An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast
Ashley Stewart and Makeba Boykins share experiences with and insights on identifying and reacting to intersectionality, power, and privilege in groups and communities.
December 12, 2022
Makeba Boykins, Host (00:05): Welcome to Changing the Conversation. My name is Dr. Makeba Boykins. I am the Health and Equity Subject Matter Expert here at C4, and my wonderful guest today, guest, colleague, professional chatter, the person who chats with me on these regular podcasts, is Dr. Ashley Stewart, LCSW. Ashley is the director of the Center for Health Equity, and a Racial Subject Matter Expert for C4. Ashley, I’m so excited that you’re here with me today.
Ashley Stewart, Guest (00:32): Thank you. And I’m so excited to be here. I love having conversations with you, Makeba, so I know we have something great planned for today.
Makeba (00:39): We do. We have the very, very light, just not at all deep, not at all complex, not at all multi-part, conversation of talking about intersectionality, power and privilege within groups, and us having those conversations within groups. So within your racial group, within your ethnic group, what does that look like? What does intersectionality look like? Just light conversation is what we’re doing.
Ashley (01:05): Super duper light. There’s only one layer of that, clearly.
Makeba (01:10): When we talk about intersectionality and we talk about these topics and you hear our topic for today, what comes up for you? What are the first things that you’re thinking, especially when we’re talking about this, our lived experience as Black women. We’re talking about it, having these conversations within communities. What comes up?
Ashley (01:25): I don’t know that we always know what intersectionality means. I think it’s the term that is being used pretty loosely and pretty widely, not really understanding the complexity of intersectionality, of recognizing that it is the critical examination of parts of our identities that are oppressed. And by virtue of having that conversation, parts of our identities that we might be occupying different parts of privilege. So when I think about the conversation, and particularly in group dynamics, a lot of times that can be influenced by group norms. We have to talk about group norms in order to have that conversation.
Makeba (02:06): Absolutely, and that’s such a good point. And when you’re thinking about group norms, speak to me more about that. What do you mean and how do we live that?
Ashley (02:15): I think a super simplified idea about it is that you can have group think and group biases, meaning that things that you just assume to be similar across groups is another thing that I think comes up. So the idea that there’s an agreeability that could come up or sometimes the assumed similarities that come up from that group think, can lead to some tension or conflict because just because we occupy some similar identities, there’s complexity to culture and even within our identity groups we could have different cultural realities. And so those are conversations that we might not always have the opportunity to have, particularly if we’re talking about oppress identities. Because a lot of times it’s challenging and pushing back against those dominant societal norms. So when we get into spaces where it feels more in a group, there is that perceived or in real safety that comes with those conversations. But it doesn’t always leave an opportunity for the critical discourse that needs happen about different cultural variables within identity groups.
Makeba (03:16): Absolutely. And I’m wondering if you can for me and for the audience, connect us back to how do these group norms really impact intersectionality, power, privilege, how we move and exist in the world. You’ve already talked about that a little, but I’m wondering if you could walk me through it more.
Ashley (03:34): So those group norms show up about how we move and exist in the world because of the nuances of our realities. So we both share a lot of similarities. Similarities in terms of how we have matriculated through different degree programs. We have a lot of similarities in terms of interests and we’ve talked about how we share music interests and a lot of the things that are important in culture. However, there’s so much nuance and so much difference about how we navigated through those things. As someone who focuses on mental health and processing lived and living experiences. There’s different realities that we’ve probably had geographic or how we were raised or socioeconomic status, all these other variables that intersect with our identities that could really show up in how we experience and move through life as Black women. So those are some of the things that I don’t know, I wonder. And do you see that show up a lot in group conversations? I don’t know that I do as much.
Makeba (04:36): Yeah. I think the reason why this topic interests me is in groups you said something really important. We’re already, particularly when you’re dealing living in a marginalized body or an oppressed body, we’re already dealing with so much from systems that are keeping us from being able to survive and thrive, that having conversations about our access to resources, the power we have, our different identities becomes really complicated and sometimes just exhausting. You’re already tired. And so what I see, what I experienced in my work and also personally is sometimes we shy away from those conversations because it’s hard. It’s just hard. You don’t have a whole lot of energy after you’re fighting the man. You don’t have a whole lot of energy to then have these conversations within the groups of people that support you and hold you down when the world is trying to tear you down. So that’s kind of my purview of it.
