How to Decenter Yourself in Conversations With Members of Marginalized Communities
Every person has a unique lens through which they view the world. When seeking to understand issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is important to reflect on how an individual’s identity and lived experiences affect their understanding of these topics, says Kerri Fisher, LCSW, senior lecturer for Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work.
“I am a person who’s black and biracial, and I have mostly navigated in predominantly white spaces and institutions. So, some of my work to do when it comes to race and ethnicity is to avoid letting someone tell me … to center white experiences,” Fisher said.
However, Fisher noted there are parts of her identity where she does have historical privilege, such as being a Christian in the United States and having a higher socioeconomic status.
“In those places, if someone who is historically marginalized is trying to tell me what it’s like for them, then it is important for me to at least consider choosing to seek first to understand and then to be understood,” Fisher said.
People may find it challenging to decenter their experiences when talking about an issue that does not directly affect them, whether in the classroom, workplace, or another community space. However, decentering is an important skill for effective allyship. By seeking to understand others’ experiences, reflecting before contributing to a conversation, and using their own privilege to give marginalized groups a platform, aspiring allies can help create safer spaces for meaningful discourse.
What Does It Mean to Decenter Yourself in a Conversation?
Individuals tend to center themselves in conversations about events that happen around them, meaning they see issues solely through their own perspective. Decentering oneself instead helps individuals consider other worldviews and experiences.
When someone is not directly affected by an event or issue, decentering themselves in conversations with marginalized groups not only allows that person to understand additional perspectives, but also provides an opportunity for those who are affected to be seen and heard, Fisher said.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Glossary of Terms
- Counterintuitive solidarity – Choosing to listen to the individual and collective voices of marginalized people even when they articulate experiences that are different.
- Decentering – The act of listening to the perspectives of people experiencing oppression without centering the conversation on one’s personal views when they are in a place of privilege.
- Internalized superiority/inferiority – The ways in which people are socialized to feel that they do or do not deserve to take up space.
- Macro resistance – Methods that address an issue at the systemic level.
- Micro resistance – Methods that address an issue at the interpersonal level.
- Privilege – Having inherent advantages on a basis of belonging to a social group with historical power.
- Unconscious bias – Stereotypes regarding different groups of people that form outside of an individual’s conscious awareness.
- Virtue signaling – The act of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate allyship or moral correctness on an issue regarding marginalized groups.
According to Fisher, centering only one experience — typically that of a group which holds power and privilege — can be harmful in a number of ways. This can include the erasure of marginalized groups most affected by current events, such as potentially harmful legislation, as well as the ongoing trauma of marginalized groups.
“When we think of trauma, we think of a one-time horrible incident that changed our life forever,” Fisher said. “But there’s also the all-day, everyday weight of microaggressions and macroaggressions that make it such that someone can have physical and mental health traumas that shape the rest of their life.”
Decentering the experiences of groups that have historically been in power can lead to more nuanced approaches to challenges regarding racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of systemic oppression.
“Literature tells us that having people with different experiences makes problem-solving easier and quicker,” Fisher said. “When we center only one narrative … then we push others out and away who would give us a more well-rounded understanding and get jobs done more efficiently and more effectively.“
Why Do People Center Themselves?
There are multiple reasons why people who experience privilege may center their own experiences at times when they should decenter themselves in a conversation, including:
It is human nature to center oneself and one’s perspective, Fisher explained. When an outside source pushes back on our lived experiences, it may cause discomfort or defensiveness.
For example, when discussing racism, a white person may reactively feel the need to prove that they are a good ally, which centers their feelings, rather than the needs of black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC).
People belonging to certain identity groups are often socialized to feel a sense of either superiority or inferiority. This may inform whether, how, and when someone shares their opinion on important topics, Fisher said.
For example, when discussing how to best help unhoused individuals, a person may be more inclined to listen to someone with an academic background related to the topic due to their status, rather than listening to individuals who are currently experiencing homelessness.
“We are actually having a fight against our brains if we want to do the work of decentering … we have to give our brains and our bodies the permission to just be curious and even to be uncomfortable,” Fisher said.
How to Decenter Yourself
When engaging in important conversations with communities experiencing oppression, Fisher said it is important for allies to “listen with curiosity rather than with judgment.”
By giving space to people who belong to a marginalized group and focusing on reflection rather than reaction, individuals can decenter themselves and create a safer, more productive environment.
Strategies for Decentering Yourself in Conversations
- Reflect before you react. To combat the urge to center yourself, pause and reflect internally when listening to a larger conversation. Do you have a unique perspective to add? If not, it may be more productive to listen and process what is being said.
- Sit in discomfort. Learning about the experiences of people experiencing oppression may feel uncomfortable. When discomfort arises, allow yourself to experience it, and ask internally why you feel that way.
- Avoid tone policing. The way in which a person experiencing oppression shares their story may also cause discomfort if you are in a place of privilege. When someone shares their lived experience with you, give them the space to tell their story authentically and avoid centering your feelings.
- Explore diverse content. Be thoughtful about the articles, books, podcasts, and other stories you consume. This is a passive and non-exploitative way to hear a range of perspectives from people of different backgrounds (e.g., race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, religion, disability).
- Pass the microphone. When raising awareness, find ways to highlight individuals directly affected by the issue who are already speaking out. This can elevate their platform and spread awareness.
- Do not force it. People who are marginalized do not owe their time or labor. Take cues from people in your space on whether they would like to take action or need your support when an issue arises.
- Give yourself grace. Learning to decenter yourself is an ongoing process, and mistakes will be made. “What supremacist culture would have us do if we can’t perfectly decenter ourselves at all times [is] give up,” Fisher said. “What real change-makers are able to do is say, ‘Hey, I missed an opportunity. I really centered myself in that conversation.’”
Questions to Ask Before Joining a Conversation About Oppression
To practice effective allyship, being thoughtful when joining a conversation about a marginalized group is critical. Fisher recommended reflecting on the following queries before speaking out.
Does this issue directly affect me or my immediate family?
If you do not have a personal stake in an issue, it may not be best to center yourself in the discussion about it. Consider whether there are ways to elevate other people’s voices instead.
For whom am I speaking?
Reflect on why you want to make a post on social media or speak up in a face-to-face situation. Does it come from a place of discomfort around how you may be perceived? Focus on helping those experiencing oppression, rather than virtue signaling for yourself.
Who may be affected by my actions?
If you are in a place of privilege, it is likely that you will not face repercussions from people in higher positions of power, while marginalized people for whom you are speaking may be more likely to receive backlash. Consider whether your actions may cause additional harm.
What have the people who are affected by this issue asked for?
While it is important to leverage your privilege when possible, make sure your actions align with the interests of people who are directly affected. Ask what they need and how they would like to be helped.
Citation for this content: The MSW online program from the Baylor University Diana R. Garland School of Social Work