immersion + intersectionality = a new way of educating ourselves about each other

What is immersion?

Immersion refers to learning something, usually cultural norms or a language, by being completely surrounded by it rather than explicitly instructed about it. The term is encountered in contexts such as hiring or clinician referrals in which someone might state, for instance, that a clinician with lived experience is preferred, but a clinician heavily immersed in the community would also be considered. 

Why immersion?

[It is assumed that folks looking to increase cultural responsiveness have a basic understanding of privilege and marginalization, and in particular, an understanding of white privilege and ableism.

One of the main principles of ImmerSection, as in most social justice models, is the emphasis that marginalized folks should not have the responsibility of educating privileged folks, and that the person holding the privilege does have the responsibility of seeking out this education.]

When a professional has not been sufficiently immersed in a culture, and has only learned about a particular experience from professionals who do not have lived experience, the professional is likely to display constant glaring errors and misconceptions, and these are obvious to the individual, frustrating, and they cause harm. Additionally, someone who has sought out some degree of lived experience, but has not truly engaged in Immersion-Informed Practices, is often unaware of trends and norms of a particular experience. In contrast, someone who has gained a solid understanding of an experience will recognize that people of a shared experience are not a monolith, yet will be able to identify common or majority views and practices from those that are more unusual or outliers. The goal, put simply, is that we want to avoid those situations where someone says, "clearly this was done without consulting any ____ people." (Even if time or budget constraints mean that we weren't able to have all the voices at the table who should have been.)

Examples of situations in which failure to use Immersion-Informed Practices causes harm

[All scenarios are composites of multiple situations that have been shared, with identifying details changed.]

Robert, a Black man, logs onto Twitter. He learns there has just been a high-profile police shooting of a Black man in a different city. He looks at Twitter all evening, reading the different perspectives. He texts and tweets with his friends and colleagues about the shooting and about anti-Black sentiments in the US in general. He sees tweets from professors, scholars, elected officials, and many others emphasizing that #BlackLivesMatter and calling for defunding and abolition of police. Several of his friends discuss how they are not looking forward at all to dealing with white coworkers the next day, and how they feel even less safe in the US now. 

The next day, Robert goes to work. His Black colleagues give one another knowing somber nods and exchange brief sentiments about the state of the country and their safety. A group of Robert's white colleagues are laughing hysterically about a reality TV show from the night before. One of them presses him as to why he did not watch it. He mentions the police shooting. None of his white colleagues have heard about it. They do not understand why the shooting of a stranger in another city has such an impact on him. One of them googles it and finds white commentators discussing how the man had a history of drug possession charges. Robert quickly excuses himself.

While there are clearly a lot of layers of racism to be unpacked and undone here, and it would be ridiculous to claim that just following social media feeds would abolish racism, there is quite a bit that social media immersion could address here to improve the situation. If Robert's colleagues were to follow a number of Black leaders and thinkers on social media, they would have been aware of the police shooting, and aware that it was highly impactful to most Black folks. They would have heard the sentiment that drug charges do not give the police the right to murder people, and that discussing the man's past is racist. They would have hopefully recognized that the calls to abolish policing are being repeated by many professors and elected officials and are not a "fringe" viewpoint held by lawless people. They would have been aware that their Black colleagues would be feeling even more unsafe, and could have been more sensitive in terms of coming into the office raving about a reality show oblivious to their Black colleagues' somber mood. 

Similarly, Immersion-Informed Practices can prevent a number of common microaggressions. When we surround ourselves with the current "buzz" among different groups, marginalized folks are then subject to fewer frustrating interactions such as people being unaware they are observing a major cultural holiday, ignorant of grooming and hygiene norms, or lacking understanding of common vernacular and cultural references. 

