Positionality is the idea that we judge and label ourselves and others in various ways including race/nationality; gender; socioeconomic class; age; sexual orientation; religion/spirituality; ability/disability; and sense of place. Examining our positionality allows us to gain a deeper understanding of what these labels mean to us, how the meanings developed in early childhood and shaped our life, and how these labels impact our stance toward difference, toward "the other." This work creates personal insights which shifts our public policy opinions and conversations in ways that uphold the dignity and worth of all people. To become better public policy advocates, we start with the man (or woman) in the mirror; after all, he is the one most in our locus of control.
“Who am I” and “how do I relate to others, especially those who are different than me?” are questions I have struggled with throughout my life. I have some answers, but I have learned the hard way to try and embrace uncertainty on the parts that are still developing rather that foreclose on that growth by pretending I have all the answers.
Race/nationality/language: I identify as a Caucasian, white, United States citizen who is a native English speaker and grew up in a racist community in small-town North Carolina. For example, as a middle school student, I was handed a business card by a Ku Klux Klan member as the group marched in those evil white garments and cowardly hoods in the Mule Days parade near my hometown in Benson, North Carolina. When I was in seventh grade and I watched the twin towers fall on TV, I was programmed that “foreigners” (Muslims) were to be feared. Once I left North Carolina to pursue a career in the arts, the racism I was programmed to believe began to dissipate through friendships. Love beats fear every time. In Cleveland, Ohio, I lived with close friends who were Muslim or Hindu and hailed from India, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Saudi Arabia (they are now medical researchers, a radiologist, and a lawyer for the United Nations). When I first came to Houston, I lived in Third Ward, an African American community, and now live in Sharpstown, a Hispanic community. I had the opportunity to live for a year in Germany, and I got to see life and culture in Poland, Germany, and France. All of these experiences have helped me see that being a white American is not better than (fill in the blank with any minority). I think that almost anyone who grows up in the United States has some form of racism. However, because of the people I have met and the work I have done on myself, I am pretty quick to see my own racism and nationalism and address it in healthy ways that allow me to be better than before.
Gender: Being in a man in America taught me “don’t feel, be perfect, don’t ever make a mistake.” However, my father modeled that it is okay to cry, even in public; a rare gift few boys receive. My mom allowed me to play with barbie dolls and other “girl toys.” One of the hardest issues around my gender was losing some of my male privilege and being seen as effeminate when I came out as gay. Today, I am pretty secure in my manhood and am seeking to understand more about gender fluidity and the transgender community.
Socio-economic: I was born into a white, middle class family. Growing up, we always had more resources and money than my extended family or schoolmates, and I was embarrassed to have newer clothes and drive a nicer car than my schoolmates. I felt it was deeply unfair that I was given more than my peers simply because of the family I was born into. My experiences with economic privilege in childhood challenged me to educate myself on income inequality in this country, perhaps most expertly discussed by Robert Riech in his documentary Inequality For All (Dr. Reich served in the administrations of Presidents Ford, Carter, and Clinton and was Secretary of Labor from 1993 to 1997).
Age: I used to hear "when you're older, you'll understand." Ugh. Today i often here "why are you still in school at age 30?" Ugh. I have to admit I keep those messages in my head and replay the tape. One tape that has been deleted with age is from a difficult moment when i was 17. A man I respected at church told me I would die of AIDS before I was thirty, so making it to thirty years of age disease free has eradicated an unhelpful message. Outside of my own age, I am working to treat others with equal dignity no matter what their age. It is very easy for me to give patience, understanding, and care to teenagers and children. It is more difficult for me, personally, to assume the best about adults. Because I watched my grandparents suffer slow, painful deaths, I used to be uncomfortable around the elderly because I associated them with hospitals and funerals. However, today I serve at an LGBT-friendly church fueled by love and social justice where many elderly people are still out and about, making a difference and creating meaning. They have changed my view on what it means to grow old, create a legacy, and pass away with dignity.
