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Unpacking: The Art of Self-Awareness

2014.April.30

Baggage Claim

Now that “calling out” has become an Internet thing, there’s a lot of tension coming from folks who don’t really know what to do with it, particularly on the receiving end. The kneejerk reaction is usually some kind of defensiveness (“I am a good person, therefor I can’t be ___ist.” “I don’t follow your logic, therefor the mistake must’ve been yours.”, “How dare you? Don’t you know everything I’ve done for ___?”) or attack. Some conflict-averse folks can ignore or deflect being called out, but very few slow down to address the concern thoughtfully. To some extent, this is because dominant cultural narratives encourage us to take any disagreement as a personal or political affront, but I suspect it also owes to our inexperience with ambivalent self-examination. Deep self-awareness is neither common nor encouraged, so how in the world can it be acquired?

Personally, when I feel challenged or conflicted in some way, I attempt to unpack those feelings. Although I no longer have the privilege of travel, I find myself “unpacking” more than ever…

To a skilled traveler, unpacking a suitcase is as important as packing it. Upon return, one is smart to sort out belongings and reintegrate them into the usual routine. This may entail laying out contents into various piles: travel documents to be secured, dirty clothes for laundry, toiletries here, souvenirs there — oh, don’t need that bus pass any longer, better toss it… Investing a little time now can save a lot of trouble later.

In the activist spaces where I first heard it, to “unpack” is to take apart a complicated thought, belief, or conversation in order to interpret its smaller, less apparent components. When participants in a facilitated discussion stumble onto something profound or dense, the facilitator (whose role includes encouraging useful tangents) might step in and suggest everyone slow down to “unpack what just happened;” the aim is greater understanding for all participants and/or progress toward the group’s shared goals. Reviewing such components can help contextualize the ideas or persons present, and often the unpacker(s) uncover biases, assumptions, or other problematic notions of which they were previously unaware. However carefully they prepare an agenda, facilitators often cite these shared detours as the most fruitful points in their discussions.

As activism evolves from just movement-building to comprehensive lifestyles (where personal growth is progress, i.e. “being the change you want to see in the world”), the term gains wider usage because many ideological concepts are simply too complex to stand on their own. And although one of activism’s great proverbs alludes to it — “the personal is political” — unpacking has never been reserved for activists; it is an invaluable tool for any person who wants to live out a consistent set of personal values.

Our ideas and beliefs — all of them — carry some layer of social “baggage” (hence the metaphor), cultural and/or personal cues we may not recognize as ours or as optional. Like unpacking a travel bag, unpacking an idea involves reorganizing its contents, distinguishing what is useful as-is from what needs modification, even discarding some components entirely. This decision process cannot be performed well unless the context for each component — its social baggage — is known and understood. Unpackers must confront those concepts that are problematic, counter-intuitive, or self-contradictory, or they may instead need to anticipate others’ discomfort with ideas that, however beneficial, are simply new and unusual.

For activists, unpacking is integral to effectiveness. Ideological success cannot be guaranteed without confronting the biases and assumptions of one’s community, beginning (and ever-continuing) with the confrontation of one’s own biases and assumptions. Unpacking helps activists build consciousness of individual impact, rooting out any embedded contradictions and sowing more consistent insight and behavior into their work. Understanding one’s own baggage also makes others’ baggage more relatable and will ideally facilitate others to reflect for themselves. While many experiences are not universal, the ability to sympathize and point to parallel experiences can help open conversations that would not otherwise seem possible. Even if the conversation does not lead to the same conclusions for all parties, it will humanize those parties to one another and add faces and important contexts to opponents who might otherwise be nameless and alien.

Unpacking Privilege

As important as unpacking is for any person motivated by ideology (in order to practice what we preach), it is particularly valuable for persons afforded a lot of social privilege. In this context, I want to be clear that “privilege” is not the willful assertion of power by a person based on outdated and unequal social norms (I call that “entitlement”); privilege is the social power a person receives from others, consciously or unconsciously, based on such norms. If ethnic, economic, and gender bias were wiped from all human minds tomorrow, they would be back within a week because our personalities are forged in context, that context is perpetuated in our personalities, therefor the waters of our perception would flow down the same paths even if we could somehow pause the water for a bit. The only meaningful way forward is not for folks with privilege to wipe the slate clean of all past wrongs, but to discuss those wrongs openly and unpack our continued misguided notions about them.

Societal baggage is weighed down significantly by assumption and unconscious prejudice, which means that privilege cannot be easily shirked. As a passive participant in zir own social role, a person of privilege may not recognize the extent of these advantages, nor the ways ze might accept, reinforce, and wield them.