Sara, an autistic psychologist, is looking for an art therapist for her autistic son, who has experienced a traumatic event. She calls and speaks with an agency that has an art therapy program for children who have experienced trauma. She introduces herself with a bit of her professional and family background, and explains she would like her son to work with one of the program's art therapists. The clinician speaking with her tells her that she will register her son for the agency's ABA program for "children with autism." Sara explains she is looking for short-term art therapy for trauma, which she understands the agency provides. The clinician tells her their art therapy program doesn't work with "children with autism" but might be willing to try, and could maybe seek training or supervision for the art therapist working with her son. Sara mentions she has a referral list of autistic professionals who do this if this is helpful. The clinician states, "No, supervision would be with a professional, not a person with autism, and it would be with someone from the ABA program since that's who understands children with autism." Sara explains she will have to think about it. The clinician sends her a followup e-mail with her contact information, along with a link to the program's ABA program, which discusses autistic people as rigid and lacking empathy, and an article on the Autism Speaks website about an autistic adult woman dealing with chronic PTSD. Sara recognizes that the center is not safe for autistic folks, and decides to guide her son in self-help and using informal supports of autistic and allied community members instead. 

Again, there are many layers of ableism to unpack here. However, it is clear that this program that claims to work with autistic people is not in any way familiar with the autistic community. If the leadership of the program were to follow autistic-led support organizations and autistic adults on social media, they would be aware that the autistic community in general prefers "autistic person," that there is ample research that ABA is harmful (and in any case, is not remotely a relevant treatment for processing trauma, which is why the parent called), and that most autistic adults consider Autism Speaks an ableist anti-autistic group. Additionally, if the program leadership were seeking consultation and training, or participated in online forums for neurodiversity-informed clinicians, they would be aware that autistic clinicians exist in sizable numbers (and would have been more likely to listen to and respect the autistic clinician calling them!) 

River is a 16-year-old who has been seeing xir physician regularly for diabetes followup for many years. Several months ago, they were called Logan and used they/them pronouns. They arrive at an appointment wearing eyeliner and barrettes and explain they are now using the name David and pronouns he/him/his. David once again declines the physician's suggestion to be seen at the local hospital's medical gender clinic, stating he is not interested in any medical gender affirmation, and just wants to discuss his diabetes care. He reports he is doing well with school, extracurricular activities, and friendships, which his grandfather also confirmed on a recent phone call with the physician. His physician asks him detailed questions about why he has changed his name and the physician refers to "transgender girls." David states he isn't sure what trans girls have to do with him, but emphasizes he is a demiboy, not a trans boy. He mentions to the physician that he was called his deadname at the front desk and found this frustrating. His physician asks what he means, and he clarifies he was called his female legal first name. The physician asks a radiologist in the health center, an older trans woman, if trans men typically wear women's accessories, change names frequently, and deny being trans. She tells him no, they don't. David's physician refers him for an involuntary psychiatric hospitalization, citing dissociative identity disorder, references to his past self being "dead," and "delusions of being a demigod." 

In this instance, the physician has been provided with physician-led "trans 101" trainings, but is clearly completely unfamiliar with patterns of gender identity exploration and evolution often seen in trans and nonbinary adolescents. He misinterprets vocabulary that is commonly used in the younger LGTBQ community, and is unaware of trans narratives other than those involving a "realization" and a sudden shift in presentation from assigned gender to the "opposite" binary gender. He sees the shifts in identity and expression as evidence of a delusional disorder, as they do not fit the narrow trans narrative in which he was trained. 

This type of situation exemplifies an instance in which googling, reading articles, or attending "101" trainings on trans issues would not have entirely helped, as this physician had some basic knowledge on trans healthcare, but little education on trans culture, and believed he was seeing something entirely different than a trans presentation. Even his brief consultation with someone of lived experience was not useful, as the physician did not ask the right questions, and likely asked someone without the specifically relevant lived experience (and who was also probably put off by his questioning and was not interested in educating him). Immersion-Informed Practices, such as observing in the many public trans spaces online would likely have taught him how common and normal it is especially for younger folks to openly explore gender expression with frequent changes of name and pronouns.