I’ve been engaged in discussion on Inclusion and Equity Work a lot recently. In conversations about it, one theme has come up that my fellow white folx seem to struggle with. We tend to get confused when our colleagues with marginalized identities talk about being dehumanized. We are curious because as White folx we don’t understand the dehumanization of cultures based on race, gender, sexuality, etc.
Another colleague was sharing about a keynote speaker that completely centered white culture, and ignored differences in experiences of folx based on their gender expression or racial identities.
As a joke, I asked my colleague to report back when the keynote speaker shared the “starfish” story. Most of us in higher ed know about the starfish story. We heard it as a student, a new professional, etc. if you are unfamiliar with the starfish story, here it is:
A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.
She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”
The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”
The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
— Adapted from The Star Thrower
This is an inspirational story told and retold many times over the course of our professional journeys. The take away is making a difference to the individual and not getting caught up and overwhelmed in the entire system.
So back to my story; someone else chimed in and said “I love the starfish story!” To which I responded (and edited for this page):
Oh. I’m not criticizing the starfish story per se. The problem is unlike the starfish scenario, in real life we tend to worry (as a society and field) more about the white folx tanning on the beach looking at the girl in amusement than we do actually worrying about the star fish on the beach.
And as white folx, we wrongly believe throwing the starfish back in the water makes a difference, when the problem is the starfish are ACTUALLY human beings crawling out of the ocean because they want to chill on the beach with the other humans they see chilling.
These humans who we see as starfish question why we keep throwing them back in the water trying to drown them, when all they want is to be seen as human and be invited to hang on the beach instead of being looked at as a mindless, cold, creature.
Ok. Maybe I am criticizing the starfish story.
In our drive to live in a more equitable society, we see Inclusion Work from the beach. We look in amusement at the little girl throwing the starfish back in the ocean. Occasionally, we may understand what the little girl is doing, and like the old man may see value in what the little girl is doing in the face of such a huge issue (like Inclusion Work). We have an easy time putting ourselves in the story as the folx on the beach, the girl, or the old man.
But at no point do we stop and consider the starfish in the story. We don’t question whether it is actually a starfish. We see the starfish as something to send back to their “natural habitat.” But what if they aren’t starfish at all? What if they are fellow humans who just want to be on the beach with us? Something to chew on as we become Three Dimensional Leaders.
Edit: Someone shared they had remembered this story similarly to something they had read in the 90s. If that is the case, it is purely coincidental, but I want to acknowledge the possibility that this post may overlap. This developed as an organic discussion on facebook. If I discover the source (or someone else knows it) I will be glad to cite it.