For the record, I consider myself a person with above-average privilege: I am white, cismale, educated, young, attractive, and more hetero than not; I have been working most of my life to unpack my social privileges, but I continually make new discoveries and must uncover the ways my good nature and best intentions might lead me to subvert my own ideals. A white guy can grow long hair, get tattoos, wear radical clothing, and have no job yet still get better credit than a black man in a business suit; a tall man can be weak and non-violent and still feel safer walking down the street than a short woman; a heterosexual couple can consciously decide to never get married but later change their minds in ways that are not available to same-sex couples. I have learned to acknowledge and, where possible, to counter such injustices. Whenever unpacking leads me to a privilege I might overlook, I seek alternate ways to notice it and/or work around it; just as with driving, I must check my blindspots. Ultimate perfection will be unattainable, but improvement is not.

For a person raised in a conservative religious environment, all understanding of the world has been filtered through a specific dogma: every piece of knowledge before a certain age has been filtered to reinforce that worldview. If, at some point, that person rejects the faith/its leaders/its politics, the new worldview will still be founded by its relation to the foundational dogma. Unaddressed thought patterns will continue largely as they always have; like a riverbed carved into the countryside, ideas may flow in a different direction but they will still take the same path to get there. Rejecting a belief system that preaches women are inferior to men will not clear a person of residual sexist patterns. Even a person who consciously rebels again previous dogma will often seed that rebellion by merely choosing the opposite from the same options originally offered: what was “good” may become “evil”, and what was “evil” may become “good”, but positions outside that entrenched dichotomy will be no easier to fathom after defection then before (gender identities outside of male or female, for example).

The same self-analysis that leads someone to renounce a belief system must continue if the dregs of old patterns are to be voided. That person must learn to check blindspots, then to process information in new ways, and finally to adopt improved habits and reflexes — and there is no way to do any of it quickly. If the departure was mentally or emotionally taxing, the person may be resistant to dig any deeper, but otherwise it can be like removing a tick whose head remains in the skin, poisoning you for your health-minded efforts. Remnants of a former belief system can become liabilities to moving on, particularly when dealing with folks who were never part of that world.

(By sheer coincidence, my dear friend Heina is presenting on this topic vis á vis atheism this weekend; check out the event page or follower her on Twitter for info.)

Society itself is a belief system, a social construct with prescribed interactions, prescribed power dynamics, even prescribed rebellion; true change can only be possible when change-makers understand societal dynamics and learn to work around them. This can be particularly challenging, both personally and socially, when dominant advantages are in one’s own favor, therefor the single most pervasive blindspot afforded to persons of privilege is that unpacking is optional. When the mainstream society, politics, and morals around you all broadcast that you are a good person — that you deserve to be happy, healthy, and educated — you may not even realize that the same society is sending a different message to others. A white person who grows up in a white-dominated society and is not exposed to the experiences or challenges faced by contemporary people of color may believe that society offers the exact same opportunities in the exact same way to all its members; since society advertizes itself as “post-racial”/”colorblind”, a white person’s good will toward equality can even be subverted into reinforcing systemic and unconscious racism, to the point of resenting programs that undo centuries of discrimination and viewing THEM as unfair. Meanwhile, a person of color raised in a white-dominated society will become conscious of racial identity early in childhood and will never have the opportunity to stop thinking about it: the legacy of generations of poverty, the mixed messages in media and entertainment, the microaggressions of complete strangers, and, yes, the yet-unresolved prejudices.

(Since I keep using conservative examples, allow me to point yall to Ferret’s post about how liberals can also live in a bubble…)

Unpacking is a daily fact of life for persons who lack privilege, while those with social power may choose to ignore persistent inequalities without great effort. The disconnect of privilege is most troublesome when the privileged viewpoint leads a person to disregard the lived experiences of marginalized people because those lives contradict the safe and familiar world lain out for privileged hearts. Even folks with moderate privilege can recognize the ways awareness of other exclusions stays with them: the weight of having a high-school education when employers want a college degree, for example.

Chances are, there has been a time in your life when you felt compared by an unfair standard — an orange among apples — but how well do you notice when you’re the apple and someone else is the orange? And what do you do once you have noticed?

Owning Your Stuff Is 9/10s of the Law

Unpacking happens when you realize something about your own context and decide to examine it further; ideally, this process brings your beliefs and actions closer to alignment. That moment when you realize you’re an apple at least SOME of the time, that is the moment most potent for unpacking. It can also be the moment when you recognize just how complicated this society can be, how convoluted its biases, how self-perpetuating its machinations.

