Talking about Marginalization without Marginalizing
Words are powerful; how do we use them to advance society?
Hi Fancy Comma newsletter readers! This month, Kelly talks about how to talk about marginalization. She writes:
Structural inequality, whether in terms of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, or any other barriers built into our social institutions and culture that impede equal access to well-being or life chances based on identity, is a difficult topic to discuss. Nonetheless, it is among the most important topics to discuss openly, honestly, and critically. However, structural inequality is complex in its manifestations and outcomes, and we need to avoid oversimplification.
There are two main reasons why structural inequality and the marginalization it fosters are crucial topics. First, as a society, to become a better, more equal society, we need to know what to fix. Second, on the individual level, if someone does not see the structural barriers to their success, they will not be able to find a way to get around them and they will attribute difficulties to personal shortcomings.
The following discussion will address the challenge of discussing marginalization without perpetuating it, and offer three methods of framing your discussion to not only avoid perpetuating marginalization, but to acknowledge and enhance the power of marginalized individuals and communities.
COMMON ISSUES IN ADDRESSING MARGINALIZATION
A Twitter user commented (to paraphrase) that white people are more comfortable congratulating people of color for dealing with racism than they are with attempting to address the racism itself. This points to the challenges of discussing marginalization, particularly for those who do not personally contend with the structural inequalities they are discussing.
The challenge is to simultaneously make these structural inequalities visible, while acknowledging the agency, power, resistance, and endurance of those who are marginalized, and holding accountable those who marginalize or who hold greater structural power to perpetuate or modify the system.
TALKING ABOUT MARGINALIZATION WITHOUT MARGINALIZING
USE AN EMPOWERMENT PERSPECTIVE
To paraphrase W.E.B. Du Bois, agency, or free will, is the expression of personal choice plus the workings of chance in the face of and within the boundaries of structural limitations. When discussing structural barriers to equality and the communities that are marginalized by them, it is critical that we not lose sight of the individual as having agency to make choices in the face of these structural hurdles and the power to work around or against them.
In other words, it is critical to center the work of those who are challenging these boundaries and have endured and thrived despite them (without disparaging those have not). Gerald Vizenor describes survivance as the meeting point of resistance and survival. Survivance is an expression of Du Bois’s understanding of free will. It is not only managing to exist, but thriving through resistance against the social forces that seek to eliminate or marginalize aspects of one’s identity.
Using a survivance lens to analyze and discuss marginalization and structural inequality foregrounds the power of those who are marginalized vis-à-vis dominant institutions and structural barriers. It also allows us to see social change as the culmination of incremental progress in the context of enduring structures, foregrounding both the endurance of struggles against inequality and the slow but steady march toward change in the face of these efforts.
CENTER THE MARGINS
Essentially, this is the idea of creating space by “passing [or at least sharing] the mic.” Centering the margins means creating space for the voices, experiences, thoughts, and directives of those who are marginalized. Allowing these voices to be the focal point of the discussion. The idea of centering the margins is useful when figuring out how to discuss structural barriers to equality in a way that acknowledges the agency and individuality of those who face marginalization and prioritizes the value of insights that come from lived experience.
If you face the barriers that you are discussing as a member of a marginalized group, for example, if you are a woman talking about barriers to women, you can start by speaking from your own experience as a way of centering the margins. If you are speaking about the barriers facing those who hold an identity that you cannot claim, make sure to centralize the voices, experiences, insights, and instruction of those with personal experience.
USE AN INTERSECTIONAL APPROACH
Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to illuminate the fact that everyone holds a multiple simultaneous group-based identities such as race, gender, age, class, etc. This confluence of identities creates a unique matrix of sources of privilege and sources of oppression. For example, someone may be marginalized based on their gender and racial identity but hold privilege based on their economic class or occupation.
