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Take Note: Karen Armstrong on Misconceptions about Social Justice Movements

“But what about me?”—that’s common pushback around movements that focus on the rights of specific marginalized populations like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate. Karen Armstrong, director of Inclusion, Equity, and Diversity at Penn State Outreach and Online Education, talks with WPSU's Lindsey Whissel Fenton about why this type of activism elicits such strong reactions and the fallacy that supporting the rights of one group takes away from another. 

For Penn State diversity resources, click here

Here's that interview:

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Welcome to Take Note. For WPSU, from my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton. Karen Armstrong is the director of inclusion, equity and diversity at Penn State Outreach and Online education. Karen has extensive experience supporting minoritized and disenfranchised populations. She is a clinically trained multicultural LGBTQIA+ disability and special populations counselor and regularly provides professional development for higher education faculty, staff, and students. Karen, welcome to Take Note. 


Karen Armstrong: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here. 


Fenton: In full disclosure, you and I have worked together on a number of committees at the University on inclusion, equity, and diversity. And it was in one of those conversations that the idea for this interview came about. You shared with me that a frequent refrain you'd been hearing in response to some of the activism that focuses on specific populations, be it the black community, or Asian Americans or LGBTQ individuals to name a few, that you hear a lot of people who don't belong to those communities voicing some version of the same concern. And, that concern is essentially, “But what about me?” So just to start, can you just tell us a little bit more about some of these conversations you've been having? And this feedback you've been getting along those lines? 


Armstrong: Absolutely. So, very often, we'll look at ways to support various groups that may be marginalized, right? And, so that there are individuals that don't fall into any form of majority, and sometimes need their voices amplified. For example, people with disabilities, especially if they are in a setting where the majority of people do not have disabilities, whether visible or invisible. Same thing with  people of color, black and brown people, people in the LGBT community. S,o when we show solidarity and support very often, shortly after, people will say to me, “Well, what about me?” And, “I'm excluded?” And, “Why do I have to be excluded from this?” Or, “Why does my population need to be excluded?” And, “Why aren't you amplifying my voice?” Like, “Why aren't you giving more space to the population?” I mean, that is something I hear all the time, like, on a daily basis, all the time, that people feel like if you amplify one, their voice needs to be amplified as well within that moment, so not even like later. But in this moment, if you're amplifying one voice, you need to amplify mine as well in this moment. 


Fenton: So, let's unpack that a little. As a clinically trained counselor, when you hear someone voicing that concern, like what is that telling you about how they're feeling or why they're voicing it? 


Armstrong: So, from a clinical perspective, and again, this is a collective community, so not one individual. So, please know that does this may not applies to you, right? And, that's okay. That's the point that it doesn't apply to you. Very often people are very me-centered, right? And so, if the conversation isn't about them, and their individual needs, they may not see value in hearing from learning and exploring the exploration of others. And that is always what I think about... I sometimes wonder, how does this manifest in other areas of your life, right? So, you're saying this to me, as we talk about Black Lives Matter, or as we show support for the Asian community during times of violence, where support is absolutely needed? And, you're wondering, “What about me?” when you're not experiencing violence as a people, right? So, it doesn't mean individuals don't experience violence, it's horrible for any and everybody at all times. But collectively, we see times where there is violence and for some individuals to then kind of usurp that space and want to change it really is reflective of one's ability to show compassion, right? And that, as friends as those in relationships, as, you know, parents, grandparents, community members, there are times in people's lives where we are not the center, right? Where, where our individual needs may not be the center of what's focused and for some people, that's a lot and for some people, they feel like why are you supporting that group and not me, you... even if your group as a collective is not being harmed. I think the other part of that is understanding what we mean by harm, right? So, this doesn't mean that your group isn't suffering, your group isn't challenged. I'm talking about often when, when showing solidarity, there is physical harm. So again, using the recent violence against the Asian community, there are videos again and again, of people just walking down the street, right? Like you're just going for a walk, something that I do every day eight, something that you may do every day and people assaulting them. That's not acceptable, right? And seeing it as a collective as a group over and over and over again, we have a level of responsibility from one human to another to say, “That's not acceptable. Don't do that. There's absolutely no reason there's no justification, you cannot convince me that that's okay.” Right? You can't convince me that that's okay. And I am often concerned with the individual who doesn't see the value in saying, “Don't hurt my neighbor. Don't hurt my friend don't hurt a stranger.” Right? I often concerned when people don't see the value in saying, “Don't hurt that stranger.” Like, I don't need to know you to not what you've heard. And that concerns me. I often wonder about that compassion for people like, where is it? Where's your compassion? Because that other group needs it in this moment. 


