Centering the margins in digital spaces


Featured speakers


Marchaé Grair: Well at least I got to dance to Beyoncé a little bit longer. How are you all doing? Stick with me. I know it’s the session before lunch. So if your stomach is grumbling, don’t worry, all I hear is my own echo. So I won’t even notice. I’m really excited to be here today to talk about centering the margins in digital spaces. So let’s dig right into it.

Since I’ll be up here right before your lunch, I thought you might want to know a little bit about me before we start talking about centering the margins in digital spaces. As you could hear from the song, I love Beyoncé. It was a great month for me because she released a Netflix special, but we won’t get into that. Yes, as a fan I take complete credit for that. I am an enthusiastic Ohioan who’s currently living in Boston. A lot of identity things happening there, we don’t need to go into those.

And specifically, as it pertains to our conversation today, what’s most relevant is that I work in non-profits mostly in the religious sector right now, and provide, as Kristina said, thought leadership for those folks around equity and inclusivity. Let’s just watch her walk. Okay, sorry. [laughs]

Alright, let’s discuss some group agreements for our conversation today. I find that when you’re doing really sensitive work specifically around equity and inclusivity, it’s really important to enter spaces with your team with the same understandings about how you will all lift up the work, and how you will all engage in the work together. So I thought it would be helpful to model that today to have some group agreements for our conversation.

I would like to ask that we don’t engage in any finger pointing. Just assume the work starts with you. If something comes up and you’re like, “Yeah, I know better.” Just don’t look at your neighbor. Look at the ceiling or look at me. I would ask that you leave ready to take action. I know sometimes and there’s a lot that’s happening at Confab, it can be hard to grab on to everything that’s happening, but I would love it if you could just commit to doing one thing differently after our time together today.

And this last one is so big as the world is really having a reckoning moment around fascism, around equity, inclusivity, around racism, sexism, etc., it’s sometimes hard to not hear ourselves indicted. We think about things that we’ve done that may be have upheld systems that we wish we could take back. So if you start to feel defensive, if you start to feel that rise up in you, I would just ask that instead of getting defensive you get a little bit curious like, “Hey, where’s that coming from? Maybe there’s a lesson there.”

All right. Since we’re talking about centering folks at the margins, I thought we should at least have a common definition for who marginalized folks are. So when I say margins, I mean those who are pushed to the margins of society or those who experience discrimination and isolation because of identity or lived experience. So today we’re going to be discussing four ways to center the margins in digital spaces.

Number one: Make clear commitments to anti-oppression in all digital spaces especially in social media, and I’ll take that pause in case there’s any like … [mimics taking a photo] All right. This is really critical because you can’t expect people to engage with a brand that doesn’t, at the baseline, want to or agree to advocate for their humanity. If I am suffering from oppression and your brand seems to not care, ignore it, do something that actually adds onto that oppression, I do not owe you my interests, I do not owe you my money, I do not owe you my time. I don’t owe you anything. So you can’t expect people to care about you if you don’t care about them.

If you want to center people at the margins, you must assume some of the responsibility of protecting them from online trauma. This is a really traumatic time within our political climate, and folks really need respite and you can be part of that.

Now what I should have said at the beginning of my talk is that some of these conversations can be a little bit sensitive in what we’re talking about today, so I do ask you to just take care of yourself if something comes up and it makes you upset. If you need to leave the room, if you need to look down for a second, I don’t take it personally.

We should affirm someone’s right ... or excuse me. You should affirm that someone’s right to share an opinion should not override another person’s right to online safety, and I’m going to repeat that because that seems to be the big debate in social media and web spaces.

You should affirm that someone’s right to share an opinion does not override another person’s right to online safety. So let’s look at an example. Gab is a social media site. I guess you could call it ... I guess that was an editorial statement, excuse me. But Gab is a social media site that faced a lot of criticism for making space for white nationalists and white supremacists. So in response to this criticism, the former COO said, “We’re very worried about people’s rights. A lot of political speech is being labeled as hate speech and is simply being wiped off the map.”

So basically, “People need a place to give their strong opinions, and if you don’t give them a place you’re not doing your job, media people.” That was their response. So someone posted this on their website, which again I mentioned was a playground for white supremacists. “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.” “Our” meaning other folks in the US. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Now the person who said that was Robert Bowers shortly before he killed 11 and injured six more people at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Pittsburgh area.