Intersectionality is such a critically important perspective when discussing structural inequality for the same reason it is such a complex way to approach discussions and examinations of inequality. Accounting for the various and simultaneous but unique sources of privilege and oppression experienced by everyone imparts a nuance and complexity on discussions of structural inequality. This nuance creates a full understanding of experiences of marginalization, the nature of structural barriers to inequality, and the options for addressing them.
THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD
The historian and social theorist Michel Foucault argued that power, though unequally distributed, is diffuse – it is spread across society, every individual holds some source of power. Intersectionality recognizes this fact and allows us to talk about both the oppressions wrought by structural inequality and marginalization and the locations of privilege or power that enable individuals to challenge the structural barriers that perpetuate inequality.
Centering the margins by making space for marginalized voices to tell their own stories and direct the charge to address structural inequalities, recognizes the power of those voices. It is a way of “using your power to empower;” using the power your audience gives you to “pass [or share] the mic” and empower others.
Grounding your discussion of marginalization in terms of structural barriers limiting – but not eliminating – free will and framing your discussion in terms of the survivance of marginalized groups throughout the course of history is vital. Showing the role of survivance – as an act of free will in the face of barriers - in (re)shaping history (and the present) is a crucial mechanism for acknowledging and illuminating the power and critical role of those who are marginalized.
Thanks, Kelly! It’s always nice to have a sociological perspective on structural inequality, since it is very much a social issue.
I (Sheeva) am fascinated by the local culture wars relating to racism and identity that are happening in our local school boards. Being able to talk about the many -isms in society has become a huge challenge, one that is dividing school boards and even entire cities. Our local culture wars have been elevated to national headlines.
The sad part about these culture wars to me is that they detract from what’s really important — learning. When I was a public school kid in the 1990s, we did not have such polarization. Our parents and my school district were on the same page. They could, at least, agree on what we should and should not learn in public school. School board meetings were boring and nobody went to them.
As someone in political and strategic comms, I wonder if we are talking past each other on this issue? Maybe there’s not one specific path to a workable solution; maybe there are many ways we can get there.
Regardless of whether you discuss privilege as being “intersectional” and use the invisible backpack analogy, or prefer to ground your desire for justice in your values and morals, your opinion is valuable. The solution to these problems ultimately requires everyone to chime in. Surely there’s some place we can all achieve consensus?
I don’t think we are even able to talk about the problems anymore because there’s so much polarization on both sides. What would happen if we had a discussion and REALLY tried to figure out what, if anything, both sides of the school board culture wars have in common? In a way, the culture wars are to schools what backlash against healthcare workers was at the height of the COVID pandemic. I can only assume the school culture wars are contributing to teacher burnout, just as anti-science backlash did for healthcare workers. It’s terrible.
I know that at the core of this culture war, we all have shared values for our students’ education. Things like: helping all students succeed in life, despite systemic barriers; creating a future workforce literate in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to boost US economic competitiveness; and so on. These crucial issues are foundational to students’ success and the success of our nation. They have anything to do with hot-button issues such as transgender bathrooms or critical race theory or whatever else. Seems like there’s a new issue to be mad about every day.
In any case, I hope we can see the forest for the trees — keep the big picture in mind — and figure it all out. Being unable to function harmoniously and agree on basic things such as education will ultimately lead to our downfall as a democratic society — and none of us want that. Yikes!
Here’s what we’ve been reading (and writing):
Kaleigh Moore points out that editorial management to build an audience is becoming more common among content strategists. Check out her article here. I definitely recommend following Kaleigh on Twitter @kaleighf as she has a really unique perspective on the role of digital media and its consumption by users in our current times.
Sheeva did a YouTube live about science communications, journalism, freelancing, and small business! We hope to do more Fancy Comma live streams in the future, so check it out and subscribe to our channel!
Amanda Natividad asks, “Is your webinar welcoming?” I would take that one step further to ask, are your blogs, social media, and other content welcoming?
That’s it for this month’s newsletter! If you liked it, please share on social media!