Jan 29th, 2019
Susan X Jane is a diversity educator, speaker and trainer.
Susan is a former professor and youth worker, who now consults
with organizations looking to make sense of our current cultural shift.
Learn more about Susan.
Learn more about The Passionistas Project.
Listen to Susan's Bonus Material:
Passionistas: [00:00:00] Hi and welcome to the Passionistas Project Podcast. We're Amy and Nancy Harington. If you enjoy listening to the show please consider becoming a patron. Just a small donation of one dollar a month can help us keep the project going and you'll get rewards like buttons access to premium content and invites to Passionistas.
Project events. Today we're talking to Susan X Jane — a diversity educator speaker and trainer. Susan is a former professor and youth worker who now consults with organizations looking to make sense of our current cultural shift. So please welcome to the show Susan X Jane.
Susan X Jane: [00:00:35] Hi. Thank you for having me.
Passionistas: [00:00:38] Susan, what's the one thing you're most passionate about?
Susan X Jane: [00:00:41] Definitely diversity and inclusion. Really thinking about race. I care about all kinds of diversity and social justice. I think that we all have to get together. But my particular interest really lies around race and also the way that race is represented. How we talk about it. The stories that we tell about it and how those stories shape what we think race is and how we experience it.
Passionistas: [00:01:08] How does that translate into what you do for a living?
Susan X Jane: [00:01:11] It is kind of an odd niche thing to do for a living. So I think that I've always just kind of found places where people were interested in doing the work to really think about identity and to think about race. But I have to be honest it used to be like you're wandering in the wilderness and I was the only person it felt like that really cared a lot about this. There wasn't a lot of focus. I remember a lot of times going to people to try to say, "Hey it would really be great if you guys talked about race." And people saying, "Oh those issues are really done. We don't have to do that anymore."
But we all now know that we've got to talk about race. But still I find that it's a awkward and uncomfortable conversation. And it's such a kind of amorphous idea that I think people really are often intimidated by how to like touch it so teaching education. And now that everybody is really saying well, "What does this mean for me?" I think working with the organizations to step in and to bring my expertise to help answer that question.
Passionistas: [00:02:15] What inspired you to start to do this for a living?
Susan X Jane: [00:02:19] I always joke that I started doing race work when I was in utero. So before I was born. I am biracial and I'm also a trans racial adoptee. Which means that I am a person of color who was adopted by a white family. And this happened — I'm going to age myself here — but this happened in '69 and it was kind of like that NICHD right in between civil rights kind of like coming to some fruition and busing. So it was a moment kind of fraught with some racial tension and so because of the way adoption was I don't know what the story was. But I imagine there were probably some conversations about race involved in my adoption process. And certainly from my parents and those conversations about race were from the very beginning.
So I think that I have always been a person that has been standing on this kind of racial line in America. And so it's really been an interesting process. I grew up in an all white community and then I went to college and came out of the house and started thinking about this stuff and it really was very curious to me.
I think being free from having family that are centered in one side or another I really have pursued the idea of the concepts about race and what that means and how that is different for different people. So it's really been kind of a lifelong passion for me and I've just been blessed to be able to turn it into a professional passion as well.
Passionistas: [00:03:53] And you actually created a program at Wheelock College centered around this.
Susan X Jane: [00:03:59] Yeah, I was doing youth media work. And I was relatively new to youth media work when I started it. And I worked for the YWCA. And so they asked me how can we make youth media and racism and empowering women connect?
And so I really started to chase that question about how do the messages and the representation of race in our popular culture, and particularly in media, how do they shape our actual experiences and our reality. And so I connected with some people at Wheelock College when I was doing that work. They wanted to start a communications program. And that school had been focused really on thinking about change makers and students as as activists and agents of change. And so I was really lucky to be able to build a communication program that brought those things together.
Passionistas: [00:04:53] How have the issues surrounding race and media changed since you first developed the project?