Sexuality: When I think about my homosexuality, I think about people and events. I think about realizing I was gay in kindergarten when my friend asked me if I wanted to see his Power Rangers underwear; about having to change in gym class for the first time and being terrified the other boys would just somehow "know;" having my Jeep Grand Cherokee packed in case my parents found out that I was gay and kicked me out; a family member throwing up when I came out as gay at age 17; and other traumatic events that eroded my self-worth and wrote on the slate of who I was. As I began therapy and recovery in my mid-twenties, these frozen traumatic events thawed out and I began a long, painful process of sorting them out. The more recovered I get in my sexual identity, the more I seek to understand other sexual minorities, such as the transsexual community. A great strength I possess is an ability to relate and mentor young adults who are in the process of coming out and reckoning with the pain of growing up gay in a straight world.
Religion: Growing up Southern Baptist in the Bible Belt of North Carolina, religion was synonymous with authoritarian, rigid, black and white thinking. In middle school, the church I was born and raised in split apart over a heated, contentious debate about evolution and whether the Bible was literal or should be interpreted. In my youth, I knew that the church my family attended did not have room for how I thought and the gender I wanted to love. After working for the Anglican church for fifteen years, I currently serve at a church which is in line with my values and fosters spiritual growth.
Abilities/disabilities: Although I grew up uncomfortable around people with disabilities and family members in palliative care, I had to come to terms that I had within me several interconnected disabilities in my twenties: alcoholism, drug addiction, a nasty binge eating disorder, and clinical diagnoses of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Working through these issues for myself changed how I look at differently-able people. For example, I share joy on a weekly basis with an autistic sixth grader through games of Jenga, Uno, and eating Funyuns (but only the spicy kind. We have standards).
Sense of place: The greatest struggle I have had in life is finding a sense of place, finding belonging. I was a gay, artistic, creative child who was born into the Bible Belt of North Carolina. Racism, homophobia, and gender roles influenced me to write a script about myself that declared I was not worthy of love and belonging in my community or family. I decided at a very early age to get out of Four Oaks as soon as I turned 18 because I was afraid I might die if people found out who I really was. I learned to be a chameleon, to be a mask and pretend to be the best little boy in the world. Anything to avoid the Scarlet Letter. Naturally, I could not belong or have a sense of place where I could not be my authentic self. I belonged nowhere and with no one. I was not centered. I was not grounded. I was detached from life. I lived in a fantasy land. Gravity barely had a hold on me.
I finally began to find a sense of place when I moved to Houston in 2012. I found a community of people who truly accept me for who I am, flaws and all. I eventually moved away from Houston for a job and remember watching the news coverage of Hurricane Harvey with sadness that I was not in Houston with the people I loved. Harvey was a devastating natural disaster. People were fleeing the city. I desperately wanted to return. I decided that a sense of place was more important than career success, so I moved back to Houston with the intention of staying here for the rest of my life. I want to use the roots and relationships I have here to support me in finding meaningful work and finding someone to create a family with. My sense of place is in Houston, and I am grateful every day that I get to wake up here.
Although I have struggled with a sense of place because of my sexuality, I have never had to struggle with a physical sense of place. I have never been homeless, and on most days I take that for granted. I have never been treated poorly or told I do not belong because of the color of my skin. I have never been subtly told to shut up and look pretty because I am a woman.
Through seeing how these labels create the position in which I see the world, I am more able to understand myself, others, and my environment in new ways. I understand more fully how I think and feel (and why). I am able to more often extend myself for the nurture and care of another, which is one of my favorite definitions of the word "love." I am able to effectively help the teenagers and emerging adults I work with in the various institutions I am a part of.
Being able to see more clearly how my labels affect myself and the people I serve and care has also helped me see how much of society is created on positionality, labels, and judgment. We live in a society that has deep roots in racism and inequality. Understanding the unconscious bias I have has direct consequences to how I see public policy.
I believe if more people took the time and were given the resources to examine their unconscious biases around race/nationality; gender; socioeconomic class; age; sexual orientation; religion/spirituality; ability/disability; and sense of place, that we would be having very different conversations about immigration, bathroom bills, economic inequality, health care, poverty and homelessness, and other major issues our country faces. In the words of Michael Jackson..."if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change."