Responding to the request to speak on behalf of all [blank] people

All-Star Facilitator Series

This is an one of the many lessons in our All-Star Facilitator Series, designed to help social justice educators improve their skills. Click here to see the rest of the posts, or if you have an idea for a lesson get involved. Note: this series spun off into our book, Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation — where we expand on some of these lessons, and include others.

It’s inevitable. You’ll be sitting there at the head of the group, everyone’s eyes intensely looking your way. In a thick cloud of silence, you’ll hear the second hand on the clock announce itself proudly. Nobody’s talking. A second second. Still no talking. An eternity of three seconds have passed in silence. You can’t help but wonder who decided to buy such a loud clock in 2014.

No! Focus. Someone just asked, “Why do [blank group of people] [verb] [some overgeneralized descriptor]?”

You’ve been gifted that gem in a variety of cuts and hues. “Why do gay men have so much promiscuous sex?” “Why do trans people get depressed?” “Why do all lesbians dress like men?”

Welp. There’s no way out of this one. The group is awaiting an answer you can’t possibly have. They’re aching for it. We’re all taught to stereotype, and in situations like this we secretly crave justification for it. “I knew it!” someone is waiting to say. They’re thinking it so loudly you can hear it. You can’t help but wonder when you developed the ability to read minds.

No! Focus. You need to address this question. So what do you do?

You Can[not] Speak on Behalf of an Entire Group of People

Whenever people ask that “Why do [blank] people [do blank]?” question, I want to yell, “That’s just not true!” and debunk the stereotype once and for all, but in many cases it is true, for at least some people. Acknowledging that it is sometimes true, and realizing I can’t speak for any group (even in speaking against a stereotype), is a forever struggle that has always had the gut-check response for me as being counterintuitive. But sometimes it’s important to question your gut.

Or sometimes I want to ask the asker a series of similar questions about their identity in return. Go all Socratic on a fool. But that’s inappropriate for a number of reasons. Primarily (at least for the sake of this article) because I’m asking them to speak on behalf of a group to highlight how bad it is to speak on behalf of a group.

For the sake of honesty, you technically can speak on behalf of an entire group of people. A lot of people do it, a lot of the time…

But you cannot accurately speak for a group identity. It’s impossible. Nobody can do it — whether they are a member of that group or not. Gay men don’t have an annual meeting where they come to Gay Man decisions, then provide that information in a Gay Man Report for you to share with your group in a training. Sorry, not a thing.

But there is one exception — one way you can accurately speak on behalf of a group identity: you can simply state, on behalf of the group, that overgeneralizing any group identity, or amounting any group of people to a singular trait, disposition, or behavior, is a problematic.

Things You Can Do In Addition to Non-Answering

It’s tough to give someone a non-answer, even if a question is un-answerable (like the “Why do [blank group of people] [verb] [some overgeneralized descriptor]?” question). Sometimes a group isn’t yet okay with that level of cognitive complexity and needs a bit more concreteto settle into. Here are some different ways to avoid speaking on behalf of a group, but also to not leave a question asker feeling miffed.

“Validate what they are saying.  This can be a tough one but often really helps diffuse the person feeling awkward about what they are asking.  “I totally get why you might ask why do all lesbians dress like men, because those are likely the people you identify as gay women right?  Like if a woman is dressed in a masculine way then we assume that they are gay.”  That gets the ball rolling and from there the options below become all the better!

Tell a personal anecdote. If you identify with the identity in question, share a story from your lived experience in that identity. Explain how you do or don’t relate to or experience whatever the person was asking. But end it, and make this incredibly clear, by reminding the group that is just your individual experience. One of many.

Relate something someone who identifies that way has shared with you. If you’re speaking about an identity you don’t embody, but someone who does has shared something helpful with you, recall it. Someone once told me that a good ally is like an expensive sound system, they amplify the marginalized voices without distorting them. That second part is incredibly important. But more important is ending whatever you say by making it incredibly clear that you’re translating another individual’s individual experience. As you understood it. One of many.

Refer to the research. I’ll be the first person to say that the majority of research we have about humans should be questioned, but it’s still a helpful starting point. If you have data, share it. Statistics are helpful in getting folks to understand the demographics of a group at large. But end it by emphasizing that whatever data you’re discussing doesn’t necessarily describe every individual who identifies with that group.

Start a mini-discussion about the question with the group. Ask if there are any folks in the group who are comfortable sharing personal anecdotes about their experience with that identity, or pose the question, “What do you think led to [the question asker] wondering that?” Redirect folks if they go on a tangent, and be sure to throw in the disclaimer that a person is only speaking on behalf of themselves, not the group if they don’t say so themselves.

Regardless of what you do, do your best to make it emphatically [annoyingly] clear that whatever you talk about, share, say, read, report, regurgitate… is not a license for anyone in that group to think they know or get any individual of any group identity. Individuals are composed of many identities, and have a number of group memberships that affect their individuality in countless and unknowable ways.

The more you learn about identity, the more you’ll realize you’ll be comfortable understanding how little you know about someone who happens to identify in that way. That’s the real answer to this question. The way you get the group there is up to you.