Ashley (05:32): Oh yeah, absolutely. And those conversations are important too because those conversations are healing. If we can engage in how navigating life can be different for us as individuals within in group, even in navigating through oppressive systems, then it’s also a place where even more connection can happen, more relatability can happen, but also more appreciation for the differences of people’s experience can be paramount. And we need to honor in group the differences in people’s lived and living experience.
Makeba (06:05): So I’m wondering if you can talk to me more about that and specifically about the dynamic nature of privilege and power. And what I mean by dynamic is just it changes depending on the different facets of your identity, depending on the situations that you’re in. It can change interpersonally at least. And so talk to me more about how you’ve experienced that both professionally and lightly on the surface. We don’t have to go fully into it, but personally as well. Just talk to me a little more about that.
Ashley (06:35): One, I think is dynamic in that it changes, and one aspect or one part of our lives, at one time in our lives, we might occupy a different space of privilege and power and then there might be a different time or part in our lives when we don’t. Sometimes it’s contextual. Sometimes within my family I occupy a lot of privilege and power and then I come to work or I go into a different environment and that power and privilege has no advantage and in fact can be one of the main reasons why I feel oppressed. And so it’s really interesting to think about the dynamic nature of it because this is something that we have to literally dance with, is occupying privilege and power in one space and the subjugation and oppression in another space. And the duality, the complexity of it.
Makeba (07:21): Absolutely. It is so challenging to go from… I think for some people it’s the reverse. Where you are in your family life, you may take on, especially for women, like a very traditional gender role. And then you come to work and you’re the boss and how do you navigate going, that’s not me. I can’t.
Ashley (07:43): She is the boss. Don’t let her fool you. She is the boss.
Makeba (07:46): Shout out to my husband, thanks for this podcast equipment. But some people do have to move that way back and forth as well. And so you’re absolutely right. So it can be so challenging, but as you mentioned, so critical for us to start having these conversations, and this is just a beginning conversation about this. We could go so many different directions when you start to talk about what does it look like to really work… I mean what we’re talking about at the heart of it is working towards anti-racism within communities as well as attacking systems. And that is complicated.
Ashley (08:18): And even in some spaces that privilege or that power can have a cap. And so in one area or space in your life, you can occupy it and you can use it and then in another space it has a capacity. So now like you said, this could be a multilayered conversation and we joked earlier say it was one layered. That certainly isn’t because the reality of it is that you start to get into critical conversations with people about what you can and cannot do. But it also is very variable on the society that you are taking part in or the organizations or the institutions that we’re navigating as well. And so when it stays so vocalized on those systems and we try to have those conversations in groups, sometimes it can cause conflict and tension and we really have to lean into how to have supportive conversations about our differences navigating through society, but also with the intersections of our identities in group.
Makeba (09:21): Ashley, you just said so much, so much. So I want to take pieces of it and go back to what you said previously. So when you’re thinking about how to have these conversations and you’re thinking about how to build support and things of that nature, how did you specifically start this journey for yourself? You’re a subject matter expert, you’re a director of a center, you do all these things, you help people walk through this. How did you start this journey? How did you start having these conversations?
Ashley (09:49): Oh, I love it. I love this question and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be real about, it’s obviously I can have a whole podcast on this just for myself, a multi series about how I started to do this work for myself. But I think there’s actually one example that comes immediately to mind and it starts back with me being a school, always being a lover of knowledge. And I’ll never forget that I was in undergrad, I was the President of the Honors Society for my major. I was really involved in school and I went to someone who I perceived to be a mentor and I was telling her that I was applying to these different institutions, one of which my alma mater for my master’s degree at Ivy League institution. And she goes, “Of course you should apply to that school. You’ll get in. You’re Black and you’re a female and it’s just a shame you’re not super duper poor, because then you’d really have a shot at getting in based on those things”.
(10:46): And in the moment it was shocking, it was surprising. I was coming into my awareness about microaggressions, about forms of covert and blatant overt racism and oppression, but it didn’t have an internalized impact. And I remember being in class in my master’s degree program and having a moment where I just broke down because even though I was high achieving, I was a leader of student organizations, I had a 4.0 GPA, I was doing my thing in school, there was still that part of me that was like, am I here because I deserve to be here because I’m a great student, because I’m an amazing scholar, or am I here because of those how people perceive me based on my identity? And it was a complicated space to be in because I was also occupying this space of a lot of educational privilege. Fast forward again into my PhD program.
