Practicing awkward questions

When you enter certain situations, it’s likely that you will be asked awkward, painful, or intrusive questions. It’s sometimes worth preparing yourself ahead of time to deal with those questions so they have less power to derail you in the moment.

Some examples of situations in which this kind of preparation might be helpful:

  • Interviewing for a job in which you’re uncertain of your qualifications
  • Interviewing for a job when you expect to be perceived as incapable because of your age, disability, race, gender, etc
  • Presenting on a topic related to justice, particularly if people are likely to try to get you to ~tell your story~ instead of talking about the issue
  • Pitching a business idea for a new type of product
  • Coming out
  • (any number of other things)

It’s worth preparing because:

  • There are two problems you’re facing:
  • One is that it might feel horrible to be asked certain questions
  • The other problem is that answers to your questions will be used in a way that hurts you
  • It can be tempting to avoid thinking about these questions, because it hurts to anticipate them
  • But that can actually make the questions hurt more, and it can make it harder to protect yourself from the practical consequences of answering the questions
  • If you can make the thought of answering (or deflecting) the questions bearable, then they have a lot less power to hurt you, and you have a lot more power to choose how to respond

One way to prepare is to do a practice run with a friend, where they ask you the questions you’re afraid that you will be asked.

  • One really good way to make the questions bearable is to have someone you trust ask you the questions you’re afraid of being asked
  • That can allow you to practice hearing the question and finding it bearable, and still being ok
  • It can also allow you to practice finding answers, and experimenting with which ones seem most effective.
  • If you’ve had some experience hearing those questions, answering them, and still being ok, it can make it a lot easier to answer them when the answers are immediately important

Writing down your thoughts can also help:

  • It might help to make a list of questions you’re afraid of being asked
  • And thinking through what kind of response you might want to make
  • Any way you can think about it ahead of time is likely to be helpful
  • (That said, be careful about scripting too much if you can avoid it. Words that you generate at least somewhat in the moment are often received better than memorized scripts.)

Short version: If you’re likely to be asked difficult questions, it’s worth practicing answering them. Two things that work well are having a trusted friend ask you those questions, and writing down thoughts.

You never had to prove them wrong

When you grow up with stigma, people tell you a lot of well-meaning things that actually cause problems. When you face people treating you like you’re less of a person, someone will often say something like:

  • “You’ll prove them all wrong some day”.
  • “It’s ok. You’ll show them. You’ll prove that you’re better than they ever could have imagined.”

And then, when you accomplish things, it often becomes, “Well, you proved them wrong, didn’t you?”

People who say this often mean well, but this is a form of victim-blaming, and it can hurt people who believe it really badly. The truth is:
You didn’t prove them wrong. You never had to prove them wrong. They were already wrong.
Prejudice is not something you have to earn your way out of. Dehumanization isn’t your fault. You don’t have to prove that you are human in order to be human. You don’t have to have amazing accomplishments in order to prove that you have worth. Everyone has worth. People who don’t recognize yours have always been wrong.
You didn’t prove them wrong. They were already wrong. About you, and about everyone else too.
You might have to fight to be seen as a person. You might have to fight for your life and your safety and for basic respect. That’s a fight you may or may not win. It’s a fight that, no matter how hard you try or how good you are, you will never win all the way. There will still be those who hate you and see you as subhuman.
But you can be ok, anyway. You’re ok. You’re whole. You deserve better. It’s not your fault they don’t see it. It’s theirs.
You have always been a full person, fully deserving of respect and equal treatment. People who treat you as a lesser being have always been wrong.
Knowing that helps.

Power is not evidence: a rallying cry against dehumanization

Content warning: this post contains somewhat graphic examples of horrible things that happen to people. Proceed with caution.

There is a lot of abuse in this world. A lot of people have far more power over others than they ought to, and even necessary power is misused routinely. Even good people with good intentions harm routinely others by misusing their power.

Often, when force is used against people, they’re presumed to have deserved it. Or worse, to have deserved it because they’re a Kind Of Person who inherently needs to be treated that way. And this is bad. It allows abuse to go unchallenged and even to seem noble – in cases where if people would just *look*, they’d understand.

For instance:

Sometimes people are punished. This is not, in itself, evidence that they did something wrong, or that they are bad, or that they were behaving substantially differently from others. It’s evidence that someone powerful decided to punish them. And that’s all.

Sometimes children are put into segregated programs. This is not evidence that they benefit from segregation, or that they are a kind of person who needs that. It’s evidence that someone powerful decided that kids Like That don’t belong around the real kids. And that’s all.

Sometimes teenagers are sent to harsh programs for bad kids. This is not evidence that they were bad, that they deserved it, that the programs benefited them, or that they are fundamentally different from other kids. It is evidence that someone powerful decided to send them to a program. And that’s all.

Sometimes people are institutionalized. This is not evidence that they are dangerous. It is not evidence that they need to be locked up for their own good. It is not evidence that they are a kind of person who can’t be free. All it’s evidence of is that someone powerful decided they weren’t really real, and needed to be separated from the real people. And that’s all.