So I think that we need to take a moment and pause and ask ourselves, what was the cost of making space for this opinion? What was the cost of making space for anti-Semitism, especially under this very loosely uninterrogated idea that people have the right to say whatever they want to say no matter who it hurts, and how might you do something differently? And this is where the action comes in. Your call to action would be that you create community guidelines that say what you won’t tolerate, and who you will support. So I would say if you haven’t started this conversation for your teams, that’s a great place to start. Where on your website, where on your social media, where on your other channels are you explicitly saying how you will respond to oppression or to bias or to discrimination?

I just wanted to highlight some UUA community guidelines. Again I work for the Unitarian Universalist Association, and this is from a closed Facebook group that my team moderates. So I just wanted to highlight a way that you might approach naming guidelines for an online space particularly calling attention to the things that we won’t tolerate, saying what will happen if repeat violations are made, and then also encouraging people to be active listeners if a discussion emerges around identity, and the discussion does not pertain to an identity that folks hold.

So for example, I would be encouraged, if a discussion emerged around being trans or gender non-conforming, to take a backseat as a cis gender person or somebody who is not trans because if I don’t have the lived experience, then it’s not really within my lane to come out front in that conversation.

I would encourage you to think about how types of trauma disproportionately impact folks on the margins if you want to center them. It’s really important to consider that trigger warnings or content warnings might help a person avoid re-traumatization while being online. A good example for me is that as a black woman, I have had some pretty difficult, traumatizing encounters with the police.

So when I see people sharing news stories, even if it’s in good will trying to spread awareness, and those videos are of violence, of police violence, and a black person is being assaulted or killed, sometimes I would like the opportunity to opt out. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the effort to spread the awareness, but I might not be in the mental place to engage with the content. So if somebody would say, “Hey, content warning. Police brutality.” I might keep scrolling, appreciative that they brought up the topic, but also owning the agency that I don’t have to engage. So content and trigger warnings can be very effective.

And here is another experience from the Unitarian Universalist Association. We offered a content warning for this piece because, as you can see by the example, the reflection that follows includes an explicit reference to sexual violence, so that way folks could opt out if they did not want to read the piece.

All right. Here’s how you can put making clear commitments to equity and inclusivity into practice. Just a quick recap. Display commitments prominently on your social media bios and about sections, and internal training for communicators in your teams, and in closed group community guidelines, and it’s really, really important that it’s very prominent and visible to explain what happens if community members violate guidelines because what you don’t want to happen is somebody violates a guideline or does something especially egregious, and then you have to respond and make a plan at the same time. You want to avoid that. I would suggest doing a warning policy considering account suspension and even maybe banning somebody from using your site or banning them from social media if you need to.

Sorry, I skipped past the second point. The second way we’re going to talk about centering the margins in digital spaces is being honest in your content creation because superficial diversity is harmful. We’re going to watch two clips of two different videos to really interrogate this point.

[Video clip of news report]

Speaker 1: “Perhaps the most intense scene occurred as SWAT teams descended on the front lawn of a private home where hundreds have gathered with the permission of the person who lives there. Some report police forced them onto the street and arrested them for being on the street.”

Speaker 2: “This is private property. You cannot do this. Back up.”

Speaker 3: “Back up.”

Speaker 4: “Somebody’s private property.”

Speaker 5: “Private property.”

[Video clip ends]

Marchaé: All right. That’s clip one. And this represents a different interaction between protestors and the police.

[Video clip of Pepsi commercial]

[Singing; no dialogue]

Marchaé: All right. That’s about all I could take. That’s about all I could take of that one. All right. I used those examples to convey a pretty important point. I would encourage you to deeply interrogate how you could avoid co-opting in messaging. In other words, taking the work of other people and just assuming that their work, their identity, their culture, everything involving their messaging, and their identity could just be easily overlaid on top of your work and messaging no matter what your organization or your business does, and not matter how it’s relevant. Just assuming that you can message in the exact same ways.

Or if you want to simplify it, if your soda can’t combat racism, don’t imply that it can. Co-opting dehumanizes people actually fighting against oppression especially, there seems to be a pivot by a lot of brands to want to position themselves as socialjustice oriented. So they’re like, “Look at what we do. We’re activist driven.” And they just take on all of these things that don’t really represent anything about them, and it makes the lives of oppressed people look easy, and it looked as if fighting injustice is very easy, in fact that I could just come and hand you all a Pepsi and we’d be just fine.