Fenton: That almost seems like this idea of compassion or support being this this binary thing that if we give it to one population, that we're somehow taking it from another/ 


Armstrong: Yeah, absolutely. So within the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion circle, they're often talking about like DEI is not a pie. It's not like, :Hey, everybody, let's sit down for dessert, and everybody gets a piece,” right? And once that pie is gone, you can't eat anymore, right? That's not what compassion is, it should be an endless well, like it shouldn't run out. There is more than enough room to show kindness and compassion and caring concern. It is not this entity that goes away, or at least it shouldn't be that, you know, Lindsey, I've shown you compassion. And so, you know, I cannot show my colleague Cheraine compassion, because I've already shown compassion today. So that's it. Right? Like, that is not what this is. And that's also true for equity, that people think the same thing about equity, right? So, if we're doing work around pay equity and what that means for women, it doesn't mean that we are advocating that men suddenly don't get paid anymore. Right? Like, absolutely not. What we're saying is we want there to be opportunity for growth for everyone. We're not saying and now you won't have growth. And I think that's the confusion, that whole pie thought is not true for compassion, or equity or inclusion. It's just it's a common way of thinking that I, I believe we really have to counter we have to deliberately counter it, because that's not true. That's not what this is. 


Fenton: And just to tease this out a little further, you'd said before about populations that are facing physical harm. What's the response to this, let's say so, I am a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied woman, and I could say, “Hey, I go out on the street and I feel threatened sometimes, because I'm worried about being assaulted just as a woman in this world,” like, why isn't that valid? Or, why isn't that being taken as seriously as these other individuals that are facing harm? 


Armstrong: So, I am an African American woman. And people will often say to me the work that you're doing, does it harm women? And I'm always like, so like, I thought I was still a woman. That was my understanding of myself. And so, I'm not sure why you would think I would harm myself. And so, I'm not sure when the conversation became safety, for one means violence for another, and why people assume if I say Black Lives Matter, that means that women don't matter, and that there isn't advocacy there. There actually, is great advocacy around the safety for women like using that example, all throughout the country, right? There's great advocacy in this space. does there need to be more? Absolutely. And I will be the first in line to say, yes, this is vital. Let's do that. And so much so that as a career, this is part of what I've done, right? So not just like, I I believe in it, but like embedded in my values, but it doesn't mean that if I say black lives matter that suddenly women are unsafe or something that I've heard before, right, like the notion that if we say Black Lives Matter, and I express my fear and concern, having been stopped by police for reasons I don't understand that can't be justified or the same for my son, that I'm automatically saying police need to be unsafe. I don't recall, at least for myself and those who I'm around, I don't recall a conversation about wanting police to be unsafe, right. But there's this notion, if I express my fear and concern about having been stopped by police, and not being given a justifiable reason that I automatically want police to be unsafe. When was that said, and yet there's this thought, right? That us and them so if you want safety, you want them unsafe? That's not been said, I don't want them unsafe. I'm saying I want to be safe to Black Lives Matter. That means my life matters to also not instead of I haven't seen, and again, this is my personal experience. But I've not ever seen a sign that says, you know, Black Lives Matter instead of police lives, right? Does that mean that there are people who really have this feeling of like violence against everyone? Of course, there are right, but I don't agree with that. Right, that makes for a really violent world. And I think if we all come together to counter violence, period, we'd all be safer. And the majority of protesters which were peaceful, saying, My life matters to shouldn't be countered with, but we need the police safe to write because there's an unsaid bias there that you're assuming if I want to be safe, that somehow police are unsafe, when I've never committed a crime. I've never assaulted anyone, I haven't done anything harmful. And yet, for some to be okay, with my being afraid to live in a community where police keep stopping me that that's wrong on my part, because clearly, they need to stop me in order to be safer. Right? There's some underlying, and to put it kindly, there's underlying bias, right? Some would say that's just flat out racist. And I understand that feeling. I understand that sentiment, because if you think that my safety makes police unsafe, you're saying there's something about my identities, not my actions, because I've never been violent. So, something about my identities, that makes police unsafe, and most people do not believe that women, as a collective make police unsafe. And so that is the part that I think for me, is the hardest to get past because the same people who say that also tend to forget, I'm a woman. 


Fenton: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton and our guest is Karen Armstrong, the director of inclusion, equity and diversity at Penn State outreach, and online education. So, we're talking about your identity as a woman as a black woman. And one of the things I've seen you get at in trainings that you've done is that idea of we're not just one identity. And this can really be a great way to open up conversations around issues like social justice by exploring these multiple identities in a way that helps not put people immediately on the defensive. 


