Confronting Injustices in Shared Spaces
Desk Lunch IRL was a live event that took place at Stink Studios in Brooklyn, NY on March 7th, 2019 in honor of International Women’s Day. For the next couple of weeks, in lieu of our typical essay format, we’ll be sharing videos and transcripts from this event. We hope to have another IRL event in the very near future, and will keep everyone posted on details! 
Video Transcript

Liz Wells 
All right. Our next speaker is Isabel. They are a gender fluid product designer and illustrator based in Brooklyn. They’re passionate about diversity and inclusivity initiatives in tech, cooking for others, and trying their best. Welcome Isabel!

Isabel Lee
Hey everybody. So my name is Isabel and I'm going to be talking about confronting injustices in shared spaces today.

So, as a gender fluid Korean American person who goes by they/them pronouns, I face a lot of barriers in my life. I've experienced wholesale rejection of my identity from others to teeny tiny micro aggressions just on a daily basis. But today I want to tell you a story about how I experienced a really uncomfortable power dynamic in an everyday shared space and I actually made a positive change out of it. 

So many moons ago, I was working with a co-worker who had just been hired and we were getting to know each other. And I very quickly realized that he really liked to use the word "bitch." And he wouldn’t direct it anyone, he wouldn’t call anyone a bitch, but he would use it to describe things that really annoyed him, like he would say "Man my commute was such a bitch today." And I felt really uncomfortable, I really hated hearing this you know a misogynistic slur everyday at my working place right. And so I felt really torn. I didn't know if I should angrily call him out in a meeting just to show everyone that that wasn't allowed, or if I should escalate it to HR, which can also be really awkward, right? Or even do nothing.

So what I ended up doing was that I pulled him aside. We had a private conversation and I just very gently told him how I was feeling and how his actions had impacted me and possibly others. And surprisingly it actually worked. He profusely apologized. And he told me that he didn't even realize how often he was using this word like, it just came out of his mouth. Right. And so I was really relieved and we're still friends to this day. And apparently that exchange had gone so well that the week after he came back to me and he said "Oh you know, I tried reading 'The Vagina Monologues' the other night." So progress is progress right. The whole point of that story is that disrupting power it's not always about fighting, it can be about having a conversation with another person. And I recognize that it's always easier to do nothing in these types of awkward situations because they can be really uncomfortable and sometimes they can even be jeopardized. But we have to fight our own apathy because we gain nothing from silence.

So now there are two main methods when it comes to addressing these types of situations. One is called "Calling Out" and the other one is called "Calling In." So now Calling Out, the purpose of Calling Out is to immediately stop someone from performing a harmful or problematic behavior, and in these instances usually it's very obvious that the person's intent is malicious or cruel. And you're giving them immediate public feedback or you're sharing a message with the whole space that this behavior won't be tolerated.  

So an example of this would be is if let's say I went out to lunch with all my co-workers, and he had said, "Oh you know wasn't Peggy being such a bitch the other day." And if I responded by saying, "Hey what the fuck man. You can't say that like we don't do that here." That would be an example of Calling Out because it's very immediate and very explicit. The problem with this though is if you're not sure of the person's intent you can really alienate the person and you might lose out on a chance to actually educate them and change their behavior.

So the second method is called Calling In and it's about private conflict resolution. So this is about having a private one-on-one conversation with someone when you're not really sure about their intent and it's really about focusing on education and support and giving the person a chance to assess their own behavior and assess whatever mistakes they might have made. So as it's as long as it's on a dangerous situation, we all have the power to set the standard for what is and isn't okay in our shared spaces and communities. So by calling out harmful behavior and also trying to educate those who might have knowledge gaps, we can be really strong.

So what's a shared space? It's just any space that you occupy with another person. This event right now, this is a shared space, right? It can be also your friends, your family, your co-workers. And also your roommates, classmates and even fellow commuters on a subway train. Now in our shared spaces we can fight injustice by standing up for each other. And the purpose of this is not to be a hero, it's not to be a performative white knight, you shouldn't be doing it just for your own guilt. The purpose is to listen to the person being harmed, asking what they need from you in that situation, and trying to reduce that harm.

So an example of this is, let's say if I was on the subway and I witnessed a woman being verbally harassed. If I went up to her and I said "Hey are you OK. Do you want me to step in and say something?" If she said "No, leave me alone," I have to respect that because that moment is not about me. It's about her. So in these instances it's actually even more important to stand up for other people when it doesn't directly affect you.

So last summer I was an ice cream store in Manhattan, and I noticed a really racist encounter unfolding in front of me. There was a customer in front of me — this really angry white guy — who was berating this all black staff. And the vibe of the store immediately changed. It was really tense. It was really silent. It was really awkward because no one knew what was going to happen from this argument. And so there were alarm bells going off in my head. I was like "Isabel, something really bad is happening. And you have to stop and you're the only one who can stop this." So I end up doing nothing because I was paralyzed by all that responsibility I suddenly gave it to myself. So what I actually did instead of fighting this guy and accidentally getting punched in the face or something, I actually waited until he left the store. And then I went up to the black employee who had mostly been berating for like ten minutes straight and I just said. "Hey, I'm really really sorry for what just happened to you. We all in the store saw what happened. We think that guy's a total asshole. Are you OK? What do you need from me right now?".

So I let him vent to me I just want him tell me how angry he was feeling, how frustrated he was feeling and I let him tell me all the feelings that he couldn't tell to his manager or his co-workers, or even to the other customers. And I just tried to support him in that way. And I also left a really big tip. But so what I'm trying to say here is there's a lot of variables that determine what you can or can't do in certain situations. There is a really fine line between feeling uncomfortable and being unsafe. Being embarrassed? That's uncomfortable. But if you're actually afraid of bodily harm or violence, that means you're in an unsafe and dangerous situation. And a really easy way to identify this is to ask yourself "Does someone have a weapon? Are they threatening someone or are they being violent?" That means that you've got to stay out of it. And so your emotional safety and health, they come first. You have to be kind to ourselves. And if you don't have the emotional energy to act in these situations, just save it for yourself because we can't help other people and we can't stand up for each other if we're not feeling strong ourselves. But if you do have the emotional energy, you want to do something, it can be a really radical to actually engage in your shared spaces and communities and to hold yourself and your communities to a higher standard.

So all-in-all, we can't end racism and sexism and oppression all by ourselves. But when we act in these situations and we do these small things we can actually create a ripple effect, when other people see that we're holding ourselves accountable and our friends and families accountable, it can motivate others because it shows what we can achieve.

Learning how to ask for help and leaning on other people is also a very important skill to have. And we can only fight injustice and oppression together because together we're all more powerful than just one shitty person and with all that you're never gonna find a perfect solution. There’s never going to be a perfect way to resolve a conflict, so it's okay to mess up and it's okay to make a fool of yourself sometimes. When I'm trying to decide what to do, I always say that I'd rather embarrass myself in public than go home and worry about what happened to someone who was in a harmful situation. And so that is how we fight injustice in our shared spaces together. Thank you! 
Isabel Lee is a genderfluid product designer and illustrator based in Brooklyn. They're passionate about diversity + inclusivity initiatives in tech, cooking for others, and trying their best.
Art used in this issue: “Before the Komödie on Ku’damm, Night” by Jeanne Mammen
Desk Lunch is a community for all creative people of marginalized genders.
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