Unpacking Privilege, with Whitney Bell
Episode 134: Unpacking Privilege, with Whitney Bell
Attending an all-girls school, Whitney Bell, writer, activist, and event producer, did not realize the impact of patriarchy on everyday life until later. Using her privilege as a platform, she founded Stories of: Women to amplify the voices of women from diverse backgrounds. On this episode, Whitney talks about the impact of storytelling, the evolution of feminism, and how to unpack our privilege. She discusses how she came up with the idea for Stories of: Women and why it’s important to amplify all women’s voices. We also get some insight on her favorite story so far, and what she is working on next.
00:13 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Network Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host, Maricella Herrera. Hi, Maricella.
00:22 Maricella Herrera: Hey, Kristy. I feel weird 'cause you always sit in this chair, and I always sit in the chair you're sitting in today.
00:29 KW: I know. We're on the wrong side of the table today.
00:32 MH: It's a whole new world.
00:33 KW: It's a different perspective. I'm looking at a white board and you're looking out the window.
00:38 MH: Different perspective. I'm looking out the window.
00:39 KW: Yeah.
00:40 MH: True.
00:42 KW: I guess there's a powerful parable, story?
00:46 MH: A parable? [chuckle]
00:47 KW: What is that? [laughter] Or no. About...
00:51 MH: Aren't those the ones in the Bible? [chuckle]
00:55 KW: Maybe. [chuckle] No. I don't know. But sitting on the other side of the table and you get a completely different perspective. Well, at least we're sitting at the table.
01:04 MH: We are sitting at the table. We have a seat at the table, two seats at the table, and I have a view...
01:11 KW: Katherine's here, too, so there's three seats at the table, three women at the table.
01:14 MH: Awesome. Just as it should be, more and more.
01:17 KW: Yeah.
01:18 MH: I also have the view of Duffy, our business dog, walking out, which is good. [chuckle] It's nice to see.
01:25 KW: He's our big champion, Duffy. Speaking of another champion, Whitney Bell.
01:32 MH: I love Whitney Bell. I'm so excited. I have been waiting for this interview for a while.
01:37 KW: I know. She's great. Whitney was at our summit in 2018...
01:42 MH: So, this year, although we call it last year.
01:44 KW: Yes, and she's a powerful driver of storytelling, and providing a platform for others to share their story. And I just really enjoyed my conversation with her. I learned a lot, I was inspired, and I greatly admire just the work and the passion and the action that she's doing.
02:04 MH: Yeah, I love that she is, like you said, passionate about creating change. She's also so authentic, which is really what gets you, right? It really is what drives more people to take action, if they see that.
02:23 KW: Yeah. We talk a lot about authenticity at Ellevate. It's a question that comes up a bit, and we've got a number of articles and webinars and data points around authenticity. And it's a tricky thing because, ultimately, just being yourself, doing what you love, and embracing it and being yourself and really living in the authentic way is so powerful. But yet, today, in 2018, there's still a number of situations when many individuals are not able to be authentic. They're not able to be themselves, and be their true selves in the workplace and beyond, because it's not accepted or because it could penalize them in some way. And that is discouraging to me, and discouraging, I'm sure, to many of our listeners. And so I celebrate Whitney for being who she is and for really embracing that. And I ask of all of you, our listeners, and everyone beyond, to think about ways in which we can be drivers of change within our own organizations and within our own lives, and providing a safe space for us all to be truly authentic and to be our true selves. And that's a very intentional act. I'm sure many of us are sitting here thinking, "Oh, I do that. I like everybody. I welcome everyone." Chances are, you don't, and it's not... It's pretty common, but it's also something, I think, we can easily change, and each one of us can be drivers of that.
04:04 KW: So, that is my ask of you, as we talk about authenticity, what are the ways in which your voice or your true self is being held back, that you're trying to limit it in some way? And how can you create environments where others can really be their true selves?