I cannot tell anyone how to unpack; like love or art or jazz you have to see it done a few ways then find your own. What could be more individualized? Unpacking involves untangling the layers of your very self, from personality quirks to early influences to adolescent rebellion. What practices are based in your experiences alone? Which beliefs were handed to you, prefab, through societal cues? Which came from your parents or guardians? Which are just habits you picked up and couldn’t defend if you wanted to? And the layers run in more directions than just origin: which of your behaviors have ongoing emotional ties? Which have healed you in times of pain? Which have been contradicted in the past, and have the contradictions turned you away from or toward the familiar? A synonym to unpacking is “deconstructing”, though this has a more formal connotation in literature (and isn’t always reassembled). Unpacking is the deconstruction of your own text.

Unpacking is not always pleasant, nor is it straightforward. Taking apart an idea may involve explaining a useful piece in more detail, or it can lead to dismantling a flawed concept and starting over entirely — and you won’t know which needs to happen until you’re already in the thick of self-discovery. You may need outside observers (who may or may not share a similar background) to point out your idiosyncrasies or explain correlations you never knew about, or you may simply need to listen and be willing to challenge yourself. At some point, if you want to examine your own assumptions, you’ll likely have to confront them with the benefit of several diverse perspectives, but only you can figure out when and which.

Self-examination is only the first part of unpacking, really. Once you’ve broken a behavior or belief down into components, you have to figure out what to keep and what to throw away; just as with literal baggage, you’ll need to plan for the next configuration, and to do that you will almost certainly have to relate it to other people. Got a racist uncle who says this same thing you say? Might be dubious. But what if he worked in a multi-ethnic neighborhood and married out of his race? Maybe he has a very different view and is more irreverent than oppressive. But then he calls his wife racial slurs and stereotypes her culture? Well, exoticism may not be the same kind of racism as a Klan rally, but it is still harmful and entitled… You have to follow these tangents — tangents from your own concepts, remember — and see where they lead you.

Some layers are obvious and easy to re-conceptualize, but most are subtle, nuanced, and well-entrenched, and the world isn’t going to stop turning just because your work-in-progress leads you someplace unpleasant. Better ideas will come in their own time if you let them, but it helps to maintain awareness of your own weaknesses while keeping an open mind; resist the urge to find quick fixes or diversions that will leave the problem in place, but also pace yourself and don’t expect an epiphany on command. Don’t be afraid to step away from a topic for a while or to ask for help.

Unpacking in a group can present its own challenges; while listening to others, you must not only note what you believe but also how you feel and respond; it benefits no one if your unresolved discomforts spill over into your group’s work. Remember what I said at the top about kneejerk defensiveness? Unchecked discomforts can overtake a share space and unintentionally reinforce social power dynamics by derailing the unresolved topic toward one participant’s personal process. A person of privilege can derail an otherwise productive group discussion by insisting that zir personal progress be validated, by asking for on-site education on topics that others know well or agree can be saved for later, by contradicting broad trends with rare incidents and anecdotes, or by generally projecting zir own discomfort as being more urgent than the issues at hand. A person without much privilege may have the same capabilities, but is less likely to be taken seriously or to unconsciously command full and immediate attention.

For individual reflections, I cannot recommend journaling enough — particularly if you are used to processing aloud or are not yet comfortable taking your challenge to someone else — for it is as much about listening (whether to yourself or to what others have said previously) as it is about speaking.

Usually, the challenge is just getting started: it’s easy to feel vulnerable or attacked (especially if one has been called out publicly) and give in to fight or flight mode, but unpacking benefits from a mental quiet and no small amount of personal security. It requires humility, patience, and often allies who can sympathize with your discoveries and your defeats. Most of all, it requires the willingness to be wrong once in a while. You will make mistakes; learn from them gracefully. Each of us already holds some incorrect or unhelpful assumptions from earlier points in our lives, but through unpacking we can identify and correct those assumptions more fully.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. And if you don’t know how anyone else can do it, remember that people who have less or different privileges than you have probably been wrestling with similar questions their entire lives; while this does not diminish the newness for you, it does prove that it can be done. (When all else fails, though, a search of the Internet or your local library can also be fruitful; again, your challenge is probably not completely original.)

If it sounds daunting, take heart in knowing that you have the rest of your life to learn and small steps can make a great difference. Eventually, you can learn to be generous to people with less opportunity than yourself (especially by listening) and to speak up more among people like yourself. Along the way, you get to be a better person, a stronger influence on others who have yet to recognize their own hangups, and help forge a society that is more aware and more respectful of its members’ most thoughtful values.

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