SOL Tuesday: participant-observer in nice shoes

One of the reasons that I write it’s because I have feelings.  My need to work through  those feelings often gives me reason to put words on the page. I struggle to know how to write about a recent experience. I’ll write as a participant-observer, I’ve decided.

So I just spent an amazing weekend in the Mediterranean enjoying the company of kind people, many of whom I’ve known for over 20 years. These are collegial relationships that have developed over the course of many track meets some great dinners and other events and I realize that I came to this particular celebration because it was an opportunity to spend time with friends. When I arrived, however, I found myself actually questioning my purpose in being here, the only black person, the only woman of color and one of two people of color at this event and and I really ask myself: why am I here? How do I fit into this group? Do I fit into this group at all?

I shared a couple of tweets that speak to some of the awkwardness I was feeling about being here. I revealed some hesitancy to engage in conversation realizing that, yes, I too have those feelings. I don’t feel comfortable in certain social situations although I consider myself to be a social person. Even though I like people, it can happen that getting started in conversation feels difficult and fraught.

It seems helpful to clarify that these feelings are not all related to race. There are other aspects: Among the handful of women in attendance, and I was one of two or three not attached to a partner or spouse. Most of the men who were present belong to the administration ranks of their institutions; those men were all white, majority British with a few other nationalities tossed in for good measure. That said, these were almost all folks involved in interscholastic sports, who have hosted and organized tournaments, coached numerous teams and developed remarkable friendships with each other over years. There were lots of people there I enjoyed chatting with, getting to know better and finding connection points. Seen both from the outside and inside, this grouping is indeed and old boys’ club. While I am very fond of several of its members, I see a desperate need for change which seems also deeply unlikely.

The fact of the matter is that I also enjoyed myself immensely. The weekend gave me a chance to see myself in a different light: as a hesitant socializer, as a reluctant performer of femininity, as a bearer of history and memory within this organization, as a mature (read: middle aged) adult, as someone who fits in without necessarily being “one of the guys.”

I learned that the invitation I received could not have been more genuine or heartfelt. This fact allowed me to truly practice enjoyment; to accept all the benefits of the invitation without guilt.

After the fact I am still wrestling with the positive feelings I have for the people and the event versus the realization of how this tiny specific world – this heteronormative collection of (almost exclusively) white male leaders – seems to have little incentive to diversify its composition on any level and how closely this is tied to the leadership culture of international schools across the globe. It’s a both/and scenario and it merits unpacking.

At the same time, being here also helped me recognize my role in other people’s lives. Deciding to attend also meant being seen and recognized and appreciated in ways that I think might otherwise go unnoticed.

I don’t know that the celebrated organization is prepared to look closely at itself and its leadership to consider how to become more inclusive of folks who do not fit the typical demographic. As a participant-observer it became much clearer to me how convenient and simple it becomes for these systems of relationships to mutually reinforce each other over time. There is no need to look far outside the group because the shared understanding is already so much more comfortable and established. I think I knew that going in. Seeing it up close for a weekend without the members having to perform their usual duties made it impossible not to see.

I went to the Mediterranean for a weekend party, had a lovely time actually and I did not spearhead a revolution. That’s my reality and I own it.

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3 thoughts on “SOL Tuesday: participant-observer in nice shoes

  1. Oh my goodness – that second to last line, that was perfect. “I went to the Mediterranean for a weekend party, had a lovely time actually and I did not spearhead a revolution.” Thank you for sharing your mixed feelings. Thank you for articulating how you can feel both welcomed and outside at the same time. Thank you for acknowledging the complicated interplay of race, gender, power and everything else. This is incredibly difficult to talk about and you explain it well. To quote an old white guy, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” Seems like that’s kind of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Amanda! Thank you so much for your thoughts! “Within and without” indeed! Part of me is also still in awe over the sense of luxury I felt: getting on a plane, having most of my expenses covered, living like an esteemed guest… All felt so novel. Greatest insight is perhaps recognizing the choices I have and can make in terms of belonging and identifying.

      Like

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