04:24 MH: I am very inspired and happy by that ask. I think about this a lot, and how lucky I am and how lucky our team is. And I've talked a lot with the new people who have joined our team which has recently grown quite a bit, how they feel that way about our company. And it is powerful to be able to be your whole self, wherever you are, and thank you for allowing that, which is good. And thank you for asking other people to have those conversations. It is why we do what we do. If you can't be your whole self, and if you feel that you need to hide a part of who you are to be able to have the same, or at least somewhat similar, 'cause let's be realistic, not everyone has the same opportunities, but to have some semblance of a similar opportunity as everyone else, then something's not right. And if we are going to try to make the world a more just and equitable place, then we should start with those around us.
05:27 KW: Yeah, absolutely. Alright, let's get to my conversation with the wonderfully authentic Whitney Bell.
05:41 KW: I'm so happy to have you on the podcast today, Whitney.
05:49 Whitney Bell: Thank you. I'm really excited to be here. I had such a great time at the summit.
05:53 KW: Yes. Yeah, it was... I'm sad you're not here in the office with us. I know we're chatting on Skype. But when we got to hang out at the summit, it was a lot of fun, and it was phenomenal to have you there on stage with us and sharing some of the great work you're doing around supporting women, mental health, talking about sexual health. You've just really taken a huge role in this conversation and how we're moving it forward.
06:23 WB: Thank you, that is... [chuckle] You're gonna make me blush over here. It's not an intentional... I mean it is an intentional thing, but it's not something that's been hard for me to wanna do. Feminism has always just been a huge part of my life. I grew up in Pasadena, in LA, and I went to an all-girls school from fourth grade through 12th grade, and it was non-religious and very liberal and very make-your-own-path. And of course, I knew boys growing up, we had school dances with guys and stuff, but I never had them in a classroom setting. I never had them in an educational setting. So it wasn't until after high school that I was like, "Oh, wait, teachers are paying attention to you more," and, "Oh, your voice is louder in class and people care what you say more," and it was just this huge contrast for me that I wasn't used to. So, I think I had a unique upbringing which led to this unique perspective later in life that kind of shocked my system when I was fully engulfed in the patriarchy. [chuckle]
07:35 KW: It's really interesting to think about, because I grew up going to co-ed schools and didn't really understand or think about the nuances between communication and who's getting attention really until I was a bit further along in the workforce, and then it started to become much more obvious, in part because it's just, you only know what you know, and those experiences you've had. And so you having different experiences but then also talking about those experiences in such a way that we can start to really disrupt the status quo or the norm and understand that there's other ways to do things, or that there's some parts of our society that really are biased and feeding into the imbalance.
08:30 WB: And huge parts of our society that we're fully complicit in, like feminism... I mean like misogyny... Lateral oppression is very real, and sometimes we are our best oppressors. And women often were so ingrained in this culture that we're in and we don't even realize the ways that we're putting each other down, the ways we're diminishing ourselves, the language with which we use to speak about other women, and all of that stuff is so pervasive that even me, like this #Feminist, I still catch myself doing it sometimes, and I think that's a really important thing to remember, especially right now when there is so much of callout culture within the feminist and activist movements and people are so quick to... If you say the wrong thing or ask a question that's maybe not super kosher, people will cancel you and shut you down and drag you on the internet and... And it's a learning process for everyone. We weren't all born super feminist or really [09:39] ____ or whatever it is. And I find it can be really alienating when we speak in such black and white terms and when we expect everyone to be so perfect and so aware. So, that's something I always try to make sure that I'm discouraging, but it is difficult. [chuckle]
10:02 KW: No, and I agree with that. I could not agree more. Because it is such a personal journey, and we're at different stages of that. I'm one of three girls in my family, and my sisters and I and my mom, we're always having these conversations. And in so many ways, I feel like I'm so much further along than they are, but that's my perspective, and I'm very privileged to work in an environment where I can have these conversations, and I can talk to amazing people like you and gain that perspective. And that's part of what I love about you and what you're doing and this whole series of Stories Of Women that you're working on, because I believe a big part of understanding and changing the narrative and creating change and advocates for change is coming down to the storytelling. If we're not... If we're surrounded by people that are just like us, then chances are, we're not hearing about the situations, about the bias, about just the blatant discrimination and racism that others are facing, because they're not part of our daily narrative.