Susan X Jane: [00:04:59] I think things are so different now than they used to be. I think that you know I think our history is very much a spiral. We kind of go through the same cycles but each time we go through it we've elevated a little bit. And like I said when I first started thinking about race and media it wasn't really a topic that I got any traction with. Nobody was really wanting to talk about it. We really had been thinking that we were kind of post racial. As you know when we got through with the Obama administration we were all crying. We thought that was it. And now I think people realize, "Oh this element that really is at the very foundation of America is still impeding our ability to become the kind of nation that we've always dreamed to be." I call it our better angels.
And so I think that now people are really interested in it. It's super exciting to see things like Oscars So White or the amount of representation on TV. Thinking about who is in the writers room. These are issues that I feel like I've taught about for a long time. And it's like Obama getting elected. I didn't ever think I would see this where we're like, "Hey who's in your writers room?" You know that is really exciting stuff. So I think that we're in a moment where a lot of things can change. But like a lot of change that's happening now we have to really be very vigilant to make sure that we actually turn a corner. So it's an exciting time for sure.
Passionistas: [00:06:28] How do we turn that corner?
Susan X Jane: [00:06:30] I think that having better conversations about race is a couple of things. One we have to actually get clear about race. I think if you asked 100 people what race is they would have wildly different ideas about it. Because some people experience it very much on the individual level. Other people are really struggling with structural oppression and racism. And so there's a lot of misunderstanding about how those things connect and what they actually are. So the first thing is that we have to have some clear conversation so we all know what we're talking about. But I really think that what we're seeing now just this long term shift over the last five years, ten years where we're seeing different representation. Where we're seeing different voices fill up all these channels that technology is giving us. I think that makes a huge difference. I think that social media and the Internet has the ability to be really democratizing but that we have to really be able to leverage it and so that means getting great voices like you ladies out there and getting people hearing about it. And having us talk about things like, "What does it mean to be an empowered woman?" That doesn't that wasn't a story that we were hearing 10 or 20 or 30 years ago you know. And so that work brick by brick I think is how we move forward.
Passionistas: [00:07:50] I'm encouraged to hear how optimistic you are in this conversation. But how do we deal with the fact that it's now OK for people to kind of say these things that maybe they weren't saying for a long time?
Susan X Jane: [00:08:03] Well the thing is they were always saying them they just maybe weren't saying them in public. And so I think again technology and the shifts in media have really changed the way that conversations and it was really just changed where that conversation it's not behind closed doors. It's out in public.
I like to say that I'm totally unreasonably optimistic. All of the data points to... We're really in a dark corner. And I have my days where I really have to sit and say, "Wow this is really, really bad." Even with the recent election we get so excited we see all this change and then it's like it is a brick by brick process. So it is really difficult. But what makes me optimistic is that we are moving towards something that is inevitable. We are rapidly becoming a majority minority country. For a young people that are under 18, we are already a majority minority country. So millennials really live in a world that is multicultural already.
Our planet is getting smaller and I think unfortunately with climate change that will continue to happen. We're kind of at this point where I'm not alone anymore in thinking these things. And even though it's really hard for people to think about and to experience like we're all thinking about it together. And that's super exciting. I think that that's how change happens.
I'll tell you a short story if I can. In Massachusetts we had Question 3 where we were talking about the rights of trans people. And I had a conversation with my mother who is a white woman, and an older white woman, myself, a person of color, and my young niece who is a queer identifying young woman. And so the three of us had a really hard conversation about what does it mean. And my mother asking questions like, "I don't understand this and this isn't the way it used to be." And rather than us getting into the fight that we always in our discourse we just sat with the heaviness. And we talked it through and she decided to vote yes.
And I think, sorry. It was very emotional because I think for Ciba to see your grandmother sees you as you are was incredibly powerful. And that's the hard work is getting into those conversations with the people that we care about and making that change.
It is intense because it's very personal work. But in the end it when you make it personal it's like can you see me. And that's what makes it intense and personal and also powerful. And I think, on an individual level, people can feel each other. They can see each other across those lines. And I think the challenge is getting people to move away from ideas that they've had.
