I wasn't there and don't know the presentation so can't determine if it was mostly the challenging content around diversity that created those-who-left's discomfort (though I can imagine that for many it was). Just as someone doing a lot of thinking and observing about the dominance of extroversion and how it plays out in teaching and learning these days, it was something I wondered about.

Secondly, my school has taken up in a big way the past couple of years the issues around equity. Last year the focus was on ourselves, and the acknowledgment of white privilege (something I was pained to see a surprising number of my colleagues unwilling to recognize) and this year we are widening it to consider intersectionality. I've also been involved in previous conversations at my school over the years and observed repeated resistance and refusal to consider. We were fortunate enough to have both Peggy McIntoch and Alfie Kohn come a few times and they similarly created upset. I admire them enormously and was dismayed to see how hostile many of my colleagues were to them and further and more frustratingly, that nothing seemed to change as a result of their visits. That is, those of us who were in their camps continued to be in their camps, and those who weren't stayed away.

I guess the result of these experiences (and perhaps because of my personality) when I'm leading such conversations I try to get people in a place where they will listen (and ideally talk) rather than walk out and then hope that by staying and listening that they will change. You may well disagree, but I guess I do feel that we need to get people listening and if they are too uncomfortable to do so, to the point where they vote with their feet, not sure how successful we've been.

Debbie Reese said...

A common point of exasperation amongst Native people (we have pretty active networks on social media) is about where our presentations are slotted in terms of time of day and location.

Angie--where are you usually slotted for presentations that don't have diversity in the title?

Conference planners gather data that is used to schedule sessions. If your topic of presentation is generally one on Native Americans or POC, you are familiar with getting last-of-day and far-away. It is another way we are marginalized. It'll be interesting to see if White people who present on diversity get the cold shoulder from planners and attendees. You did, Angie, and I wonder if the initial warm embrace of diversity (this time around) is slowly but surely moving to that old place of "whatever."

K T Horning said...

That is fascinating, Debbie. I have heard individual complaints over the years about time slot and location (the other thing is to be scheduled at the same time as someone like John Green), but never realized it was systemic. Definitely something for conference planners to keep in mind.

K T Horning said...

What you say about staying in your camp is very interesting. I think we have to work on that hostility some White people feel when listening to someone like Peggy McIntosh speak (or reading her words). But how to do that?

What are some of the strategies you use to get people to stay and listen, Monica?

K T Horning said...

I know that crossed-arms body language well, Sharon. We actually had someone run up the aisle at us once, screaming "Not for children!" when we book-talked a book about gay rights back in mid-1980s. My colleague, Ginny Moore Kruse, responded "Yes, for children!" and proceeded to tell her why. It ended up being a really productive discussion between the two of them.

Beth Herman-Davis, EdD said...

I admire you for creating the space within your presentation to have these conversations.

It's interesting to me that so many left, as didn't they read the description of your session prior to attending? I wonder what their expectations were for your presentation? It's a bummer that more participants weren't able to sit with their own discomfort and examine their own beliefs about race.

I have a presentation I've done 5 or 6 times primarily geared toward professors of education and ELA teachers on multicultural & diverse lit, culturally responsive teaching, and social justice. I rarely find people walk out... and it dawned on me after reading your post that perhaps I haven't created the space for those deeper conversations. Perhaps it's time to create a space for people to get uncomfortable, lean in and have those conversations. I think I've kept it to comfortable for people...

Monica Edinger said...

I try to start from a place of respect and often model my own challenges to demonstrate my own journey, a work in progress. At school when talking about white privilege I will name and describe specific moments of failure. By describing my own I hope it helps others be more willing to see and voice theirs. Additionally, I try to talk less and listen more.

Gail Shepherd said...

It might be interesting at future presentations to just address this right from the get go. Say that the first time you gave this talk half the people in the audience walked out, and you understand why, but you hope the present audience will stay with you. It's an uncomfortable conversation, etc. but that their contributions to the conversation are so important...

jlow said...

I agree with Debbie that you have to be conscious of where/when an event is planning to slot your presentation. In fact, I always ask when/where right off the bat to gauge how respectful/serious an organizer is about diversity. If the slot is the last day, right before the conference closes we will first ask if there are any other time/day slots available and if not, we decline.

While an organizer will try to convince you to take the last open slot available what is the real message they are sending you? How I would read into this is: (a) they just offered you the worst day/time, no you shouldn't be grateful (b) They contacted you last so all the other good/desirable days/times were filled (c) If you take the slot and your session tanks, the organizer can say: "we had a presenter talk about diversity last year and no one showed up."

K T Horning said...

I think White people have different comfort levels with discussions of diversity. There are some who don't want to talk about it all because they can't picture a world where they are not at the center. Others are tired of talking about it, either in a "been-there, done-that" kind of mode or "can't we talk about something else for a change?" mind-set. And then there are others who embrace diversity so long as they don't feel like they are part of the problem. This last group is the one I see a lot. They are willing to give lip service to diversity but won't go so far as to change behavior.

Wendy said...

Whoa, must be frustrating to have so many people walk out. But with regards to this topic, if you're making people uncomfortable, I guess you're doing something right! :)

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Have to say I totally agree with Wendy.

Frustrating as it is when people "check out" -- physically or mentally -- sometimes it's best. This is one of the principles I learned from The People's Institute (pisab.org) that really surprised me.

The idea is that you should focus your energy on working with people who are ready and willing to organize, do the work, and learn along the way. Sometimes it can be GOOD if *that person* has left the room, because if s/he had stayed, they would have had a disorganizing effect on the people there.

As a White person who consistently wants to dig in my heels and "go at it" with someone who is saying problematic things, I know that this is *not* productive and is, in fact, a misuse of my energy--and sometimes an excuse I give myself to get out of actually doing work that makes a difference. Because arguing is fun, and sometimes, organizing is... work.

There's definitely a gray area here. Sometimes it is right to give someone a "nudge". And sometimes it's a waste of energy.

Rosanne Parry said...

Chiming in a little late here but I've seen that too Debbie. Not every single time but often enough that now I make a point of talking to conference organizers every time I see it.