(11:39): And at that point in my life, I am a first generation college student, first person in my immediate family to go to college and to get a college degree and then to be working on my fourth degree, I found that I met a family member who had a lot of history and did some amazing work in higher education and everyone was like, “Oh wow, you’re a legacy kid”. You bet. And we didn’t do in my family, we were all standing together Googling what is a FASFA, right? And so for people then to perceive that. So I had a lot of things that I was processing about my identity matching with my power and my privilege. And after earning my PhD and having this master’s degree, having my bachelor’s degree, people started to listen to me differently.
(12:29): I was being put in spaces to have critical conversations. And I very quickly realized that that could be just as harmful and nuanced as systems of oppression I was navigating myself, because it was putting me in a position to speak on behalf of other groups of people, who I knew I didn’t have the full context of, just people didn’t have the full context of me. And so I recognized that as a professor and as a person who was deeply rooted in academia, that I was just perpetuating the same white dominant ideology on my students. You have to write this way, this way, this way, this way. And if you don’t submit it this way, then it’s not up to standard.
(13:06): Not even considering fact that I lost my love for creative writing and I lost the passion that I had for the work by conforming to these systems to have the type of success that I had at higher ed. So that’s really when I started to unpack it. I started to say what are different ways that my students can express their knowledge, their growth, their excitement for what they’re learning in this classroom space that I now have the privilege to facilitate? How do I recognize that even though it was a huge struggle and I experienced racism through every single one of my degrees, and even though it was a huge struggle for me and my family, for me to go to school, how do I begin to talk about that oppression I experienced navigating through these systems without the privilege that I have as educational privilege where people listen to me before they listen to someone else.
(13:53): If I think that, oh my hardworking grit got me here, so I deserve to be prioritizing this conversation, I am perpetuating the same exact oppression that has been causing societal issues. So it’s about recognizing that even though I have a lot of educational privilege, I need to be careful with that and I need to acknowledge it and make sure that when it is put on the forefront, I’m intentional to say no, I’m not the expert here. The people who are living this, who we’re here to serve are the experts and navigating through those complicated. So I told you, it could be a whole five series podcast of itself, but that awareness cannot, we cannot afford to not be aware of our privileges even in the instance and even in the reality that it might come from a place of extreme subjugation.
Makeba (14:41): When you’re speaking. What that makes me think is my first experience really thinking about this, not my first, that’s that’s a lie, but one of the experiences that I’ve had in really thinking about the different places I sit in and the different access to resources that I have, I was supervising someone and I happened to be an African American woman and my supervisor was an African American woman. We all identified as cisgender heterosexual African American women. And the issue came up regarding my supervisee’s appearance and how she dressed for work. And mind you, the environment that we worked in was an environment that I will just say it was not dressing up. Dressing business casual was not anything anyone did. It was not part of the work environment because you worked with, you were in a clinical setting where you were in a clinical setting doing things that sometimes were involved cleaning and doing other manual labor, all hands on deck kind of environment.
(15:41): And so my supervisee’s appearance came into the conversation and she’s representing “us”, is a conversation the supervisor and I had. She needs to dress this way, her work is fine but her appearance, then it became an ongoing thing and I really at the time, I will fully be honest, did not have the full skills to navigate that situation where I was not being triggered myself, where I was fully in the best way that I could protecting that supervisee and where I was providing I think helpful and critical feedback to my supervisor regarding what that really means.
(16:21): What does it mean for a Black woman to have to present herself in a certain way and an environment in order to be taken seriously when everyone else in the environment is dressing the same way as the supervisee. We bring that with us into spaces because we know how the world often judges us, but as you mentioned in your classroom environment and talking about creative writing, which I so deeply connect with and understand, sometimes the stuff we do that’s meant to help people just perpetuates systems of oppression we’re trying to escape. And so that’s an experience that always sticks out for me and I try to learn from that and not do that as I work with folks on my path ahead.
Ashley (17:02): That’s such a dynamic example and I’m glad that you bring it in because it really brings up that in group conversation. If we were to sit and unpack that, there’s classism that’s maybe at play, there’s cultural mismatch within in group that’s at play there. There’s differential expectations of people based on internalized oppression happening in that scenario there. And those are conversations that we have to work on the discomfort of having as well. Because there’s a lot of healing that happens there to say the expectation that we go above and beyond to shift and change our identities and how we show up to assimilate, to feel safe in an environment. What happens when we uphold that among and within ourselves? What happens when we utilize or leverage some aspect of our privilege that we have to continue to use those same systems of values and norms to shift and force other people who look like or share similar experiences to assimilate and to conform. What type of emotional damage does that do that can be both similar but also extremely different to process in the body?