If you’re going to center social justice in storytelling or advertising, a person or group’s real experience must be at the center of the narrative. These two folks probably look familiar to you. Serena Williams wore a special outfit to stop blood clots, and that outfit was banned and labeled disrespectful by officials from the French Open, and Colin Kaepernick is still not playing on an NFL team after his “take a knee” protests, and these stories and narratives were then turned into ads by Nike. Now how you feel about Nike as a company, let’s not go down that lane. I use these examples because these ads really center the stories and experiences of both Williams and Kaepernick in a way that’s authentic, and that really focuses on what’s actually happening. So they’re not co-opting stories because it’s actually happening, and Williams and Kaepernick had an ongoing relationship with Nike before these campaigns happened.

So here’s how you can put avoiding superficial diversity into practice. You can create messaging about what your company does, not what it wants to be. You can meet with stakeholders and identify gaps between aspirational messaging in your mission. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do work differently, wanting to do work more social justice oriented, wanting to do equity and inclusivity work at a deeper level, but there is something wrong with expressing that you are doing it when you’re not. So you want to be aspirational internally, and transparent and not aspirational publicly.

And I also wanted to just point attention to the gender spectrum collection, and I found this on Broadly’s website. According to Broadly, the gender spectrum collection is a stock photo library featuring images of trans and non-binary models that go beyond the clichés of putting on makeup and holding trans flags, and this is something that a lot of folks are starting to pay attention to across a lot of identities in stock photos, a lot of people are represented in ways that align with stereotypes about them.

So people of color represented as criminals. Women represented as housewives. You get the gist. So this is an excellent example of using images photographed by a trans photographer to tell more complete stories without tokenizing trans and non-binary people, and a lot of these types of collections exist for various identities, and I’m happy to share those with you all after the presentation.

Number three: We can center the margins in digital spaces by honoring marginalized experiences as a user context. Empathy and understanding are key parts of considering marginalization within a person’s context. Are your content creators aware of microaggressions and how they could impact how someone receives your content? And before we go on, I want to make sure you know what a microaggression is.

[Animated video clip]

Speaker 1: “For people who still don’t think that microaggressions are a problem.”

Speaker 2: “Oh, you’re so well spoken.”

Speaker 1: “Just imagine instead of being a stupid comment, a microaggression is a mosquito bite.”

Speaker 3: “Ugh, it’s a compliment.”

Speaker 1: “Mosquito bites and our itch are one of nature’s most annoying features. But if you’re only bitten every once in a while …”

Speaker 4: “No. Where are you really from?”

Speaker 5: “Uh, Cleveland.”

Speaker 1: “Sure, it’s annoying, but it’s not that big a deal. The problem is that some people get bitten by mosquitoes a lot more than other people. I mean a lot more. Whether it’s on a date …”

Speaker 6: “Oh, your English is so good.”

Speaker 7: “Excuse me?”

Speaker 1: “Going grocery shopping …”

Speaker 8: “You know, everything happens for a reason.”

Speaker 9: “I’m just buying apples.”

Speaker 1: “Commuting to work …”

Speaker 10: “So, when are you going to have a baby?”

Speaker 1: “Watching TV …”

Speaker 11: “We have to keep the Red Skins name. It’s part of our culture and history.”

Speaker 1: “Or just walking down the street with your partner.”

Speaker 12: “I couldn’t even tell you were gay.”

Speaker 1: “Mosquitoes seem to pop up everywhere.”


Speaker 1: “And getting bit by mosquitoes every goddamn day …”

Speaker 13: “Can I touch your hair?”

Speaker 1: “Multiple times a day …”


Speaker 1: “… Is fucking annoying, and makes you want to go ballistic on those mosquitoes, which seems like a huge overreaction to people who only get bit every once in a while.”

Speaker 14: “It’s just a mosquito bite. Who cares?”

Speaker 15: “Just another angry black woman.”

Speaker 1: “Of course, beyond just being annoying, some mosquitoes carry truly threatening diseases that can mess up your life for years.”

Speaker 16: “Astrophysics? Maybe you should try a less challenging major.”

Speaker 17: “Ow, my dreams.”

Speaker 1: “And other mosquitoes carry strains that can even kill you.”

Speaker 18: “It looked like he was up to trouble, okay? I felt threatened.”

Speaker 1: “So next time you think someone is overreacting, just remember some people experience mosquito bites all the time.”

Speaker 19: “You’re all so exotic. Wow.”

Speaker 1: “And by mosquito bites, we mean microaggressions.”

Marchaé: If nothing else, I hope you will not be anybody’s mosquito bite for the duration of Confab. So going back to this idea of microaggressions or kind of the small “ouches” that we do to each other throughout the day mostly because we’re not aware of, as David explained, our unconscious biases. When we consider microaggressions as it relates to content, it’s a really good way to think about how a marginalized person might experience our content or might experience our products. If we can kind of zoom out and say, “What pain points are they experiencing throughout their everyday lives? What social issues are impacting them?” If we can really think about that, we can avoid unintentionally causing pain for folks who might be reading our content.

