Whether you’re from a marginalized group or not, it is important to have enough cultural humility to recognize your privileges and how you are responsible for excluding other people. It can be a hard conversation, but it is nevertheless something that we have to talk about in a time when diversity issues are once again coming to the fore. Joining Elizabeth Bachman to talk about this is Jessica Pettitt, a stand-up comedian, diversity trainer, and author of Good Enough Now. As someone who identifies as LGBT, Jessica is a victim of exclusion in one sense, but as a white person, she is also aware of the privileges that she enjoys by virtue of her whiteness. Her years in diversity work manifest in how clearly she elucidates the nuances of exclusion, privilege, and the need for inclusivity.
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Cultural Humility And The Struggle For Inclusivity With Jessica Pettitt
Welcome to the weekly strategic speaking for results interview. It is Pride Month. That’s gay pride, LGBTQIA, and all the other prides. I am excited to be able to say that I am with Jessica Pettitt. I was looking for somebody cool and interesting to interview where normally we would be getting our rainbow gear out, ready to march in parades in San Francisco, but I’m not in San Francisco and there’s no parade. It’s very sad. Jessica, where are you from?
I live in Eureka, California. It’s six hours north of San Francisco and about seven hours from Portland.
A little bit about Jessica, she has a Master’s of Education and a certified professional speaker, M.Ed CSP. She pulls together her stand-up comedy years with over fifteen years of diversity training in a wide range of organizations to serve groups to move from abstract fears to actionable habits that lead teams to want to work together. With a sense of belonging and understanding, colleagues take more risks with their ideation, conserve precious resources through collaboration, and maintain real connections with clients over time. Jessica Pettitt, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
I’d like to start with the question I ask everybody. If you were to have a dream interview and you were to be interviewing somebody who is not with us anymore, who would it be? What would you ask them and who ought to be in the audience?
The very first person that I thought of was WEB Du Bois. When I was in middle school, I stumbled across a book, and full disclosure, it’s the only book I have ever stolen from a library. I did eventually buy that library another copy of the book, but I stole it and I still have it. I stumbled into WEB Du Bois’s book called The Souls of Black Folk.
For our international audience, can you explain who he was?
WEB Du Bois was an internationally well-known activist, politician, and academic coming primarily out of the United States. His most popular book is The Souls of Black Folk. His lifespan is probably the late 1800s to early 1900s. The pieces that were important was in 1852, Frederick Douglass is questioning July 4th as the United States Independence Day, which is questionable considering all women, regardless of race, and all people who don’t identify as white were not considered equal. What exactly are freedom and independence about? A lot of times we put pressure on the Civil War as when this was determined. The reality is specifically African-American or black scholars were pushing back on the systems of white supremacy long before the Civil War even started.Being privileged means you have to be in very strange circumstances to experience brutality or violence. Click To Tweet
WEB Du Bois was one of the first PhDs who came out of Harvard and was able to blend law, philosophy, and politics together to challenge the fundamentals of the United States as a country, as to how it was going to take responsibility for proclaiming freedom and independence without leading to freedom and independence, but also laying the groundwork in conjunction with Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey, the rise of a sense of pride and nationalism. In light of our Pride Month, and I say ours as LGBTQ members, we’re not the first subordinated or marginalized identity on the planet to experience pride or the need to proclaim a sense of pride against being subordinated or marginalized.
If I got to interview or engage in a conversation, to be able to have a conversation with someone who has been doing that for decades prior to what now we look back on as the beginning of the conversation to have the conversation hundreds of years later about where we are. What do we stand for? What is pride? What is freedom? What is independence and what work do we still need to be doing? Also, what is the fundamental BS that keeps those structures of oppression in place so that you get your month to be prideful?
This is an interview so dream interview sounded like a good thing to say, but it could be who would you like to talk to. I’ve always been curious because it gives one an insight into people. It’s not a question that most people have answered over and over again. That’s why I like to get it because people always say, “Interesting question,” then you learn something about who they are that’s not in their résumé.
I googled it, 1868 to 1963 was his lifespan.
He was born in the aftermath of the Civil War. He was very much a force in my parents’ lives. They’ve read his things when he was still alive. We learned about him in high school too. You are a diversity trainer. You started as a comedian and you talk about serious topics. How do you meld the biggest stand-up comedian and talking about serious things?
