Congruence in a Crooked Room
This post is separated into two parts which come together in the third. So please, bear with me.
The Crooked Room.
In Chapter One of Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry‘s book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America entitled “Crooked Room,” MHP discusses cognitive psychology research on field dependence. More specifically, she discusses studies about how individuals rely on information provided by the outer world (aka the field/frame of a situation) to locate the upright in a space. She explained:
In one study, subjects were placed in a crooked chair in a crooked room and then asked to align themselves vertically. Some perceived themselves as straight only in relation to their surroundings. To the researchers’ surprise, some people could be titled by as much as 35 degrees and report that they were perfectly straight, simply because they were aligned with images that were equally tilted. But not everyone did this: some managed to get themselves more or less upright regardless of how crooked the surrounding images were (Harris-Perry, 2011, p. 29).
Harris-Perry uses this research as a metaphor in how black women confront stereotypes – they are often standing in a crooked room, trying to figure out which way is up. She goes on to say:
Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion…To understand why black women’s public actions and political strategies seem tilted in ways that accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room [emphasis added] (Harris-Perry, 2011, p. 29).
Harris-Perry uses this metaphor throughout her book (which I highly recommend) in conjunction with scholarship around recognition, emphasizing that while “[c]itizens want and need more than a fair distribution of resources,” people will also go to great lengths and make sacrifices in order to achieve “meaningful recognition of their humanity and uniqueness” (Harris-Perry, 2011, p. 36). Surely, as others have pointed out, we all want to combat shame, live as our authentic selves, and be recognized for that authenticity. And for those of us who are marginalized, minoritized4, and stigmatized, we are always trying to stand up in a room that was not made for us. As we attempt to combat the pain and shame of inaccurate recognition of our selves, we lack opportunities for “accurate, affirming recognition” of ourselves while contending with “hypervisibility imposed by our lower social status” (Harris-Perry, p. 39). While MHP is making this explicit point about black women, I think this is related to what I continue to see happen with trans folks and access to binary gender segregated facilities (i.e., locker rooms and bathrooms).
I am a (recovering) leadership educator. I love engaging students, peers, colleagues, friends, and family in conversations and discussions about how we leverage leadership to create more just, caring, and thriving communities. As a leadership educator, the area where I continue to have the most powerful conversations with people and myself, is around the idea of values, integrity, and congruence.
Congruence refers to thinking, feeling, and heaving with consistency, genuineness, authenticity, and honesty towards others. Congruent persons are those whose actions are consistent with their most deeply held beliefs and convictions (Higher Education Research Institute, 1996).
When talking about the Congruence in leadership education, it often is couched in a discussion of the Seven C’s of the Social Change Model of Leadership. I believe that what we crave most from our leaders and one another in the 21st century is congruence. For many years, particularly in the U.S. political realm, folks have felt cheated by and lied to by politicians who say they will do one thing or value a certain thing and do something opposite to that through their behaviors or actions. Often, the folks who are believed to be incongruent, and the system that maintains them in elected office, is referred to as “The Establishment.” Folks like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are often considered establishment candidates – they’ve played the game of politics and played it well.1
I truly believe the crisis of congruence is why folks are deeply committed to presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Say what you want about their politics (I have plenty to say about Trump’s racist, xenophobic, misogynistic politics). Folks very much like them because they are perceived to be consistent, genuine, authentic, and honest towards others.2 People who stand in their values, who stand in their truth in both times of comfort or challenge are the folks that many of us (or maybe its just me) really idolize and look up to – folks who don’t just profess their beliefs but also practice them.3 Clearly, congruence is socially desirable, and for a leading theory about leadership development, part of what we encourage and want to develop with and alongside of students.
Congruence in the Crooked Room.
This week, I was asked to facilitate a class session of a student leadership class two friends and colleagues teach. They asked me to come discuss social constructionism, gender, critical theory, and congruence. I also made sure we discussed how social constructs have lived realities that impact folks’ lives on a daily basis. We covered how gender shows up in and is reinforced by the use of the English language. We reviewed the Gender Unicornand the social construction of gender, assigned sex, and different attractions. We did gender box activities and talked about the two binary genders we always talk about with that activity. We were making great strides and were having good conversation. The final thing to cover was congruence.
I was going to have us discuss the problematic and hypocritical stance I see many folks fall back to when discussing diversity, inclusion, and engagement: “I’m just gonna treat people like a person.” I think this approach often denies peoples’ lived experiences and the environments and systems they inhabit. And we often don’t want to treat people like people, especially when they are marginalized by society. We see their social position as a result of their individual shortcomings though their position is often due to systems out of our control. We don’t want to treat trans folks as people when they seek to pee in facilities which they find comfortable. We don’t want to walk on the same side of the street as Black and Brown men who make us feel unsafe. I wanted to address how we remain congruent with knowledge of the social constructs that have taken root in the form of internalized dominance and oppression. We continue to find exceptions for treating people as people, all of which appear to be perfectly logical explanations but are actually dripping with oppression.
But, of course, I took a different route. I led with a question: Who gets to be congruent? At first, there were puzzled looks. The look read something like: “Well, Alex, everyone gets to be congruent. We all get consistent, genuine, authentic, and honest.” That’s when I shared stories and was reminded of when I broke down during MSU LeaderShape 2015 to our group over that same question, asking who gets to be congruent and live with integrity. I talked about living as my authentic genderqueer self and receiving constant push back about it from folks who I thought were here for me and my liberation. I talked about comments family have made to me about how my gender expression and identity are “killing” them. I talked about the conundrum of folks who say they are here to unconditionally love and support me actually have conditions.
What I was talking about, which I thought about on further reflection, was struggling to stand upright in the crooked room; to be congruent. I continue to struggle to be congruent to the world as I have been awaken to it when it is so much easier to be aligned with the crooked room. Continuing to try to stand upright in the crooked room is exhausting, trying to be consistent, genuine, authentic, and honest is harmful in a world that really doesn’t want me to be congruent unless its on the world’s terms. My congruence is not a priority in a world where affirming, accurate representations of genderqueer people are not valued or wanted. My congruence is not a priority in a world that doesn’t want really want to dismantle the imperalist white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy as it currently operates. My congruence is not valued in a world that would rather I stay aligned to the crooked room.
So today I ask the question as I did to those students today: Who truly gets to be congruent?