Sometimes adults are described as having no mind or having the mind of a little child. This is not evidence that they are incapable of thought or communication, or that they’re a kind of person whose choices don’t matter. It is evidence that someone powerful decided not to listen to them. And that’s all.

Power is evidence of power. And that’s all. And keeping that in mind makes it possible to notice what is actually going on, and to treat people a lot better.

And when you understand that power is not evidence, there’s the horrible part, because you have to notice the abuse and the horrors you used to be able to ignore.

But there’s also the wonderful part. Because you realize that everyone is real, and that nobody needs to be treated as an unperson. And that this horrible brutality and dehumanization is completely unnecessary *and that it can be stopped*.

And if you remember, if you can keep in mind that everyone is real and that power is not evidence – you can become trustworthy. Some people are the targets of pervasive dehumanization efforts, and – if you are able to see this as absolutely unjustified, on a core level, if you can be trusted to see others as real *all the time*, you can prevent these efforts from working.

This is an important skill to acquire. It can save lives (sometimes, including your own).

When you notice dehumanization

A reader asked:

Okay, but what do you do when you realize you’re being dehumanized?
I’d say a few things:
Notice that it is happening
  • Pay attention to what’s going on
  • If you feel horrible after an interaction, try to figure out if that person did something you know is dehumanizing
  • Keeping a log can help, if your mental configuration makes that possible (for some people, a way that works is to send yourself emails when things happen)
  • Telling someone else what’s going on can help, if you have someone you can trust
To the extent that it is in your power, get away from people who treat you like an unperson.
  • Don’t hang out with people who don’t like you
  • If you can, working for someone who respects you helps a lot
  • If you’re living with a person who is treating you like an unperson, and you can move out, it’s probably a good idea
Don’t push yourself too hard to fix it
  • Extracting yourself from dehumanizing treatment is really hard
  • Sometimes, when you realize that this shouldn’t be happening, it can be tempting to think that it’s your fault for allowing it to happen.
  • It’s not your fault
  • People shouldn’t abuse you
  • And it’s not your obligation to convince them to stop. They are doing something wrong and it’s *not your job* to solve this problem for them by teaching them how to behave. Even if you understand the problem and they don’t.
  • And it’s important to get distance from people who treat you this way, but it can be really hard to do so.
  • It’s not your fault that it’s hard.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if a lot of time passes and you’re still surrounded by people who treat you like an unperson. It can be hard to resist.
  • Don’t give up, either.
Try not to help people dehumanize you
  • Part of the way dehumanization works is by convincing the targets that they’re not really people
  • And also convincing them that all problems are their fault
  • And that if they stay out of the way and do everything right, they’ll be almost human
  • Remembering that you are a person helps
  • Even when you have to do what they want and say what they want, you don’t have to believe everything they want you to believe
  • You are a person. Anyone who doubts this is wrong.
Seek out the company of others who treat you like a person
  • Any respect you can get helps.
  • Even if it’s just online. Or just in person. Or just occasional.
  • Even if it’s not particularly intimate. Finding people to discuss your rock collection with who respect your rock knowledge can help.
  • And just – not everyone dehumanizes others. Some people know that all people are real.
  • Interaction with people who know that people are real helps, both because it gives you experience being treated as real, and because it gives you concepts to notice and object to dehumanization.
Block and ignore people who are mean to you on the internet
  • You’re better off without seeing their nastiness
  • And refusing to engage with it is good practice for realizing people shouldn’t do that to you in person

Trying to detect dehumanization

I’m really good at telling when people don’t quite think I’m a person, but I’m not quite sure *how* I detect this. I’m trying to figure it out.

A good part of what’s in this post is probably wrong, because this is really hard to get a handle on. And *some* of these things are sometimes the result of other things, like communication problems.

But here’s a draft list of things I think that I detect as signs that someone doesn’t see me as a person:

  • There’s kind of more of a pause than usual, and then what they responded to wasn’t really in reaction to what you said. They’re reacting to some imaginary person.
  • They don’t seem to understand what you’re saying, but they don’t ask any clarifying questions.
  • They don’t answer your clarifying questions.
  • They look at each other a lot, but not you.
  • They try to insist on talking about your feelings rather than the problem or concrete thing you want to talk about.
  • They tell you in authoritative tones what you are thinking or feeling or need or want, and they’re not open to corrections.
  • They completely ignore you when you say things that don’t fit their agenda, to the extent that you start doubting that you actually said it.
  • They go on and on about how smart you are, but they don’t seem to want to discuss anything else with you.
  • They expect effusive gratitude for mundane acts like getting something down from a shelf they can reach that you can’t.
  • Their body language shifts dramatically when they’re interacting with you; it’s really different than how it looks when they’re interacting with others. 
  • They have a voice they use with adults, and a voice they use with young children, and they use their little-kid-voice with you.

Thoughts, anyone? Which of these things am I wrong (or right) about? What other signs are there?

I think a good percentage of y’all know exactly what I am talking about, but it’s really hard to pin down.