I would flip it. I started talking about serious things and then eventually found stand-up comedy as an outlet for the irony and humor that comes from talking about difficult things. People often are like, “How do you put those two together?” It’s harder for me to fuse my seriousness into humor than it is for my humor to then be fused into seriousness. I luckily come from a long line of storytelling family members. We’re all Texans and humor, music, and things like this were very important to the storytelling and lots of folklore. That’s an important tool that I’ve always had, but recognizing disparity, the terminology of fighting for the underdog while also taking responsibility for rarely being considered the underdog in a certain scenario was important to me.
Rarely being an underdog because?
I’m a US citizen. I was raised by people with lots of education. I’ve never had any economic insecurity maybe until COVID. The number of privileges that I have experienced in my life rarely get me into a setting where I feel like I’m the underdog, subordinated, or marginalized largely and interestingly until I came out. When I came out, all of a sudden I had a subordinated and marginalized identity. I’m fortunate that of the family members that were left by the time I came out late, I was 27, I didn’t experience rejection from my family or anything like that. It wasn’t until I was rejected from the lesbian community because I married a trans man, and then my brother and his extended in-laws were the first time that I experienced any sense of rejection. I was well into my 30s by then. I rarely have been considered an underdog. From that place, you can make jokes.
You and I are both white, which means that we can walk down the street without fear of being oppressed for the color of our skin.
Sometimes white people will say, “I’ve done international travel, so I know what it feels like.” The reality is even as a white person in a place where the majority of people who do not look white, I still feel entitled to be safe and secure. That’s true.
There are plenty of things that we learn as women to protect ourselves but it’s not the same. The dangers are different. The dangers are usually not guns. That’s the thing, which leads me to my next question. As a diversity trainer, they’re going to reach out and they’re going to hire a lesbian. Do people expect you to talk about lesbian-gay issues or do you talk about all sorts of diversity?
Both is the short answer. Because I identify as an LGBT person, people generally assume that’s all I talk about. The work that I do is largely about doing work from your dominant places or my privileged identities. I would rather talk about whiteness. I’d rather talk about upper-classness or what it means to be a US citizen and doing work around race, sexism, ageism, ableism, xenophobia. Because doing the work from your dominant places is something I want to role model for other people because it costs less. Even if we use the metaphor that you were using about police brutality, when you have a privileged identity to use the metaphorical dark alley means that you have to be in this very strange circumstance to possibly also experience brutality or violence versus sleeping in your own bed, showing up at work, something that we might consider mundane is much more likely to not include any brutality or violence because that’s part of being privileged.
To use your example related to skin color, I should be able to do any number of things, including illegal activities, where I am not going to be expected to be killed. People expect me to only train from subordinated and marginalized places. Similarly, for black speakers, they are often assumed to only speak about diversity and inclusion because they are black when in reality they can speak about leadership, time management, and all kinds of different things. That’s typically how we burden people with subordinated and marginalized identities and make them do the education so I’m trying to do the inverse. To your question directly, I have people who look at my website and they’re like, “That’s very gay.” No, I just have short hair. There’s nothing on it like rainbow colors or not. There are other times where people will be like, “You can also speak on gay things? That’s amazing,” but it’s the same website. It depends on their perception.We are capable of doing new things. It's just a matter of whether or not we want to. Click To Tweet
A big theme in these Facebook Lives and this show is being aware of how people perceive you. What do you do about it? How do you take that into account when you’re trying to get through to them? As a presentation skills trainer, a whole lot of what I do is talk about who you’re trying to reach and where are they coming from metaphorically? Whether you are female or a person of color or whatever, what assumptions are they going to make about you? How do you then either work with that or get past that so that they can hear what you have to say?
It’s largely out of your control to be successful there, but being thoughtful about it is very important.
That’s a big part. What do you tell people when they say, “Where could we start if we’re trying to be more open and more aware of what we’re perceiving about others and how that’s influencing our thinking?”
I would use the example you used as a metaphor. The first step is, how are you excluding people? That’s the first step to figuring out who to include or how to be more inclusive like there’s a spectrum. Most people are like, “We don’t exclude anyone. Everyone is welcome.” That’s not true. There are not enough chairs for everyone to move. The room is not big enough assuming we could convene. The meeting or the podcast is only for subscribers or people who are using Facebook. The only people who can watch this Facebook Live is if they have Facebook accounts, have the internet, and happen to be looking at it right now or they can watch the recording later.
Who you’re intentionally excluding helps you narrow down who you’re intentionally including. We tend to go to, “Let’s be more inclusive.” I work with organizations all the time where their strategic plans are to increase diversity by 10%. That’s great. What is diversity now? We have no idea. How are you defining diversity now? We don’t know. You increase it by 10% when? We don’t know. How are you going to do that? We don’t know. You type the sentence. The most important thing, whether it’s Pride Month or not, is when you’re learning about something, people are getting hurt, killed, and suffer during your learning curve. Where you have the luxury and convenience of learning this new bubble that you’re interested in, even if you’re deeply passionate about the new bubble that you’re interested in, while you are learning about it, someone else is dying.