11:18 WB: Yes. And that's completely true. And with the Stories Of Women, that really was, I mean you just sort of nailed the intent, is to allow women a platform, women of all different creeds and variances and races and gender identities, well, they all identify as women, but trans women, to give them a platform to tell their own stories in their own way. I give them the theme, and then no other feedback. I'm like, if they wanna come to me and run their story by me, great, but my entire goal is just to be like, run with whatever this stirs in you, and you can ask me if you're on the right track, but I want you to talk about whatever it is that you wanna talk about, and... Should I explain what the show is?
12:06 KW: Yeah, please do.
12:07 WB: Okay, so the Stories Of Women is a traveling female-identified storytelling, live music and comedy series, and each new city explores a different, often un-discussed emotion; jealousy, shame, fear, in the hopes that our shared vulnerability will help us all heal or help us understand ourselves a little bit better. And we've been really, really lucky to have some incredible talent and amazing speakers; Shirley Manson from Garbage did one in our debut show; Nadya Okamoto, who is a 20-year-old Harvard sophomore who started two global youth-run non-profits, and was Teen Vogue's 21 Under 21, and is writing a memoir right now. [chuckle] I don't know how she found the time. But anyway, so we've been very lucky to have all these women, and I knew that the audience would sort of get something out of it and that they would be inspired by this vulnerability, but I had no idea the weight it would carry for a lot of the performers. Some of these women, they're constantly speaking on massive stages, and they were so nervous and I was like, "I don't understand, there's 400 people in the audience, this isn't a huge show for you," and they're like, "Well, I never get to talk about myself. We're talking about activism, female politics, and [13:30] ____ music, but it's never like my own deep dark stories."
13:36 WB: And I hadn't realized the impact that that would be on them. And I also didn't realize when you go to a panel or something, you're inspired by the people you see on stage, but you don't necessarily relate to them, you're empowered by them, but this was a time when people could be like, "Oh, well, I have had that exact same situation. I have been jealous in the way that you were, I have felt the shame that you feel." And you can feel really a kinship, and people in the audience were really quick to start talking to each other, talking to strangers and sharing their little stories and how this was affecting them. And it really ended up being so much more vulnerable and emotional than I ever could have predicted. And I am so excited to see how it grows and changes. And we have a whole tour lined up for 2019 into 2020. So I feel very lucky about the success that it's had.
14:32 KW: Is there one story so far that's really stood out to you?
14:38 WB: Oh God, they're all so good. But yeah, but yes. So the girl I mentioned earlier, Nadya, came on stage and she told us the story that she said she never told in public, but she also, in her own life, had only told to very few people. And the theme for the first show was jealousy. And she got on stage and talked about her father who she was really close with growing up, and how at the time she didn't really realize that this was going on, that he was sort of emotionally, sexually abusing her, that they would go to parties and he would take her out before and get her all of these fancy adult clothes; she's 13, 14 years old, and take her to parties and have her pretend to be his girlfriend and call her his "special girl" and sort of touch her on the lower back. And while he never crossed the line in a physical sense, she said, looking back now with what she knows as an adult, there really was some sexual abuse there. And that, as she grew into being an older teenager, and he started having girlfriends, she felt this insane jealousy for her father's girlfriends, that now they were his special girl and getting this kind of attention. And that's a perspective I had never even really thought about, and one that I think most people would feel too much shame around to even vocalize to themselves, let alone an audience full of strangers.