I work a lot with young people and young people always say, "Well when old people die off those ideas will go away." And they won't. When we look at Charlottesville those were young people with torches. The thing is that people have to have a space to ask those questions. Why is it this way? Why would somebody propose a law that would restrict somebody else's rights? And rather than attacking them, that's a real question. And the information was not always available to people. When my mother went to school they didn't talk about these issues. They didn't... She said to me we didn't have these issues. And I think for her was really validating to hear. Yes, something new is happening and we want you to be a part of it.
And she asked from a place of really wanting to be a part of it. She's very much an independent minded person. And so it was about seeking information. But when I said to her it really comes down to us and look at me I am a person of color. What would you want for me? And instantly she said, "I see it clearly." You know and so that's what we have to do is to have those hard conversations across the boundaries. Not equal conversations. I think a lot of times we get into this fairness bias where they say well one side says this. So we have to hear what the other side says. And I say you know we're kind of in a place where there are two sides. You are either for justice for everybody or you are not.
And I don't see a middle ground that we really need to cover in there. That's going to move us forward. There may be two sides but if we really want to be able to move forward in a way that is humane and liberatory that's it. And the question is simple. You know like with my mother when I said to her, "What is it about discrimination or you that you know are you for it or against it?" And instantly all of the arguments fell away and she was able to clearly see that it is a simple question. And I think it's a simple question a lot of the time.
Passionistas: [00:12:52] Talk a little bit about the consulting work you do with organizations during this cultural shift.
Susan X Jane: [00:12:58] This is exciting because this is some new stuff that I've been doing in the last couple of years. As people are starting to realize that we are in this shifting culture and that demographics of race, around gender, thinking about how millennials think and approach work. Organizations are saying, "I'm not really sure how we get through this or even how to think about these things." And I think that makes sense. A lot of what we're seeing is actual real change. There are new ways of thinking about it. There are new ways of reacting to it. And organizations really need to bring in sometimes the capacity to do that work and to help walk them through a process that will give them a plan that they can execute on to really make their organizations more inclusive.
Passionistas: [00:13:48] What kinds of companies are you finding that are doing this?
Susan X Jane: [00:13:52] I think that there is a lot of diversity work happening across all the sectors which is really exciting. I think a lot of organizations that are larger and are able to are bringing in diversity officers. So there was no CDO you know 10 or 20 years ago and now many major organizations have them. A lot of smaller organizations sometimes have difficulty having the capacity to have someone in-house. So I like to work with organizations that maybe are smaller or mid-range organizations that really want to grow their ability in this area. And they just want to get some some expertise and some guidance and some technical assistance making that happen. And I particularly am interested in the non-profit and higher-ed space. That's where I've been. And I think even though we are sectors that are really concerned about making the world better, we still have to have those clear conversations and plans to make it happen.
Passionistas: [00:14:47] So how do you approach your work with these organizations? What kinds of things do you do?
Susan X Jane: [00:14:52] The first thing is to kind of work with an organization to name what's happening. We all have this sense that something is happening and I think that it is rare for organizations to say, "Let's create the space and the time to actually name what is happening. To look at the shifts. To kind of look at some of the data." Because once you see where some of the data is trending it makes it a lot easier for organizations to make this a priority.
Being attentive to diversity isn't an add on anymore. If 51 percent of the country is women and more than 40 percent of the country is minorities. If you're not doing work that is inclusive, you're leaving a lot of people out of your tent. And so the first thing is to really name what's going on to talk about some of the changes. Our understanding about race — scientifically, culturally, sociologically — that's all been changing. And so I think it's important for them to start there.
And for me personally, I think something that's important that really comes from my background and my upbringing is rather than taking a binary approach — like you're either for it or against it — is for each person to say, "Where am I in the process? And how do I do my work to move forward?" We're not going to end racism this week. We're not going to end racism this year.
And so I think planning for the long haul means each person needs to kind of look at what's happening and then dig into, 'What's my role in it?" And for organizations that also means what are the things that we can do organizationally and what the teams have to do?
