“Stay in Your Lane”

Stay In Your Lane

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One of the common phrases/sentiments I’m seeing on Twitter in the wake of the Charleston shooting is that people should “stay in their own lanes”. Mostly I’m seeing Black and non-Black anti-racist folks saying this to White people. I have a few thoughts on this phenomenon that I would like to untangle.

The implication, if I’m reading my Twitter feed correctly, from most posters is that White people have no business lecturing Black people about race. In fact, I agree with this opinion and I would go further – people who lack lived and/or intellectual expertise on a subject have no business lecturing people who do have expertise on that subject, nor do they have the right to demand explanations or discussions about those topics from those informed people. People also have no right to hijack a space or community that is not intended for them. If they are welcomed into those spaces, they should follow whatever the behavioral conventions are for that space.

Despite my general agreement with the people on my timeline, I have some issues with where else this phrase could be taken:

1. I have questions about who gets to be in what lanes, and who decides on those lanes. I’m white, cisgender, Jewish, and an atheist. I see no reason why those four things – together or separately – should be the defining characteristic of the people I talk to or work with or spend time with. I also think for people who are bullied, especially queer people, other people trying to force lanes on them is a significant source of distress.

2. Socially, this phrase could be taken as a suggestion to only talk to people like yourself. Only talking to people who are like yourself is boring and overrated in my opinion, and often does not result in people being challenged in any way. I think there is room to learn from and engage with other people without being demanding or rude or abusive in the process.

3. Economically, I dislike the “stay in your lane” philosophy. Our economy increasingly – if not always, in service of capitalism – functions in a way that shoehorns an many people into specialized careers, whether they want them or not. Sure, there jobs that require deep knowledge of something, but the world still needs polymaths and generalists who understand not only a broad range of things, but the connections between them. I have always been encouraged to be a well-rounded person, and to seek breadth in addition to depth in my learning. I believe this encouragement has served me well, as much as it may confuse people I talk to. I have three degrees in not-obviously-related fields (information systems, public policy, and business). These three areas of education give me at least three different ways to understand and approach any given problem, but also enable me to understand linkages and issues that are missed by people who have more focused expertise. The same is true with my hobbies – my enjoyment of photography does not mean I can’t also be a tennis player. My decision to work in sports does not preclude my continued work in activism, and so on.

4. As an activist, my focus is primarily on complexities. Intersectionality, the interconnected nature of policy problems, structural and systemic analyses of inequities, breaking down silos – these are all inherently about rethinking, deconstructing, and reinventing lanes in better ways. I am naturally critical of silo-maintenance, though I recognize that not all silos are broken or pointless and we do need to preserve some of them – particularly ones that provide people space to be safely their whole selves – especially until such time as those spaces may not be needed.

Ultimately, I think people should be encouraged *not* to stay in one lane, in most contexts. However, people should be given guidelines as to how to do this exploration without abusing or otherwise mistreating people who have no interest in guiding other people’s discovery processes.

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