16:00 WB: And that was the opener to the show. [chuckle] That set the tone. But it was incredible and it was brave. And I think there were a lot of teenagers in the audience which was something I was really thrilled about. We had women on stage ranging from 14 to 60, and we had women in the audience in that same demographic, and I think that that's a really important, important aspect of this show.
16:30 KW: Yeah, I agree. I cannot wait to watch more of these stories. You have recordings online, videos, right?
16:40 WB: Yes, if you go to the storiesofwomen.com, everything is recorded and on there. And the goal is to eventually build up enough media in there that it will be like a little TED Talk type situation where you can watch all of the stories. We're working on a podcast where I interview the women. We're working on... This is like a multi-year plan here, but we're working on a bunch of my journalist friends writing personal essays about their own vulnerability, the idea being that this could eventually be like a small media company that is just about women's vulnerabilities, and about the power that that can bring.
17:24 KW: Yeah. You've mentioned this evolution of feminism for you, where... I mean we all start in a place that is natural to us or based on our experiences, but you can't just stay in that place because women and men, I mean humans, we're all so nuanced and so different and have very different experiences and, unfortunately, a lot of those experiences are based on the color of your skin, where you were born, the class you were born. I mean it's just... It's so much to unpack. And I think particularly with you being this activist and having this platform, what are the ways in which you continue to evolve your understanding of others and how to be an advocate for them and to understand what they've gone through?
18:25 WB: First and foremost, just listening. Listening to black and brown women, listening to the trans-women, listening to those with significantly fewer privileges than me and acknowledging that a lot of times the shit they're gonna say is gonna make me really uncomfortable, it's gonna make me uncomfortable because it's gonna challenge my perception of myself or challenge my perception of my struggle for my life, and that's a huge, huge part of unpacking your privilege, which is something I try to talk about a lot, but when I do so, I try to make sure that I'm only talking to people with the same privileges as me.
19:01 WB: So if I'm talking about my whiteness, I'm never gonna aim that conversation at a woman of color; I'm gonna aim that at my fellow white people and just be like, "Here are the ways that we can unpack this, here are the ways that we can do better by people of other races." And a huge part of that is, I almost get... The places I get the most harassment are oftentimes conversations of privilege, because people really do not understand what that word means. They think that it means that their life has been easy or that they haven't struggled, or that their accomplishments are not their own, but that's not what it is at all, it's just about... It's just that certain aspects of your life has been intrinsically easier based on, as you said, who you were born to, where you were born, the color of your skin, your gender identity, your sexual orientation. And a lot of people, especially white people, especially white men, hate hearing that.
20:04 WB: And I think that that's a huge part of the reason why our country is in the state that it's in, right? It's the white under-privileged masses who feel like they no longer have a voice, and this country is more focused on the other than it is on them, and they're so used to being the focal point, they're so used to being the American middle class, the norm. And we've really taken that away from them, and I'm not saying we shouldn't, we absolutely should; the stage should be diverse, but those people feel like, especially those without money feel like, "Well then, what kind of privilege could I have?" They don't understand that their skin color intrinsically means that they're safer with the police. They don't understand the ways in which that help them on the daily, especially if they live in a predominantly white area, which already is beneficial. So those conversations are hard, and those conversations are constant. And for me, I still mess up all the time, and the only thing I can try to do is acknowledge my mistake and apologize. But sometimes even that's painfully hard, or even I still wanna fight with it or want to ask questions that maybe I shouldn't be. There is no right way. It's just a constant learning process, I guess.
21:33 KW: Yeah. So then after we listen, and I do, I get what you say Whitney, and encourage our listeners on the podcast to just be very intentional about that, talking to others at work, in your community, online, but in safe places where you are just respectful and listening. I personally have come so far, and still have so far to go, and I credit all of that to the other women and men who, or other people that were generous enough with their time and their experiences to share that with me. But after we listen, Whitney, what do we do to take action? 'Cause I really admire all the ways that you're trying to create change, to share stories, to create action. And I think for many of us, we don't think we have that power to create change, and yet, each of us does.