Makeba (18:16): How do you think, we’ve both talked about how we started to process this. On a very beginning, high level surface level, how do you think we begin to have these conversations? You and I are having one right now, but the background of that is that we’ve had these conversations before. So how do you think within groups for folks, how do you start?
Ashley (18:37): Yeah, I think the background of it too is that we’re both really comfortable and the reason why we’re both very comfortable having these conversations ’cause we practiced it. We’ve practiced it, we worked at it, we’ve gotten to a place where the conversation comes from a place of love and healing. And I think that that can be really hard to wrap our arms around. But at the end of it, that’s always at the root of it, love and healing. It’s about hearing people. I think a lot of times, especially in group, we want to be connected, like you say other people who you’re working with, or other people in your family even, you want to feel connected to them and also they could have extremely different experiences from you.
(19:23): And so instead we try to connect on the spaces and places where we share the most similarities as opposed to really leaning into what are you experiencing that’s completely different? How do we listen to understand and not to respond, listen to hear people and not respond when someone’s saying something that’s counter or different than us. When we expect that it be similar, how do you appreciate that someone shared that with you and seek to learn more about it, to seek to appreciate more about it and the root of where that comes from for them in their lives. That’s an act of appreciation and love for the fact that they’re sharing that information to you. But it also takes practice. It also takes the overcoming the discomfort to have that conversation.
Makeba (20:09): What you were just saying really reminds me of ideas related to fictive kinship. And again, we’re not going to get into that fully today, but fictive kinship is such a huge part of, for a lot of folks who live in oppressed bodies, how we connect to one another. The idea that success of one person is connected to the success of the group and the kinship of some of people together isn’t just about familial relations or blood ties, but really we’re all in this together and there’s so much truth and power in that as you just mentioned, and healing and restoration, but also it creates all of these complications. And so that’s thinking about that, I was just thinking through that as you were speaking and I think as you said, practicing and us really being able to say, I love you and I want to be in this healing and restorative space with you. But also I acknowledge that part of loving and healing is helping each other grow. And doing that, it can be so challenging and conversations like this, like you said, practicing them is just the start.
Ashley (21:15): The, “I want to hear your truth.” This is my truth, this is how I’ve experienced, I want to hear yours. I want to acknowledge that yours might be completely different than mines. And it holds merit and it holds value and it holds significance. And it’s important to me to hear how you have experienced this. I think about, oh my goodness, we need more time. I get so excited thinking about how experiencing oppression impacts the central nervous system and how that creates such a release of chemicals and things in the body and how there’s so many different cultural or in group practices that help to activate the parasympathetic system, the laughter, the joking, the laughing, the crying experiences, the dancing, the music. At least in my culture, those are things that come to the forefront.
(22:07): But then there’s also the acknowledgement like to move with both intentionality and a validation of thoughts and feelings. It’s super duper important that we acknowledge thoughts and feelings and experiences that are in fact different. And so even the creation of that space is also activating that parasympathetic system in creating a whole different realm of healing that is essential to our bodies. This can’t be compromised. The reality of it is that we shy away from conversations about intersectionality, about privilege and power that looks different in groups.
Makeba (22:42): If you’re listening to this, if somebody’s listening and they’re a clinician or they work in direct services, they work in human services, how does this conversation relate to the work they do specifically, do you think?
Ashley (22:56): My automatic response makes me chuckle. You don’t understand. Be mindful that you don’t understand. You can appreciate, you can take interest in, you can inquire, but you don’t understand. If anyone looked at me and Makeba’s CVs, they’re like, oh they going to be fine, and guess what? They’re right. We have a lot coming, but I would never tell Makeba I understand. I understand what it’s like to navigate even the same organization. Because the truth is, I don’t and I can’t. And she can’t and she doesn’t because the reality of it is that our experiences with power and privilege look different. Just like I can’t look at my cousin and say, “I completely understand”, because I’ve had a whole lot of access to things that give me different levels of privilege in our society that make my reality completely different than theirs.
(23:52): That people treat us differently based on what they assume about us in capacities about things that simply are just rooted in even more systemic struggle. So one, we don’t understand, but we should seek an appreciation, we should seek ways to connect with people more meaningly, more dynamically. This applies directly to my work because I am so interested in getting to the outcome of reducing systemic and structural harm and addressing forms of racism and oppression intersectionally, that if by taking the pause to not say, well this is what we know for sure, and this is what the scholarship says and this is what I’ve studied, but how are you as an individual who I’m speaking to, experiencing this?
