Senator Elizabeth Warren is credited with a quote that has gotten a lot of attention: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” There has been a lot of attention to this quote and it seems quite popular in progressive circles.
I’m one of those folks who really like it, but I also think this statement needs and deserves some further exploration about what it means, particularly in terms of the positionality of who’s speaking it.
When I first heard this quote, I heard it as the ones not having a seat at the table as being those who are traditionally dis-enfranchised: women, black and brown folks, the poor, disabled folks, GLBTQI people And “the table” as being set in Congress, the White House or the state houses around the country. From what I know about Senator Warren, this is what she meant when she said this.
But like anything stated, if we take the one-liner out of context, there is a chance (if not a likelihood) that it can be used in different contexts and with dire consequences. As powerful as this is as a one-liner, it is not a universal truth.
I am a 50-something year old man with white skin who is in a long-term relationship with a woman, is a home-owner and has a child. I am also politically and spiritually progressive and have a history of a long-term relationship with another man. In some ways, I am represented at “the table” and in a lot of ways I am not. But even in the ways that I am not represented at “the table”, I don’t particularly fear being on the menu. I’m not sure what the harmful consequences are for me, or people like me, if I (or someone like me) does not have a seat at the table. And I surely don’t pretend that the consequences that I may face in any way compare to the very real very significant consequences that, for example, immigrant mothers, or poor black fathers face. Â This is part of the privilege I carry with me every day. The privileges I am granted by my white skin, my male-ness, my age, my position in a heterosexual relationship all shield me from any danger I may face for potentially being on the menu of a table at which I’m not represented.
I also can think of other tables that I, in all my positionalities, would not and should not be welcome. The consequence of my not being represented at those tables is decidedly not that I’m likely to appear on someone’s menu. I don’t think, for example, that women who create a table for them to sit at and excluding me necessarily means I’m on anyone’s menu. I don’t believe that a coalition of black, Latin@, Asian, Native and mixed-ethnic folk sitting at a table to create solutions for the issues they face, means I’m at risk for being on the menu. Context and positionality matter!
Taking this statement to its next step means for those of us who are privileged; those of us who do, more often than not, find ourselves at the table, have a particular obligation while we’re sitting at these tables to pay attention to who might be, inadvertently, on the menu. What are the consequences for people who aren’t present of the decisions we’re making? How do those consequences differ depending on the intersecting identities of those who are not present? At what cost to them are the decisions I/we (those of us at the table) we’re considering? How can I/we find out?
This is not a plea to figure out how we can speak for them. Rather, it’s a call for us to pay attention to the tables that we’re at, who’s not at those tables, and exploring ways to advocate for them to be at the table.
When our privilege(s) show up, it’s generally at the expense of someone(s) else. I’m on the Advisory Board of a local male advisory initiative to the local domestic violence/rape crisis agency. More often than not, these meetings are all-white, and all older adult men (no men of college age, no adolescent men, etc.). It can be very easy for me, when I’m not paying attention, to operate as if the we in the room can advise to the Center as if we speak for all men and boys. I have the opportunity and obligation to remind myself that black, Latino, Asian and Native men; gay, bisexual and trans men; and younger men may have some different perspectives to the issues we’re talking about, and that their perspectives may have significant impact on the advice that they (and thus we) have to offer. It’s not my job to speak for all these folks, but I can do my level best to make sure we’re figuring out ways to be sure that these voices, who are currently not at the table, get heard and their impact can be brought back to the table.
There are also times when I need to notice who’s at the table, who’s not and then decide to not to be at the table. Just because I’m invited to sit at the table, or have the “right” (by whatever criteria someone is divvying out “rights” to be at a table, doesn’t necessarily mean that I choose to sit down. There are times when it makes more sense for me to pass on those opportunities. There are times when it makes sense for me to attend, but stay standing along the wall, allowing someone else to take the seat.
Those of us who have privilege, also should notice how that privilege is manifest at the tables we’re sitting at, and pay attention to at who’s expense the privilege present is being manifest. Not all privilege manifests the same way in all situations. I don’t have much of a poker face. People who are in a room with me pretty much know what I’m thinking and feeling about the topics at hand. In some rooms, my privileges afford me the opportunity to dominate the space without saying a word. In other rooms (sometimes different rooms with the same folks) the same privileges and behaviors do not manifest by my presence becoming dominant. Either way, a part of my responsibility is to know this about myself, monitor while I’m at these tables, and notice the context to see how this may be playing out.
Paying attention isn’t all the costly (although sometimes the decisions we make because we’re paying attention can be). Paying attention allows us to make different kinds of decisions and strategically choose how we’re going to stand for justice.
© 2017 Rus Ervin Funk