A mis-approached introduction is a papercut

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By Jesse del Fierro

 

Often we want to reach out to strangers from other experiences: is there a best practice for that? We asked MSG Lab Emerging Dramaturg Jesse del Fierro for their perspective on the subject. Jesse is a non-binary, Filipinx-Canadian theatre creator, performer, dramaturg and facilitator with the privilege to work in both Moh’kinstsis on Treaty 7 Territory and on the unceded, ancestral territories of the Coast Salish peoples, colloquially known as Calgary AB and Vancouver BC respectively. Their work focuses on centring the artist and valuing process over product and consent over consensus as a radical form of decolonizing their practice – acknowledging that this is a life-long process. Acknowledging that this is a process that requires care, compassion and radical empathy on every level of community. Intersectionality is their only reality.

 

A mis-approached introduction is a papercut.

Which is a polite and “professional” way of saying, “hi, please be a considerate and compassionate person when working with, or approaching someone with work – especially if your work centres their experience of intersectionality, and is outside of your own scope of lived experience.” 

Before you say but the biggest intersection of all is being human, I am going to ask you to Google the definition of intersectionality. If a strong emotion came up for you while reading that previous sentence, please bear with me to the end of the post; I am confident you may find some of this information useful. To say it quickly, intersectionality is the acknowledgement of overlapping social categories that exist in multiple levels of systems of oppression

Now, this isn’t a blog post about who is “allowed” to write what story, though I caution that if you are questioning if you are “allowed,” chances are your intuition is telling you something very important and should be listened to. Be curious of your doubts and concerns, ask yourself why those questions are coming up for you. It will help you articulate why exactly you are engaging with this work, and who would be beneficial to approach (because if you thought you could figure this all out on your own, you wouldn’t be reading this blog, and I would reckon a community oriented artform like theatre is probably not a great fit for you – again, genuine question: How did that make you feel? Keep a track of these sensations). This is a blog post about after you’ve yielded to your intuition’s warnings and the potential of asking for advice or consultation. 

We are complex and multidimensional beings with an array of intersectional experiences and we should be approached (and approaching others) with that in mind.

I firmly believe in mindfulness and empathy as a way of being in community with folx. It sounds simple, right? But when have we ever known humans to be simple? We are complex and multidimensional beings with an array of intersectional experiences and we should be approached (and approaching others) with that in mind. Because I am an emerging dramaturg and this is a theatre-focused blog, let’s consider “intersectionality in communication” from a dramaturgical lens. I can’t tell you ‘how to’ interact with others, just like how a dramaturg can’t tell you how to write your own script. But I can try to guide you deeper into the world you’re creating. 

I offer you a reframing of social interactions that asks individuals to engage with self-reflection and respect.

Originally Latin, the etymology of respect means:
Re – back
Specere (spect) – look

The literal meaning of the word ‘respect’ asks that you look back/look again. And it should go without saying that every person deserves due respect. Dramaturgically, I offer that respect requires that we look back with a different lens from the one we had initially. This isn’t easy considering the way our brains are wired to look for connection and to survive. Humans are social creatures, we are meaning-making machines. The part of our brain that allows us to blink and breathe without so much of a thought is the part that constantly scans our surroundings to determine what is safe and what is a threat. Our brains register emotional pain just as it does physical pain. And social isolation and disconnection are very real pains/threats. That is how we learn to adapt, and adaptation of our existence is cumulative. 

It is important to note that this trauma response exists on a scale. The way we respond to a papercut is different from being punched in the face by an angry goose. And due to our adaptive nature, those who experience the intersectionality of marginalization may have many unhealed papercuts. Consider what a social death by a thousand microaggression papercuts might look like. A mis-approached introduction is a papercut. Language used inappropriately is a papercut. Who you know, or your relationship with a community or an individual does not change a papercut, it may affect the size of the papercut or how the papercut is handled, but it is still a papercut. Imagine how one might respond to the threat of a papercut when they have a thousand papercuts that still need healing. 

Consider these the rules of the world we live in that control most social interactions. This is where intersectionality comes into play, because switching lenses isn’t simple. 

Previously I asked you to keep track of how you were feeling as you read this blog post. I won’t guess what sort of emotions may have come up, but I ask you to consider how you’re feeling now. What is the general mood you are approaching this text with? Has it changed? Is it as strong as it was earlier? 

Without going back to the text above, would you be able to articulate exactly what made you feel a certain way? 

Just consider these questions, you don’t necessarily need an answer, just a curiosity. 

When our brain switches to that fight, flight, freeze or appease response, our brain is directing energy toward surviving the situation in accordance with the level of the threat it senses. It is nearly impossible to make rational decisions when this survival response is fully activated (again, it exists on a scale). Now, what if I told you that the only way to change the lens of your perspective is an emotional shift and not an intellectual shift? Changing the way you think will only get you so far, but changing the way you feel could be pivotal. Respect is a feeling. 

…emotions influence attention, decision making, creativity and performance amongst other things. There is no way to disconnect rational thought or decision from emotion, and consequently the body

I wish I could say that the rest is easy but it really isn’t. This is where I say that things only get more complicated from here. Emotions and the ways we respond to certain situations can be influenced by anything and everything. This includes every situation we’ve experienced that taught us that certain spaces – physical or socially created – aren’t safe. According to research from Yale University, emotions influence attention, decision making, creativity and performance amongst other things. There is no way to disconnect rational thought or decision from emotion, and consequently the body. It’s easy to focus on the conversation at hand when you aren’t hungry, or nervous about getting home on time for the kids, or anxious about losing work because the oppressive structures of society are constantly working against you. Adaptation is cumulative, and intersectionality has taught us to adapt on many levels of experience. 

So why does this matter when introducing yourself and asking someone to work with you? I can’t tell you how to do your cold-call introduction to a stranger you are interested in for their disparate lived experience but perhaps I can offer you some guiding questions? 

Who are you talking to? (Think intersectionality)
Why are you talking to them?
Do you know where emotions exist in your body?
Are you aware of the symptoms of emotion?
Can you recognize signs and symptoms of emotions from another person?
What kind of mood are you in?
Can you tell what sort of mood the other person is in? Is there an opportunity to ask (open ended questions, not leading questions)?
Are you willing to be wrong and be educated? And if not, ask yourself again why are you talking to them? 

Perhaps most importantly I offer you to slow down. In slowing down, pausing and taking a deep breath will help you notice how your body is responding to the situation. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge how the fight, flight, freeze and appease responses are influencing the way you are holding yourself in this conversation. How have you been holding yourself while reading this? I deliberately chose to write this blog very conversationally because I don’t want you to consume this information intellectually. I want you to consider this emotionally. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how this work exists on both sides of the conversation. In the great words of adrienne maree brown, “Assume best intent, attend to impact.” These conversations can afford patience. Because patience asks us to believe that people can change. I used to believe that theatre was all about the suspension of disbelief. I am quickly learning that change is only possible when we deeply believe it is possible beyond the stages. 

Photo by Mike Tan