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Friday, April 10, 2020

Navigating Life in the World of The Other

I have at times been The Other and other times been The Tribe.

My past careers have been in law, investments, and banking. I have been that “pretty blonde” in a sea of suits before the dawn being seen as a novelty was wrong. Even as early as high school, I felt the sting of exclusion because I strove for something outside of a lane some believed my gender defined. The fight to be considered equal and worthy continues, but it’s different now.

Our public discourse is acquiring language for The Other to engage with The Tribe. In tandem with this growth, our society is developing a platform to discuss exclusion. Sometimes that discussion happens in the safe space among friends and like-minded people, other times it happens in the Wild West of public forums. By definition, inclusion means stepping outside of our comfort zone to see more, hear more, and experience more. The conversations can be heated, but are an essential part of a society’s growth. We must have these conversations and controversies to educate one another and ourselves, and to find the stepping stones upon which we can move forward.

At times, I still feel the cold shoulder of being The Other. I also must acknowledge that I am The Tribe.

I am the chapter president of an organization founded on the concept of merit and ability over habit and ignorance. Thirty years ago, Sisters in Crime was founded by women crime and mystery authors to garner the fair share of reviewers and publishers’ attention in a field dominated by men. Hallmarks of exclusion were noted and the mission statement was recently amended to articulate a vision that further erased the lines of gender and color. A code of conduct was added for its members.

In discussions about chapter membership, I realized I was The Tribe. I was on the inside. Conversations included words like “inclusion,” “diversity,” “outreach,” “ageism,” and “gender identity.”

Our chapter co-sponsors an annual regional writers’ conference. I was heartened when a suggestion to include a choice of pronoun ribbons upon registration was enthusiastically supported by other committee members. Attendees could self-identify. They could choose to be addressed in forms of “he,” “she,” or “they.” This was part of our organizations’ efforts to create an environment of inclusion, acceptance, and safety.

Some people were baffled by the ribbons but donned them anyway. Others shrugged and didn’t wear them, but engaged in conversations with those who did. Igniting conversations was exactly the point. I welcomed the chance to talk about and learn from the experiences of others. Conversations included examples of being the only one of color in a room, of being the only white when traveling, of being the only one celebrating, or not, a religious holiday. The list goes on. The Other.

It is gratifying that more circumstances of exclusion are being identified and discussed. The many facets of exclusion, tribalism, and “other-ism” are being recognized as pervasive, insidious, and destructive. Exclusion is one form of harassment and ignorance another. Neither gets a pass when the goal is to include and respect an individual.

One attendee wrote this: “I am exploring my gender identity . . . I was very happy when I came to [the conference] this year and saw the pronoun badges. Thank you! With some trepidation I wore the ‘they/them’ badge -- my first small step to some public expression, but in a place where I felt safe.”

Isn’t that what we all want? To feel safe among a crowd of strangers?

In one of the moments that marks growth as well as pain, two incidents required public statements be made by the conference committee to condemn harassment. With our acquired language and awareness, we were able to identify, understand, and condemn the equating of sexual orientation with criminality, and be at the forefront of the discussion of this issue. Sadly, the other incident only served to highlight that attitudinal change is difficult and slow. A presentation allowed certain statements to go unaddressed. Some said the comments were sexist, other claimed them to be misogynistic, others heard nothing wrong, others shrugged that such comments have always been made, so what’s the big deal?

I’ve struggled with how to conclude this opinion piece. I write this as me, and not in any official capacity. I can only observe that harsh public discourse is an inevitable symptom of growth, as is an individual’s discomfort for being called out on behavior once considered acceptable. Private statements can also be caustic, but more often than not, those who may be reticent to express support publicly are relieved to do so privately.

We are learning whether our education comes informally in private or public conversations or formally in workshops and educational forums with a curriculum designed to help us hear and see our way to inclusion.

A reality none of us can evade is that at one time or another, you, too, will be The Other.