22:43 WB: I couldn't agree with that more. And I think, okay, I am a professional activist, so I can spend my time throwing these shows and trying to create change on a larger scale than I think the average person has the resources to do, but to that person, what I say is, the most important you can do is talk to other people, and talk to other people like you. Like I said before, talk to other people with the same privileges as you, because unfortunately, they're gonna listen to you way more than they're gonna listen to a black trans-woman who's saying the same thing. And we're so quick nowadays to be like, "Oh, now I have to unfriend my Trump-supporting cousin on Facebook. I'm cancelling that person, I'm shutting them out." But the thing is, that person is not going anywhere. That person's vote isn't going anywhere. So just deciding to write these people off is the worst thing we can do for the change and progress that we wanna make. What we really need to do is talk to them and meet them with compassion and not with arguments, but listen, listen to them, listen to their concerns. 'Cause at the end of the day, I think we're all a lot more similar than we are different, and what we all want is change, and we're all afraid, we're just afraid of different things.
24:02 WB: And I think that's a really unifying emotion, and I think that if you can get out of the... No one's getting anywhere by screaming at someone in the comments section. That's not gonna change anyone's mind. I'm not saying you shouldn't do that if someone's being really racist or being really bigoted, you should say something, but don't expect that to create any real change. What's gonna create actual change is putting in the time and putting in the emotional labor to sit down with someone who disagrees with you and to actually have a real conversation with them. And even that might not work, but it is worth trying and it is worth, even if it moves their opinion an inch, that's something good. So just make sure you're calling out the people around you, and make sure you're trying to educate those who think differently than you. That's really, I think for any person, is a feasible thing to ask, and a feasible thing to expect of them.
25:03 KW: Absolutely. Whitney, thanks so much for joining us today on the Ellevate podcast, it's been great catching up. What's next for you? I know you mentioned earlier your own podcast, but other things that you have on the horizon?
25:17 WB: Yeah, we are really excited about taking the Stories Of Women on tour, and we just got some really great news. Our next show is in San Francisco on Valentine's Day, and we're doing "Loneliness", which is like twist the knife. [chuckle] And then we're doing a couple of small satellite shows, one in New York at Joe's Pub, and one in Austin. And what we're working towards, which I just found out is happening, and I am over the moon about, is that we are doing a huge New York show next May, May 2019, and the theme is gonna be "Shame" and we just booked The Apollo Theater, which is just a complete dream for me. [chuckle] And so that is coming up, and all the information about all this stuff will be available on the storiesofwomen.com, or you can follow us on Instagram @thestoriesofwomen. So that is my new passion project and my baby, and I'm so excited to see where that grows and to see all the other amazing women we can kind of give this platform to. And while we do do a lot of high-profile women and activists, we also always reserve a couple spots for teenagers, and one spot for someone who is part of the non-profit that we're benefiting, whether it's a social worker who works there or someone who's gone through their program or whatever it may be, to try to highlight some new voices and to highlight some young voices.
26:47 KW: Well, that sounds wonderful. Congrats on that and everything you're doing. Thank you so much for fighting for all of us and for working so hard to really change the world, and create a more equal place. We did a Taking Back Feminism event a few years ago, and a big thing was really just even talking about what feminism meant, because I think during that time, this was very soon after the election, the most recent presidential election, but it's seen as a dirty word, and we kept saying, "It's not a dirty word, it's just about being equal, and how we can all... Everyone can get behind that." And so how do we all be change makers in that respect? So thank you for what you're doing.
27:40 WB: Thank you so much, and thank you for this platform and for all the great work that Ellevate does, and I hope to keep working with you guys.
27:51 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget follow us on Twitter at EllevateNtwk, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com. That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E network.com. And special thanks to our producer, Katherine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice-over artist, Rachel Grasinger. Thanks so much, and join us next week.
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