When you say increased diversity by 10%, that sounds great. Meanwhile, people feel excluded. You’re not doing it. You’re not taking it seriously. You’re not making good definitions. COVID is an excellent example of this. What I mean by this and I’ve been told all my clients this. They’re like, “We’re not prepared for this conversation.” That’s good, now we can do real work. When things go to committee to die, it’s because you are not anticipating an actual action or change coming out of that committee. When we all had to quickly pivot because of shelter in place, social distancing and COVID-19, that went to a committee. It came out with results quickly based on the information that was provided right then.
We didn’t say, “Do you know what we should do? We should survey a historical review of global pandemics. We should do a report. Maybe we should watch a documentary. Maybe we should do focus groups.” We didn’t have time. What we did is like, “That didn’t work. Let’s try this.” That’s what I mean by moving from fears to actionable ideation. We’re capable of rewarding failure because we’re trying out new things, specifically around diversity. We live in this culture where there’s nicely developed Palme from report is going to be delivered seven years after one incident that doesn’t take anything into consideration what’s happened over the last seven years and we call it done. That’s not actual change. That’s not growth. When we have a global pandemic coming and you’re going to have to figure out how to work and get things done without any of the things that you are normally used to, all of us were able to quickly try to do something and see if it works. That happened almost overnight. We are capable of trying to do new things. It’s whether or not we want to.
How could we take steps to be more open? You talk about cultural humility. Define that for us.
Steps to being open are to recognize you’re not. To recognize you’re not, what usually happens is we get defensive. We start rattling off our cultural competencies, our résumés, and our historical activism. I can be a good person because. Cultural competency is super important. It makes you feel safe and prepared. In order for cultural humility to show up, you have to acknowledge the cultural competency and the security you feel because of your résumé. Set it to the side and engage in an actual conversation with what is happening with the actual person who is directly in front of you. It takes a lot of courage and bravery to call someone out, call someone in, and explain something that has happened and the impact on them.
It takes no courage and no bravery to say, “I have not experienced that problem. You are wrong.” It takes a lot of bravery and courage or cultural humility to say, “I don’t know this. I need to do my own homework. Can you tell me more?” and to not get defensive. A lot of times when people are like, “How do I be more open? I don’t want to offend anyone,” the first step is to recognize you’re offending a lot of people and you don’t know about it. You’re responsible for it, even though you don’t know about it. Occasionally, you’re gifted with the opportunity to know about it. When that happens, your job is to learn from it, not to get defensive. You can’t get defensive if you enter an interaction of like, “This could go very wrong.” If it’s an interview and you ask questions you don’t know the answers to, then it becomes a lot more interesting. We don’t engage with many people in a way that we don’t already know the answers to because we need to feel safe and prepared.
Talking about serious things, this is a show about presentation skills. This is strategic speaking for results. Where, why, and how intentionally do you use humor when you’re talking about this? Is it automatic by now or is it something that you plan?
Humor is way more planful than people give it credit for. I don’t think there is a topic where humor is not appropriate. For the record, I may not be the container that can use that humor but somebody can. What I have to practice or plan for is, can I point out the sense of humor out of this container? It goes back to your presentation skills, what people are expecting from me. The tension between acknowledging that and not acknowledging that is stand-up. That’s what humor is. Is it appropriate or is it a risk that needs to be taken? Do I feel safe and prepared for it? Can my audience feel safe and prepared if I were to use humor at this moment? That’s the part that has to be planned for.Being open is not a learned skill. It’s unlearning being closed. Click To Tweet
I certainly know that for my 30-plus years in professional theater, not to mention all that the years I did it as an amateur, humor or learning how to be funny and practicing making people laugh takes way more rehearsal than most people think. I have speakers who come to me and say, “There’s Jessica Pettitt, she’s automatically funny. She must have been born that way. How could I ever learn that? My feeling is it is a learnable skill. Some people learn it early. Some people learn it as kids. Some people learn it later, but adding humor makes people remember what you’re trying to say more. Is it okay to joke about something serious? That’s what I asked you about. You make a point of you’re known for making jokes about serious subjects. How do you fit that in? How do you plan it? This is one speaker asking another.