(24:41): I’m going to get so much further. It’s going to be such a more pleasurable experience for everyone involved. And the healing is absolutely going to be more sustainable, more concrete because it’s moving from something that is real.
Makeba (24:56): I love that. You could just put it… I’m sure it is on a t-shirt, but we should put it on a t-shirt with your face. So I think that would make it better. You don’t understand, you making the face. And I think it’s true, starting from the place of, we talk so much about cultural humility and other things when we’re talking about groups outside of our own, but applying all of that stuff to our own group and then applying it to the clinical work we do. So you don’t understand. You don’t know if the person that you’re sitting across from, even if they look just like you, you don’t know if that experience is the same. And chances are it’s not. Like people, as you said, you and I have so many similarities on paper, but we definitely have had different life experiences and there’s definitely areas where I have more access to privilege. There’s areas where you have more access to privilege and we navigate those situations differently based on how we’ve been raised, the experiences that we’ve had. So you’re right, that’s such an important point.
Ashley (25:51): And people always say like, oh, people are so scared to. I think that that example right there, and I love that. I want to know what are the differences and experiences that you have? Where are the places that I have more privilege and where are the places you have more privilege so we can come together and figure out how to create the most support and abundance and opportunities for each of us. But if we are so afraid of losing our privilege, we cannot get to that place. Or if we believe that there cannot be differences in privileges, we cannot support each other truly and genuinely. And I know we’re out of time on this podcast, but I’m pretty sure this is You Don’t Understand Podcast.
Makeba (26:31): How can people make space to have these conversations at work? How do you think in a workspace or in a professional setting, in an academic setting too, any setting where somebody is paying you or somebody is getting paid for their time. How can people make space to have these conversations?
Ashley (26:49): I think it’s also interesting if we’re talking about at work versus in work. So there’s me at work and then there’s me working. But I think looking at those things at a place where it intersects, making space starts with gratitude. And so Makeba, I’m really glad that you bring that up. It reminds me of this experience that I had that sounds similar, but I’m wondering what that was like for you and then being grateful that you gave me the gift of sharing that with me. Thank you. Wow. Wow. I’m glad that you shared that has not been my experience, but I’m really glad to hear yours. Like space made, space made. But it comes from gratitude. You don’t have to tell me your experience and I don’t have to say I understand in order to feel like I’m making a connection with you. I experience something similar, I wonder what it looks like for you.
Makeba (27:50): Absolutely. The only thing that I would add to what you just said is curiosity. The going, entering it with curiosity. In my experience when there’s a group of, I love being Black, I love being around other people of color, but sometimes we have, like you said, we have our norms and our expectations about what you do. And just a silly example is I saw a video once, a viral video about somebody making the macaroni and cheese differently than they normally make it. And it was a complete catastrophe at the family gathering. And it’s a funny video, but had we entered the macaroni and cheese with curiosity and maybe just tried it, it might have been the most delicious macaroni and cheese we ever had. And that may seem silly at workplaces, but that applies to workplaces too. Being curious about what other folks are experiencing, you might learn something new about yourself as well as making space for others.
Ashley (28:50): Makeba, was this a video of you? Did you make the macaroni and cheese?
Makeba (28:53): No. It is not. And after this podcast is over, I will share it with you because it’s funny. It’s somebody’s aunt, it’s somebody who recently got married and somebody’s aunt. It’s great.
Ashley (29:04): Well, no, I think that that is a very fun example to something that is absolutely more complex. I notice you’re doing this really different and tradition’s really important to me. I’m wondering a little bit about where you learn that or what inspired you to try it that way.
Makeba (29:24): Is there anything else that you want to impart onto our listeners just as we’re wrapping up and as closing as we’re about to end the podcast? Any final words?
Ashley (29:33): I think that some of the values that we talked about today are just so central to being, and so I think that when all else fails, just taking a step back, taking a deep breath and examining your appreciation to be able to engage with someone in a meaningful way will always be a way to reground and reenter into the conversation. So I think it can be a lot more simple than it needs to be divisive. And I think that at the core of it, if we all just gave ourselves the grace that would be necessary, we could then extend that same grace to other people and recognize that this is a conversation that needs to be had, that should be had and should be welcome within group.
Makeba (30:17): Ashley, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you as always.
Ashley (30:22): Thank you Makeba, and thank you to Changing the Conversation Podcast. What a great opportunity.
Makeba (30:28): And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
Erika Simon, Producer (30:31): Visit C4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
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