One example I wanted to offer is just asking yourself a question. What microaggressions does a black woman experience reading women’s magazines? I use this because I can answer it as a black woman. I’m usually given some kind of messaging that having dark skin is not beautiful, being very thin, having European features is more socially acceptable than being a dark skinned, curvier woman. So that’s a question that you could ask yourself if you were creating a woman’s magazine, and if you did so you might avoid what Cosmo did. They published a piece called “21 Beauty Trends that Need to Die in 2015,” and all of the women except one in the “Hello Gorgeous” column were white, and almost all of the people in the “RIP,” as in the beauty trends need to die, were women of color.

So what if somebody would have stopped and said, “How would a person of color or how would a woman of color experience this? What are beauty standards or beauty norms that we need to interrogate before we publish this piece?” That was an option, but unfortunately people don’t usually slow down enough to have that conversation.

In this quote, Whitney Wolfe, the founder Bumble, says you have to start a business to solve something that’s a personal pain point. That’s where the best businesses come from. Bumble, by the way, was founded as an answer to women experiencing harassment in dating apps. It requires women to contact men first if they are matched in order to avoid harassment. So the question I would love for you to take away today is what pain point is your business or organization ignoring?

One way that you can interrogate that question is by hiring a sensitivity reader. A sensitivity reader reviews content to check for cultural competency, and they’re especially helpful when you’re creating content that doesn’t exactly relate to your cultural experience. And I would encourage you as you’re trying to put all this into practice to think about creating journey maps and focus on eliminating existing and potential pain points. Map out your content, go through your website, and really interrogate how microaggressions might inform how someone is experiencing your website or any of your other digital spaces.

And last but not least, I’m getting you all to lunch don’t worry, you can center the margins in digital spaces by remembering this saying. “Nothing about us without us.” This phrase emphasizes that people in all communities, specifically at its origin within the disability activist community, should be at the center of the decisions that impact them, and that they know what is best for them, not allies who don’t have disabilities. And this applies across other marginalizations as well.

If you don’t have marginalized people creating content and making decisions about content, you can’t create authentic content for marginalized people. I see this all the time when I’m reading Buzzfeed articles or content that’s supposed to be millennial driven, but then they adopt African American slang or vernacular, and they’re like, “Yes queen!” and it’s not the right time, and also it’s you’re also white, so what’s happening? But we could talk about that after that. So yes.

Think about as you’re doing your work where your offering invitations for people to join in. Statistics say over, and over, and over again, folks on the margins are less likely to think that they’re qualified for jobs that they’re actually qualified for. So you can do your part by extending an invitation to folks to apply for jobs that you’re hiring for, extending certain invitations if you’re doing freelance hiring to say, “Hey, we would love to have you, especially if you fit within these identities.” That explicit invitation is really, really meaningful for folks, and it can make a real difference.

And I just wanted to point out a couple of tweets that I saw from writers ... or from editors, excuse me, who were looking for folks, and they made some really explicit invitations that I really loved that they wanted to pay people of color, they invited folks who were not white to apply. They said, “Hey, queer writers!” And they said, “Guess what? You can write and not have to talk about all of your queer trauma. You can just write about eggs. [laughs] You might have other concerns.”

So I would encourage you to put this into practice as you’re thinking about nothing about us without us. Make inclusion and equity a key priority for hiring and ongoing employment. Build relationships with identity centered organizations and professional groups that are relational, not transactional. When people have not wanted to work with me for anything I’ve done, and then they’re like, “Hey, we have a panel about diversity, and we don’t know any black people. Marchaé, what’s up?” And I’m like, “No.”

So build ongoing relationships if you want to do this work, so that when you’re reaching out to people on the margins, it’s based in and rooted in real relationship. And pay for labor always. No exceptions. Do not ask to pick people’s brains for free. That happens to people on the margins always. And I just wanted to point to this campaign, it was a Unitarian Universalist Campaign. We switched the language from standing on the side of love to side with love at the advice of disability activists, and it was a really important shift because it centered what folks needed who were most impacted, and that’s why we do this.

There’s a brief recap, all four points that won’t read because it’s lunch time. I’m really thankful for this opportunity. You know I was going to end with Beyoncé. How dare you? How dare you suggest anything else? I’m really thankful for this opportunity. I just love Confab so much. Remember, we do this work because equity and inclusivity should not be an option, it should be a mandate. Thanks.

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