There are two answers. I don’t know which one do you want to look for so I’m going to try and smoosh them together. First off, being more open is not a learned skill. It’s unlearning being closed. It’s the learning of how to be open. The same thing, it parallels with humor. We have to unlearn that we are not funny. You pick up on irony and moments. We’re much more likely to instantly invalidate them as something that has any worth, power, or meaning to anybody else. That’s what you have to unlearn. Crafting a sentence or something or to help to learn, whether we’re talking about a short talk, a sentence or a marketing advertising tagline, there’s a science to it.
I have a rubric that I merged from working with George Carlin and having a Master’s degree in Education. The premise being for education you have to make a point. You have to have them practice that point. Usually, as speakers, that practice is, “How big of a time do I have? I’ll just tell a bunch of stories that are practicing the point.” Sometimes we’re not even clear about articulating the point. We just fill up the time with a bunch of practice. The application is not necessarily at the end of the call to action, but for each point, what does this mean for someone else? How are they applying it to their life? My weird story, how does it apply to them? When you get audience feedback, that’s like, “What was your point? I had a great time, but what was the point? You had too much practice, not enough point.”
When you get someone who’s like, “That’s just weird stuff that happened to you,” then you’re not doing enough application. I can do a TED Talk in under a minute. Anybody who’s doing a keynote, it’s your responsibility to have a supersize, regular size, and a kid’s meal version of that story because the planner at some point in time is going to ask you to stretch or when you do stand-up, I used to emcee a show every week in New York. There was a green light to go, red light is you have a minute left, and there was purple light. The place I was doing the stand-up shows was around the corner from The David Letterman Show. When that purple light went on, that meant someone famous had shown up. It means they don’t care what you’re saying, shut up and get off the stage. Purple meant off.
When that happens, if you’re like, “I need to complete my whole story,” you’re cutting into like getting to see Chris Rock riff something for the first time, “Shut up and get off the stage,” then what an honor it is to follow Chris Rock as an emcee. That’s cultural humility. “No, I’m in the middle of a story.” “Hold on, Robin. We all get to be up here in a second. Nobody wants to hear from you now.” Being able to flex small, medium, and large means that you understand what your point of practice in the application is. When we start talking about details, big concepts and ideas, or lots of verbs and actions like the basic joke premise of three unrelated things walk into a very specific bar. That is not how you tell the joke, but that is the fundamental platform for the joke. Three unrelated things. What are they doing together? Those are specific and they’re walking into the bar or whatever, drove a cab into a bar. The very specific things and the bar aren’t congruent, which connects to the idea of, what is going on here? That premise allows, no matter what you say, it’s going to be funny. You hit all of them and you’re moving across what the point is.
One of my favorite jokes about things that you’re not supposed to joke about is, what is the biggest lesson from 9/11? You said you would never forget. The reason why that’s funny is the theme after 9/11 was never forget and we have all forgotten. I can tell that joke when I’m also using it as an entry point to, we lose our commitments all the time. We are distracted all the time. George Floyd was not the first nor the last. Even since his death, Memorial Day has not been the last death. The reality is that people are forgetting and not everybody, but some people didn’t notice in the first place. They’re going about their regular daily lives. Some people that are going about their regular daily lives has fallen asleep in a Wendy’s parking lot.
That was the gentleman in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks. My international audience doesn’t always know all the names.
Most of the US people have lost track of the names because there are so many of them. This is why the mantra, “Say their name,” is so important because it’s the same mantra. It’s just new names all the time, which is calling to question the patterns of police brutality. Let’s talk about police brutality. That is a difficult topic that makes people super nervous. What ends up happening is privileged people hear violence and brutality. They take the topic and they move it to the same topic but a different center. They start talking about violence and brutality, which somehow becomes about looting and rioting. They think they’re talking about the same topic, but they’re talking about this topic in a way they’re more comfortable because of the power dynamics.
I can use humor to point out that ketchup and tomato paste are different things. You’re usually more familiar with one of them. Can we stay on topic? You don’t use ketchup when it requests tomato paste, but you also don’t use tomato paste when it requests ketchup. Even though technically they’re both made from tomatoes. You moved to where you’re comfortable. This is not about your comfort. This is about us learning about what are we going to do because discomfort is a lot better place to be than lynch murder in public and probably not even held legally accountable for it. Do you see that? That’s where humor comes in.
I’m curious about your book, which is Good Enough Now. Part of me when I first looked at it, I said, “That’s good enough now.” It’s interesting how, the way you say something changes the meaning of it. How does being good, enough, and now applies to where we are on Pride Week, the end of Pride Month?