Armstrong: Yeah, I so I love intersectionality I love people, right? So as a product of that I love intersectionality I love the fact that every single one of us have multiple facets of our roles and who we are, and the identities that matter to us. And I also love that it is up to the individual to choose what identities matter to them. Right. So, so when you gave a brief introduction before you share that you were cisgender that you were a woman, and you've also shared just in your role, that you're also a professional, right, like those are things that you've disclosed that matter to your identities, right that make Lindsay part of who she is, I'm sure there are million other roles that and identities that you have that can be shared. Those are areas of joy, right, like you smiled when you mentioned that, and people should feel like I've got lots of fat and ways of being. And I want to share my identities. And those are great things. And every single human being on the entire planet, there is no exception. Everybody has multiple identities. Even the little baby, who was just born, has multiple identities, right? Because that baby is born. In most cases, even if it if there are some ambiguity to it, the baby is born with a race, the baby is born with an ethnicity, the baby is born with the sex, right? And that's just at birth. Right? That's not even letting that personality form. And the baby may also be born with some disabilities, right? That may be known now, or maybe learned later. And I think if we reframe how we look at ourselves, it becomes less threatening, right? So I've had the absolute honor and pleasure of getting to know National Disability Advocates and Disability Pride. And my growing up, I heard disability shame, right, oh, they have a disability, that's really, that's too bad. You know, like, and, and, you know, be kinder, they have a disability, those are the things said to me growing up, you know, 25-30 years ago plus, 35 years ago, right? Now, I am seeing this beautiful movement of disability pride, that, yes, I have a disability, it is part of my identity. I advocate in this space; I advocate as a person who also has privilege. And I advocate, as a person who also does not have privilege, asking others to advocate for me, but I am not ashamed of who I am. And I, I so value that lesson, right? Because if we could all share that and not be ashamed of who we are, we also might not be threatened by differences, or if somebody else wants to celebrate who they are, right? Because now suddenly, you're joining in a celebration of who you are, and, and so you're not feeling excluded. And so, I think, if you don't know, or you aren't aware, I would totally encourage people to just start researching and look up information about the disability rights movement and learn about that disability pride, right, because I think there's such great lessons that all of us could learn about our multiple identities and respecting them and celebrating them, rather than feeling like we all must be the same. 


Fenton: Well, and one thing I've heard you do in trainings that I love, too, is I mean, we're talking about very fixed or physical identities, but you know, people can start teasing out some of their other identities like hi, dog-mom, or Penn Stater, or you know, that those are great opportunities to start building some connections. 


Armstrong: One hundred percent believe what matters to you should be highlighted, right, that, that it's great to, you know, if you're a dog, mom, and that matters to you, to your core, share it with people, right? And I do encourage people to really explore that, I think often, especially in rural communities in Pennsylvania, and the experience that I've seen, that discussion about identities doesn't happen enough, right? That there's such pride there that should be owned and accepted and embraced. And in turn, feeling like, “Wow, I've got this pride and I so I can understand yours,” right? And I can teach you something about me, and you can teach me something about you that those are such great positive things. And if anything, I just hope people begin embracing that more. Right? Not. We do have similarities, and there is sameness, but I believe in celebrating differences as well. I really, really do. Because I like learning new things about people to like, it's just fun. So, an example for me: I am a daughter, and I am a sister, and I am a friend. Those are identities that matter to me so deeply. I am a mom, those of you who know me are like, yes, we know you're a mom. Yes, I am. I am I am a proud mother of a person with a disability and absolutely love him. And, and I want to hear what you love who you love what excites you? And I think that's the part that sometimes gets lost. And that's also the danger of the pie. Right? So, we can only have but so many identities. That's not true. There's, there's so many it's not gonna run out. There's more to be embraced, not less. 


Fenton: But even though we there are so many identities. There's a lot of data about how self-segregating adults tend to be in their relationships, particularly white adults, so why is that problematic if we only interact regularly or deeply with people who share a lot of our same identities? 


Armstrong: Right. It's problematic, I would say, for everyone, right? to not get to know others. And there's also this othering. That happens when you only spend time with people who are like you, invariably, you start to other if you will, people who aren't like you. So that's them over there. That's what they do. And really, it's because you don't understand them. Because your circles so small, that you don't gain a different perspective, a different insight, a different level of understanding, I keep thinking, if I were to only watch one news station and read one newspaper, and never gain insight, in any other way, I would think in a really, really restricted manner, and would lose out, and my friend base would change. And it is important to broaden that it's how we gain understanding of one another, there are real deficits to having only white friends, there's deficits to having only black friends, or having only name it, right. Just name it, there are some deficits that you're going to experience. Because you're not broadening yourself. And it's gonna lead to stereotypes, right? Because the scope is so small that you don't really know about other groups. And so, you're going to make guesses. And you're going to build this story in your mind about, hey, I've only got black friends, because I'm black. So, I bet you Lindsey thinks like this. And I know she doesn't think like me, and I know she doesn't share my interest. And I bet she really doesn't like me, right? And all of these things, because I don't know her, rather than “Hmm, I should get to know Lindsey” or I should at the very least broaden my friend base so that they're not only black women, so that I'm not guessing and putting these things in my head. But I'm getting to know individuals, and I'm getting [inaudible] communities, and I'm seeing how we're like and how we're different. And recognizing that is a beautiful thing, rather than “Oh, great, we're different. So now you need to be like me,” that's, that doesn't work. Either. There's joy in widening your friend base. And if you find that you naturally jump to assumptions about a group, I would say, make a friend with a member of that group. And it doesn't have to be race or ethnicity or ability or anything like, like, if you find that you do that with any group, you should probably get to know that group a little more, so that you can know who they really are and what they really value, rather than making assumptions that may be absolutely false. 