Hiring is really important, but H.R. can't be the only department where people are thinking about diversity. You need people thinking about it and every single team and we know from lots of studies that inclusive environments are more productive environments. They're happier environments. They are more successful and they're more profitable. And so for organizations they really need to think about how do all of my teams leverage diversity and inclusion to make them work that they do more satisfying and more successful in terms of their goals?
Passionistas: [00:17:05] We're Amy and Nancy Harrington and you're listening to the Passionistas Project podcast and our interview with Susan X Jane. Visit our website smntks.com To read more of her insights on media race and pop culture. And now here's more of our interview with Susan.
Passionistas: [00:17:22] Can you tell people a little bit about your website?
Susan X Jane: [00:17:25] I've been blogging at my web web site semantics for a few years now for about four years now. And I try to just take a look at what's going on out there and talk a lot about that intersection of race and culture and media. And thinking about how the messages that we're getting are affecting us and are affecting the way that we see the world. And I unfortunately write about Kanye West too much. But I try to look at what's happening in pop culture around race. It used to be a lot easier when I started writing four years ago. Now I feel like there's a new story every couple of minutes and I think that means that we're moving forward. We're all in this conversation now and it is also really tiring.
But I love to write. I love to connect with people and talk about what it is that I see and hear back from people what they're thinking. I think that more than anything culture is this process that we move through together. So writing about it gives me a chance to really kind of step into that process with readers and go through it together.
Passionistas: [00:18:31] You mentioned a little while ago, there are days where you feel sort of defeated. How do you continue? How do you get back on your feet and move forward?
Susan X Jane: [00:18:39] It's challenging I think there's a lot of talk about self-care out there which has lots of really great ideas about what you can do to take care of yourself. But I think that understanding it as a lifelong process and accepting that that's what it is really important.
I've been thinking about culture like I said my whole life and it is exhausting. So sometimes I unplug. I like to be creative. So I go and craft or paint or walk my dog. I think nature is a great antidote. When we connect and see the processes of nature that are around us, it reminds us that this too shall pass.
Sometimes I will go buy a home improvement projects tool and do something I don't know how to do. Like put a door on or you know shingles. I did not do well with shingles. So I try to push myself outside of my comfort zone and I think interacting with the material world and recognizing that for all the conversation for all the intensity of our discourse that the physical world still exists. And that we can go out and hug people and look at the sky and exchange connection. And that that world is the most important world. And that that world is still out there and that's what we're doing it all for anyways.
Passionistas: [00:19:59] Is there a lesson that you've learned so far in your career that you've kind of carried with you throughout it?
Susan X Jane: [00:20:06] You have to orient yourself in a place of deep empathy to do the work. When we talk about racism or sexism or classism what we're really looking at is division. Ways that we divide up the massive amount of humans on this planet. And the purpose of that division is allocation of resources — time, power, money. That's really the bottom line underneath it all. And so when we are done arguing with who's done what to whom, the question really is who's holding power and who is really in need of power? And so I think that that for me is the thread that runs through all of it. And that I think is the thing that allows you to tap into that empathy.
When We get into a hard issue like the conversation with my mother around thinking about trans rights. When I asked her to think about you know who has power here? It seemed much clearer to her than listening to all of the rhetoric that goes around. I think we have a lot of rhetoric in our community. But when you orient yourself in your empathy, you are most able to do this work.
And that means thinking carefully about why do people disagree? And to not think people are stupid or crazy or ignorant, but to realize that people have very valid points of view that are different. And we need to help them free themselves from these layers of social structure to be able to see deeply their own humanity and to connect to their own compassion and empathy.
It's easy to do the work when you are looking at people that agree with you. It's very hard to sit and to say to someone, "I love you enough to want to walk you back to a place where we are connected, even though you are telling me you hate me." People that are full of hate are not in integrity with themselves. And that is where I get my empathy from. That I'm not angry at you. I see what is out of integrity with your greatest possibilities and that allows me to want the best for you.
Passionistas: [00:22:23] What's been your biggest professional challenge and however you overcome it?