Let’s use Pride Month as an example. West Coast and East Coast fight for who started Pride Month. Was it the Compton Cafeteria riots in San Francisco? Was it the Stonewall riots in New York City. The fun story is people live in between those two cities. San Francisco and New York tend to dictate the LGBT agenda. Now there’s a fight. We also have whitewashed the start of Pride, whichever one you pick, because both riots were not majority white people, were not majority upper-class educated, employed, white people who identified as gay or lesbian. That’s not who was there. Usually, it’s because anti-system demonstrations are done at the hands of subordinated marginalized people, and then you misappropriated up to more educated, upper-class, white people who are related to those groups. The same thing could be happening with the Black Lives Matter Movement. They’ve done a good job of, “No, not today,” but it also involves all of us. Misappropriation is wrong, but involving everyone is important. When you are moving from a movement that we have forgotten the history, we’ve changed the story of the history, we’ve added capitalism and high-end sponsors who seem to only care about LGBT stuff in the month of June, now we’ve commodified Pride.Doing the best you can with what you’ve got some of the time is better than nothing. Click To Tweet
They’re aiming for people who are going to buy LGBT-labeled branded products.
Because it’s disposable income. When we’re looking at disposable income, we’re only looking at the upper-class, white gay and lesbian people because bisexual and trans-identified people, even if they identify as white are usually under or unemployed, so they have less expendable income. We’re splintering the community, then there are splinters of different Prides. I live in a small town. Our Pride is in October because that’s when the university is open. There are more people in town except now the university is probably not going to open in person. Who knows when pride is going to be, but ours isn’t canceled.
Where does being good enough now fit into all of these? I want to respect your time. I want to get to Good Enough Now and this a wonderful book that you’ve written.
The reason I’m talking about Pride is because even though it’s not a perfect starting place or a perfect foundation, what ends up happening is this exceptionalism thing. If it can’t be perfect, then we can’t do it. If we live in a culture that’s based on perfectionism, then we’re often not going to try to undo a lot of things. Back to rewarding failure, the idea of trying to try may not lead to trying, but you’re trying to try, which is at least the right activity. It rewards the beginnings instead of only rewarding successful solutions. By virtue of being good, I believe you are providing grace for yourself and grace for most other people and maybe grace for most parts of yourself. I believe we are good. I believe our life has taught us how to show up prepa
red and safe. When you see somebody that you are questioning whether or not they are good, imagine what has happened in their life that has taught them this is how to show up. That’s the space of grace.
Enough is you do not need more classes, more credentials, more diverse friend base, or a bigger cable package. We have all these reasons that we could be better or the best. We’re not those things, so we’re out. The reality is that how you are right now doesn’t need to be judged against something else. How you are right now is the best tool you have. Why don’t you just work with the hot mess that you are? That’s enough. The idea of now is that we wait for like this perfect moment. One of the great tragedies, when my father died, was my dad did not handle the death of my mother very well and he took it out on my brother.
He eventually got a therapist and planned this dramatic apology to my brother. It was going to happen over Thanksgiving. According to his journals, he had created this romantic apology thing that was going to happen with him and his son. My father died on November 11th. This perfectly laid plans never occurred. I tried to explain this to my brother and it doesn’t count. He could also say, “I’m sorry.” No fanfare, no gorgeousness, no dry cleaning required, but he didn’t. The now is what are you going to do in this exact moment with the resources you currently have with this set of hot mess variables? Get to work. The tagline is, “Doing the best you can with what you’ve got some of the time is better than not and never.”
It’s been such an honor to have you on my show. I’m delighted to have you. How can we find out more about you?
You can always go to GoodEnoughNowBook.com/club. I have a new book club, but GoodEnoughNowBook.com to order. The second edition is about to come up. You can be part of the book club. Jessica Pettitt is also a website that works and I’m happy to help. The last thing I would say is Pride is not canceled. Pride is a way of living your life and what are we doing to allow people’s space to have their own sense of pride all the months, not just when the calendar says so.
Pride is not canceled. Some of the parties might be canceled, but we are still proud of being who we are. Thank you so much, Jessica Pettitt. I want to remind you if you liked this, please share it with your friends. Tell people about us. We’re happy to have you with us.
- Jessica Pettitt
- The Souls of Black Folk
- Good Enough Now
About Jessica Pettitt
Jessica Pettitt, M.Ed., CSP, pulls together her stand up comedy years with 15+ years of diversity training’s in a wide range of organizations to serve groups to move from abstract fears to actionable habits that lead teams to want to work together. With a sense of belonging and understanding, colleagues take more risks with their ideation, conserve precious resources through collaboration, and maintain real connections with clients over time.