Fenton: So, in trying to make some of those friendships or relationships, like if you're someone who has maybe throughout your life only had friendships with similar identity people to you, or I can hear people saying like we live in Central Pennsylvania, it's not the most diverse area, like how can we go about building meaningful relationships with people who are different from us? 


Armstrong: Lots of different ways. There's so many virtual opportunities. Now, nationwide, a great thing is join a virtual book club, right? In a totally different part of the country that is focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion, for example, broaden the perspective, join, join something, whether it's virtual, or if it's safe for you in person that allows you to get to know others outside of the little group that you already have. Right? I love the fact that things are at least broader now from the virtual perspective, right, that you can join groups in a different part of the country, that will give you a different understanding, at least that's how I look at it, right? Like, I think it's fun joining a book club that's in South Dakota, because I've never lived there. So, I don't belong in the community at all. And so, I have so much to learn from the people who are there. And so I would say just find a simple way to get involved. And don't be afraid to utilize these virtual opportunities, right. And if you try one thing, and you hate it, try something else. One experience where you're like, this book was boring, or there was somebody in the group that I didn't like, doesn't mean everybody in that group is the same. And it doesn't mean just because you try this, that you will like every member of any given population, I would guess, Lindsay as a white woman, and I can say as a black woman, I do not like every single black person I've ever met. That would be amazing, but also not true. But sometimes we think I met somebody who's different from me, and so I don't like that group. We don't Do that with our own groups, right. And so, giving some room for flexibility that you do in other areas of your life is something that I would say do as well. And you probably already do it, it's just broadening that perspective to groups you don't belong to. 


Fenton: There's a thing that tends to happen when people start to take notice of injustice, maybe that they've previously been unaware of, for whatever reason. That is, they might start asking people from some of those populations to share their experiences. On the one hand, you have someone who might be coming from a genuine, well-intentioned place of wanting to understand something outside of their own experiences. But then you have this other person being asked to take on that emotional labor of recounting elements of their life that might be very triggering and difficult to relive, and to take a lot of energy. So, what's the way through that situation? 


Armstrong: So, there are a few different options and things that people can do. Number one, so I'm just going to use like, let's say you're white, and you want to know more about the black community and how you can provide support. So, the African American Museum, the Smithsonian has lots of discussions so that people in a safe way can go and ask those questions, right? I would, I would look at those opportunities from a national perspective where you've got people who are there just to answer those questions. When it comes on an individual relationship basis. It depends on how close you are with an individual, right? So, if you're friends with someone, there may be lots of questions, you ask them that are personal, that you wouldn't ask somebody that you don't know, if you don't know that person? Well, it's a great opportunity to do some research, and to dive into what other learning opportunities are there, again, on a national level that I can dive into, because that's the discussion that they're having right now. And so, it is safe and healthy for me to have that conversation. But if you're not friends with someone, and you don't have that relationship with them, I would not ask them personal questions. It can be harmful, it can be hurtful, and they're going to not in every case, but they may very well see you as insensitive, right, and understanding that you're just trying to learn. But it can be really challenging when you're asking somebody personal questions, and you don't know them. Well. And I wouldn't just say that about race. I would say that about a ton of different things. That person who walks up to someone and said, “Oh, my gosh, didn't you just get divorced? How are you? That's horrible,” right? Like, if this was somebody I don't know. Well, it's probably a question I shouldn't be asking them. And I need to explore some other ways that I can safely ask these questions. 


Fenton: Karen Armstrong, thank you so much for talking with us.  


Armstrong: Thank you for having me.  


Fenton: Karen Armstrong is the director of inclusion, equity and diversity at Penn State Outreach and Online Education. A clinically trained counselor, Karen has extensive experience supporting minoritized and disenfranchised populations and regularly provides professional development for higher education faculty, staff and students. For a list of diversity resources available through Penn State Outreach and Online Education visit WPSU dot org slash Take Note. From my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton, WPSU.  



Lindsey Whissel Fenton is a senior producer/director at WPSU. An award-winning storyteller, she has explored a wide range of issues through her work in public media. Most recently, she produced and directed Speaking Grief, a multi-platform public media initiative that works to create a more grief-aware society; she continues to produce content for the project's social media presence.