Over the last several weeks, I’ve been engaged in an online course of sorts about the nature of White privilege. It is called a White Affinity Circle and it is a “virtual circle” conversation among a group (I think there’s about 8 of us) White women with a professor leading the discussion. She does this using the format of a speaking “circle” which simply means that only one of us may speak at a time in response to the questions the professor poses on the topic for the evening. The sessions last about 90 minutes and so far, they have mostly dug into our understanding of identity and where Whiteness as a way of being enters into that appreciation.
The opportunity (this circle, or course) was recommended to me by another coach whose work and capacity for deep introspection I truly value, so I enrolled in the 6-week series pretty much on her wisdom alone. I’m glad I did!
I have discovered that in the “circle” way of discussion, it is good to be toward the end of the list of participants. That way, one gets to hear what everyone else has to say about the question that’s been asked before needing to formulate one’s own response. I like being last in these sessions.
In the center of the “circle” is an altar of sacred objects – meaningful to those in the circle or leading the circle – displayed as a centerpiece or focal point for the sessions. Each week, the professor sends us an email with resources we’re encouraged to read (or watch, in the case of videos) as a way to help guide our thinking in the direction the next discussion event will be taking.
In a recent session, we were asked to select five aspects of social identity we would choose to describe ourselves. These were my five…
- Gender: Woman/female
- Age: Septuagenarian/senior
- Educational level: Educated/PhD
- Marital status: Married
- Occupation: Coach/Nurse
Then, we were asked to highlight those where our position was dominant. That part of the question confused me, so the professor explained. . .
- In the descriptor of marital status, “Married” might be seen as dominant over (of a higher order, having more importance, weight, status, or significance than) “Single.”
- However, in general society (and historically, here in Western society) the in the descriptor of gender, “Woman/female” would definitely not be dominant over the binary choice “Man/male.”
Hmmmm… I had not thought of my descriptors as building an identity of dominance. My bad.
This realization (about dominance) is the natural set-up for understanding that I rarely thought about my identity as being White either, (again, my bad).
The only time that Whiteness seemed of importance in my early, formative years, was when I realized that my father, who had a beautiful and lyrical Italian name, Pasquale Vincenzo Forté, had changed his name to Paul Vincent Forte, to assimilate; to be seen as White, not Italian. This had happened around the time that my family fled the urban turmoil of Philadelphia (shortly before I was born) to live in the White suburbs West of the city – definitely an act of mid-20thcentury White Flight.
What difference does all this make? Quite a bit, I’m discovering. Who we claim to be, our IDENTITIES are very important to how we move through the world and make our way; how we overcome obstacles or succumb to hardships. Who we think ourselves to BE can set us up for success or failure, connection or disconnection, submission or dominance.
I share all this (and maybe more in weeks to come) because these insights have had a profound impact on my coaching and professional life lately. They’ve made me question whether I engage in conversations (or presentations, introductions, interviews or discussions) from a perspective of thinking MORE of myself than I ought to think. I find myself questioning whether I operate from a place of making assumptions about where I fall in the hierarchy of people (something I’d thought little about) to the realization that “my place” might be more humble than I’ve presumed or more complicated than I’d recognized. It seems, there’s a lot to unpack here!
Okay, let’s get back to reality (and definitely, back to humility) … Sometimes discovery about ourselves can lead to a richer understanding of not only who we are, but of who we think we need to be in a given situation. And sometimes it is that notion about who we think we need to be that gets us into unnecessary complications. Often, this all occurs without us even noticing; we don’t recognize what we’re doing or who we’re trying to be.
We might try to be (or appear/seem):
- More important than others by virtue of our educational status
- More valuable than others by virtue of our gender status
- More desirable than others by virtue of our looks or appearance or brand-name wardrobe.
Those aspects of social identity are not necessarily clear descriptors of who we are, but they may be tools we use to alter how people see us, or how people feel in our presence. It’s complicated.
Are you sorting out anything about YOUR identity? Are you discovering that others see you in ways that you’ve never seen yourself? Are you struggling to articulate exactly who you WANT to be or become?
These are great topics to sort out with a coach, to discuss with a counselor, or to explore with a therapist. I would encourage you to be brave and not shy away from this sort of self-discovery, and to realize the first step of any real learning is enhanced awareness – in this case, self-awareness.
Wishing you fresh discoveries and the courage to learn from each of them how to be (or become) your best self!