Susan X Jane: [00:22:27] I think the biggest challenge for me is that I am doing something that kind of lives outside of a really defined space. I mean now there's a lot of space to talk about diversity and inclusion, but it hasn't always been this way. So I think my biggest professional challenge is really finding where is the place where what I do lives. Somebody asked me that question, "Where does what you do live?"
That's such a good question and that's the challenge for me is finding what's happening now that will put me in a place where I can really you know kind of use my skills to move things forward for the next five years, for the next 10 years, so I can really dig into scale and a way of being and do good work in that area. So finding my space and trusting my voice I think that's very much for a lot of women and women of color. You're trained to like be quiet. Don't be crazy and just trusting my voice if I had anything to say to my 13-year-old self. It would be like screaming from the rooftops, "Girl right!"
Passionistas: [00:23:31] What's the most rewarding part of your career?
Susan X Jane: [00:23:34] I feel a deep sense of purpose with what I do. And I feel like that's incredibly rewarding. You know to be able to see people open up to their own possibilities is such a gift. And to have people say like, "Oh you helped me do that." The payoff for that is enormous and huge. And so it always makes me feel like each day I can wake up and say, "Oh yeah like I feel really gratified and really fulfilled in pursuing like a deep lifelong purpose." And that is such a gift.
Passionistas: [00:24:05] Looking back on your path so far is there one decision that you look at that you consider the most courageous thing that you did that sort of changed your trajectory?
Passionistas: [00:24:15] I say yes. When I don't want to sometimes. And I think that there have been a number of times that people have said, "Oh you know can you do x." And I think and then I just yes. I can do that.
And so there are a couple of times that I've stepped out on a yes that really pushed me to do something outside my comfort zone. When I moved from being a nonprofit director to being a professor. That was a yes. Like can you be a professor? I was like yes I will do that. And that was... There was a learning curve that was steep but then I feel like when a moment presents itself if you step to it all things will shake out. And that was a powerful lesson because then as I go into new areas now I remember that. That you know when you're on the edge of the cliff sometimes I'm very afraid. And I remind myself jump anyway. You're going to be fine.
Passionistas: [00:25:11] What did your mother teach you about women's roles in society when you were growing up?
Susan X Jane: [00:25:16] My mother is an amazing woman. She's very kind. She is kind of that mother that you think of you know. Like she has a great smile and she has great holidays stuff. And she does all those traditions and great things. And there also is this little element of her that is very subversive. And the older I got the more I would connect to that side of her. And I love that she taught me that you can both be a kind person and show up in ways that are really positive and optimistic and also challenge and push and want to create other kinds of spaces. So they are there are different kinds of thinkers, my parents. And so I think she taught me to subvert with a smile.
Passionistas: [00:26:10] Do you have any other influential female role models while you were growing up?
Susan X Jane: [00:26:15] I would have to say my mother was my my most important role model but I was an avid reader. So all of the characters of classic literature were all of my role models. And that was really exciting. So I love to escape into books to find women who did amazing and wonderful things or took on daring feats. And I think that that was really important for me. I was able to connect to women of all sorts of different cultures and that really opened up whole worlds for me. So all of the women of classic literature were really big fave's of mine for sure.
Passionistas: [00:26:58] Are there any specific literary characters or real life pop culture female icons that stick out to you?
Susan X Jane: [00:27:05] I really love Bell Hooks. I think that she's been saying some amazing stuff for a very long period of time. And I really like that.
Ava. Ava. Ava. Ava DuVernay. She's just transforming media in a way that I think is going to last for many, many decades. It's not just that she's making amazing work, which she is, but that she is opening the door for amazing women who are doing amazing work. And she's doing that and she's really challenging the industry in terms of saying look I can do this. This is doable. The whole history of the industry saying well we can't change this is just the way it is. She's really changing all of that. So I would have to say right now she is my super super super hero. And I think that everything she touches helps to really widen out the narrative for women and for women of color. So for sure her.
Passionistas: [00:28:04] Have you had professional mentors in your career?
