As someone who is averse to conflict of any kind, bringing up something which will potentially lead to an uncomfortable/emotional conversation or reaction is something I usually avoid. The few times I break this self-imposed rule are when someone on my social media profile says something problematic – either unwittingly or bigoted-ly – but even then, I tend to become so upset with the ensuing conversation that I can’t do this to my emotional health too often. If it’s someone who I don’t mind cutting ties with, I prefer unfriending or unfollowing the person to having a long conversation-through-comments with them, which usually ends up being futile anyway.
This is a lot of backstory for an incident which happened with one of my participants earlier this year. For our episode, we were approaching the topic as people who weren’t in the marginalised group we were talking about – we were approaching it as people from the dominant group who were learning about the marginalised group’s experiences and perspectives through the fan podcasts and other texts we had exchanged. We were extremely aware of our position and readily acknowledged our privilege even before planning the episode. While we were planning the episode, one of their suggestions involved a thought experiment where we would pretend we inhabited the identities of the marginalised group and imagine how those imagined identities would impact our actions and feelings during a series of fictional events at Hogwarts. Knowing the participant, this suggestion was entirely well-intentioned, and presumably a way for us to imagine a life we wouldn’t otherwise have any experience with. At the same time, I was immediately and viscerally discomfited by the idea. As people from the dominant group who have no experiences with that specific marginalised identity, I felt it would be insensitive to people who actually inhabit that identity. As I pointed out, the thought experiment may work with participants who actually had lived experiences of that identity – and even then, only if it was their idea in the first place and it was something they were comfortable exploring through a fictional framework.
Now, even though the suggestion made me supremely uncomfortable, it wasn’t because I thought the participant meant to be insensitive. In fact, when I pointed out my reservations, they were quick to agree with me and then deleted the suggestion from our shared Google document (I make a shared Google document for each of my participants since it helps make the planning process much easier). The fact that the suggestion was deleted is why I’m not directly talking about who the participant is and what episode we were planning. I’m not sure what I would have done had the suggestion been left intact. Perhaps I would have tried to disguise their identity regardless. However, under the circumstances, it definitely feels unethical to refer to them directly. While we haven’t had any further conversation about the suggestion in particular, I get the sense that the participant realised they had been inadvertently insensitive and were perhaps embarrassed by it. This is a participant who has been deeply appreciative of being able to learn from diverse perspectives through their participation in my project.
I, myself, have been – and probably will continue to be – ignorant and consequently thoughtless about some of my ideas, suggestions, and opinions. This isn’t born of malice; it’s just we don’t know what we don’t know. Even when it comes to someone who is unusually careful about their beliefs and attitudes, we have blind-spots which we don’t even realise until someone points it out or until we discover it through another person’s experience. On thinking about this a few days after our conversation, I found it interesting that the participant had made the suggestion and it’s a suggestion that I perhaps may have made myself had I not been researching and thinking about different intersectional identities in many different ways – that’s basically my job at the moment. Not everybody has the luxury to do this because most people are just living their lives. Usually, if it doesn’t impact them, they’re probably not thinking about it. No judgment there, because I’m the same. It’s only my PhD research which is making me actively aware of all my biases and blind-spots. Having this conversation with the participant helped me confront my own social conditioning too. I hope it did the same for my participant. I think that everyone should never be one hundred per cent comfortable with all their beliefs – there are so many lives and experiences we’re wholly ignorant of. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is a great way to learn what we don’t know.