Flipping tables and killing darlings
some thoughts on this destabilizing moment from a writer looking in
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I’ve been thinking a lot about this moment that many have called a “reckoning,” which is to say generational reckoning, and “racial reckoning,” and gender reckoning, and class reckoning, and climate reckoning and, well, let’s just say there’s a hell of a lot of reckoning going on. For some people, it’s a liberating moment—a finally-I-get-to-flip-some-tables moment. For some people, it’s deeply destabalizing—an I-thought-I-was-one-of-the-good-ones moment. And I’m sure for lots of people it’s both of these and, for some, something else entirely.
For me it has been an interesting season in a much longer journey I’ve been on of peeling back the layers of my own ignorance, wrestling with my own temperament and where it intersects with superiority and saviorism, and experimenting with how to shift and share power. I’m very clear this is part of the beauty and challenge of my whole lifetime, not a DEI workshop.
One thing that’s made this season unique for me is that I’ve been doing a lot of witnessing—supporting both table flippers and destabilized leaders as they say things that feel hard to say and hear things that feel hard to hear. I do not now, nor have I ever, had a full-time job. I’m not an organizational leader. I’m a shape-shifter (journalist, facilitator, parent leader, community activist, mother) and a visitor in most of the organizations I encounter, which gives me a unique ability to see the water others are swimming in, and to also notice the similarities and differences in various bodies of water. The pH is very acidic, y’all.
The fact that the waters are troubled is not a bad thing. I have to keep reminding the destabilized folks (who tend to be White and male, but are not always) about this. The fact that people (often younger people of color, but not always) feel like they can flip tables is a sign that society is finally speaking some overdue truths and that, within organizations, there is enough perceived safety for people to say what they feel they need to say—even if it’s inconvenient, intense, and sometimes incriminating.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel terrible. So many of us have built up very compelling stories in our own minds and hearts about the kinds of people we are (good, ethical, generous), and when we hear something that shatters that story, it hurts. The opportunity in these moments, is to acknowledge the hurt to our own beloveds (eg. why does it feel so bad to hear negative feedback about your own behavior or the structure of the organization or culture of a community? what does it bring up for you?), and to complicate our story.
Dr. Sherry Watt, the Director of the Multicultural Initiatives Research Team Institute and the University of Iowa, writes that “defenses are displayed to protect the ego when one has a provoking experience that puts one’s conception of the self into question.”
Back in 2007, she created what she calls the Privileged Identity Exploration (PIE) model which defines eight defensive reactions which often occur when one is being encouraged to reflect on their social, political, and economic position in society. The eight reactions are:
Denial - outright denying what you’re hearing
Deflection - blaming a more powerful force rather than owning your role in it (eg. “Yes, I wish capitalism worked differently. That’s what we should really be talking about.”)
Rationalization - comparing one’s pain to your own (eg. “Well yes, sexism or racism are bad; so is classism, and I have suffered similarly because of it.”)
Intellectualization - presenting arguments as to why racism exists rather than looking at your own behavior
Principium - avoiding the whole discussion based on a dearly held principal (eg. “It’s against my faith tradition to entertain this.”)
False Envy - expressing surface-level admiration (eg. “Sure it sucks to be Black in a racist country, but also ‘Black Girl Magic!’”)
Benevolence - hiding behind charity (eg. “I have raised money for this cause—of course I get it.”)
Minimization - focusing on cross-cultural knowledge rather than the depth of the problems we face as a society (eg. “I’d like to learn more about indigenous culture,” rather than take a hard look at displacement)
I so appreciate Dr. Watt’s definition of these eight forms of defensiveness, in part, because I’ve experienced them in myself and witnessed them in others—a curdling, painful mix—and not had a clear way to understand them. Her model brings much-needed clarity, and in that clarity is a kind of release. If we’re enacting patterns in our defensiveness, then we also know they’re socially constructed. We’re not inherently broken or uniquely bad at looking at our privilege and power.
In fact, it means we can see our socialization at work and depersonalize in a way that helps us grow and make changes that actually shift power. We have to loosen the narrative, not just about this country, this time, all the unfinished business of our movements, but about ourselves. We have to practice not knowing (maybe I don’t understand how people are impacted by me as much as I thought I did, maybe I’m not “the good guy,” maybe proving that I’m “the good guy” is part of the problem…) and sitting with the pain of not knowing. Not knowing, in this particular geopolitical moment, is a glorious first step for so many of us.
Interestingly, so many of those with institutional power don’t feel powerful right now. They feel scared, misunderstood, and rudderless. (Part of their work is acknowledging that just because they are flailing doesn’t mean they don’t still hold a tremendous amount of measurable power.)
On the flip side, those without as much institutional power are feeling access to a catalytic energy. Flipping tables feels good because it feels powerful. When you are young, when you have been structurally barred from having power, it’s thrilling to live in a moment where you can say something at a meeting or type something on a slack channel that holds people so many rungs above you in the crusty old hierarchy accountable for their bias and tired ideas.
The risk here, of course, is that tables get flipped and instead of seeing real change get made (new ways of working? new structures of leadership? new people in the room where it happens? new money flows? subsidized therapy and/or childcare?), people start sticking their preferred pronouns in their Zoom chyrons or giving land acknowledgements at the beginning of meetings and then go about business as usual. This is not the table-flippers fault, exactly, but there are ways of thinking about change—and pursuing it—that are more likely to lead to meaningful results and others that are more likely to lead to DRAMA, followed by a slow, tentative return to normal.
Organizing is an art. It’s about creating common cause with those that feel, as you do, and even more demanding, creating common cause with those who don’t feel as you do, but see their fates as intertwined. In other words, solidarity. Some table-flipping can lead to solidarity, but a lot of it leads to, well, a floor scattered with painful detritus that eventually gets swept under the rug again because no one has the skills or stamina to deal with it.
One of the ironies, as I see it, is that both the table flippers and those they are destabilizing are often clinging to very dualistic stories. Good guys vs. bad guys. Right vs. wrong. Good politics vs. bad politics. Destroy vs. build. This moment is asking us to move beyond this kind of thinking, to practice seeing and dwelling in the gray areas, to acknowledge our power and our struggle wherever we sit on the hierarchies (organizational or societal), and take action that feels less about proving anything to anyone and more about aligning our hope for humanity with the ways we try to grow and change every single day.
The late, great bell hooks put it this way, in her 2003 book, Teaching Community: a Pedagogy of Hope:
“Wherever we love justice and stand on the side of justice we refuse simplistic binaries. We refuse to allow either/or thinking to cloud our judgment. WE embrace the logic of both/and. We acknowledge the limits of what we know.”
It’s a moment to relentlessly humanize those that you are tempted to dehumanize, and perhaps most powerful of all, to humanize yourself, to see how your shit stinks, too, to slow down and hear people and question even your most beautifully crafted stories. We’re, as the writing advice goes, “killing our darlings” left and right. There is a lot of red pen slashing through what we thought we understood about ourselves and each other. And as in writing, that’s painful, but ultimately leads to a better, truer story—the ultimate reward of hanging in there for the messy process.
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