Susan X Jane: [00:28:07] I have been really blessed to have female bosses and female bosses of color. And I think that that made an amazing difference for me. It meant that I had a boss that trusted me to take things on and to take on big challenges. So that was really transformative. When I worked at the YWCA, Deb Dickerson just transformed who I was. And it really was by just believing in me and being there for me when I succeeded. Watching me fail. You know I'd say I'm going to go do this crazy thing. And she would always just chuckle. "Ok I'll see you when you get back." And when I get back going, "I didn't work." She'd be like OK well let's talk it through." And I think that she gave me the room to find that space that I was talking about. That space that I was looking for. Where does this do... Where does what I do live? She created a home for me that I was able to take once that work there was done and now that I carry with me. So Deb Dickerson was definitely my mentor. Big time.
Passionistas: [00:29:11] Is there a question that we as interviewers or we as a society aren't asking about diversity that we should be asking?
Susan X Jane: [00:29:21] I think that we need to let go of the idea that we know what it is that we know what it's been and be open to the idea that something different is happening. When we look at race it has not always existed. It is a relatively modern invention. Race, as we know it, did not exist before 1500. And race, in the way that it operates in America, was really a part of the trafficking of people from Africa. It was a way of structuring power that was going to create the labor force needed to build you know these colonized spaces.
And when we think about race from that standpoint we understand that it is fundamentally a social structure used to kind of create these divisions. And that's very different from it being a personal thing about how we feel about people. No matter how we feel about different people, we can agree that we would like power to be structured equally. And I think that's a point where we can begin to do that work. And so I think the biggest thing to do is to let go of the idea that race is about you personally and how you feel. Because if all of us said tomorrow, "All Right we're all going to say that we're not going to be racist anymore and we're all going to treat people equally." Our policies and procedures and institutions are not designed to do that. And that's the work that we can all began on.
Passionistas: [00:30:55] What's your secret or rewarding life?
Susan X Jane: [00:30:58] Have fun. I think that my secret to a rewarding life is to live with intention and to work towards integrity. None of us are all good or all bad. And so just to be able to seek balance that allows you to live with a lot of forgiveness for yourself and also to not be so driven. And I think that to kind of live in that place where we're trying to balance who we are rather than you know to drive towards perfection I think is really important.
I believe that, this is kind of out there, but I believe in reincarnation. So I think that the goal in this life is to learn to go hard at your purpose and then get what you can get out of it. And so I am really busy learning all I can learn in this life. Because I think that's what I'm here for.
Passionistas: [00:31:51] Do you have a mantra that you live by?
Susan X Jane: [00:31:53] My best friend and I came up with this mantra when we're in school and it is my mantra. "Do everything. Never quit." So just go at it and just keep going at it.
Passionistas: [00:32:05] What's your definition of success?
Susan X Jane: [00:32:06] My definition of success is living in integrity with yourself and that means discovering kind of who you are and finding a harmony both within yourself and in your environment and with the people around you. You know you don't have to be perfect or better than anyone else or famous. You just have to be integrated. The parts of you that are different bring them into some sort of harmony. And that to me I think is success.
Passionistas: [00:32:32] What's your proudest career achievement so far?
Susan X Jane: [00:32:35] My proudest career achievement is every single student I've ever worked with. And seeing them out there shining and doing amazing things. They are poets. And they are educators. And they're teachers. And they're activists. And they give me so much life every single day. I don't have children of my own, but I have a thousand children that are out there changing the world. And that is totally, totally my blessing.
Passionistas: [00:33:02] What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to get into communications in this climate?
Susan X Jane: [00:33:07] Your voice matters. You matter. This space belongs to you. Don't let anybody tell you that it doesn't. And now is your time. The technology is changing and creating more and more space for people. Let's take that space up. Let's fill that space up with our voices and allow our voices to shift the cultural narrative. I would tell her, we need you. Don't be shy. Don't hold back. Do everything. Never quit.
Passionistas: [00:33:32] Thanks for listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Susan X Jane. Visit her website smntks.com to read more of her insights on media race and pop culture. And be sure to subscribe to the Passionistas Project Podcast, so you don't miss any of our upcoming inspiring guests.