Equally Wed Pro Blog

The art of unlearning: an essential practice for authentic inclusivity

inclusivity insights Jan 03, 2023
Text based image with the words "The Art of Unlearning, an essential practice for authentic inclusivity by Kirsten Palladino," along with a headshot of Kirsten Palladino, a smiling white woman with blonde hair and a coral dress with white polka dots. In the background is a photo of a white person with a book open and holding a pencil.

For inclusivity in the wedding industry, hospitality, or in any facet of personal or professional matters, we need to approach it with the understanding that we’re going to need to unlearn some things. This could be because what you’ve learned might be untrue or that things have changed. Flexibility is key here.

When I teach LGBTQ+ inclusivity in my courses, workshops and team training, I try to come to the subject and my students with an open mind. Having that open mind helps me stay curious. Even though I teach from research and data acquired over the course of nearly 13 years of professional work, I know that there’s never an end to learning about other people. People are vibrant and ever-evolving beings, so how could we know all there is to know about them, their experiences, their concepts about themselves?

Notice that I used the word “try.” It’s human nature to fail, but it is something else entirely to try again after you’ve failed. This is something that must be done when working to become more inclusive of marginalized people. We all must open our minds and look inside to realize what we’ve been indoctrinated with. Each of us has been taught a set of beliefs (or a mixed bag of assumptions) about all types of people different from us (or even those who are similar). In most cases, there's not one specific source to blame. We have learned these beliefs and ideas from anyone we’ve spent any significant time with who we also trusted, as well as the types of entertainment and education we have consumed, whether it’s on the internet, in books, on TV, a radio show or a podcast.

We also learn from experiences with other people. Perhaps you had a challenging encounter with a difficult lesbian client, or you and a fellow wedding pro of a different race don’t agree on something. This is life, of course! We're not always going to get along with other people—you know this. But to lump those experiences in with beliefs about a certain community of people is where trouble brews, how bias grows and feeds an inaccurate sense of beliefs (not knowledge) about an entire section of society. These can be from positive experiences as well. Think of a time that you saw something thrilling from an LGBTQ+ wedding, such as a drag queen as the officiant on a real wedding featured on Equally Wed. Or you enjoyed blending Jewish wedding traditions with Japanese wedding traditions, and your couple loved it. This doesn't mean that all queer weddings are officiated by drag queens, nor does it mean that any future Japanese and Jewish clients will be on board with your ideas that have worked in the past.

One of the wisest teachers of unlearning is Rachel Cargle, founder of The Great Unlearn, who said, "We grew up in a world we didn’t create. Now it’s time to unlearn it."

We all make assumptions about people, and part of why we do this is because we’re subconsciously satisfied with the limited knowledge we have about them. It might not be because we’ve thought that something could only go a certain amount of ways. But whatever that assumption is, if it’s not challenged, it’ll likely remain the same within us, increasing the potential risk of causing harm to someone else.

Assumptions can be harmful in myriad ways. Many people (LGBTQ+ or otherwise) find it offensive to have their gender identity assumed based on their clothing. That might not feel like a huge deal to someone who’s never experienced the psychologically damaging effects of their gender identity not being believed or feeling endangered because of this. Strangers constantly assume I’m married to a man until I tell them otherwise, and sometimes I hesitate to mention my wife to those people because what if they don’t approve—and they’re interested in sharing that disapproval with violence? When wedding and event pros assume what LGBTQ+ couples and marriers want for their weddings and events, as well as how they want to be treated, the harm might look like not feeling safe to speak up about what they do want or redirecting that assumption (which can feel a lot like judgment) toward themselves, leading to depression and anxiety.

Over the years of teaching LGBTQ+ inclusivity, I've developed something I call a golden rule for being inclusive and affirming is simple: Never assume. And assuming is something we have to unlearn, too!

In order to be inclusive of different cultures and communities of people, we must first be open to learning about them, which then leads to learning what makes them feel safe, comfortable, celebrated, included and welcome. But we can’t do any of that learning without first unlearning what we think we know.

Unlearning takes courage. It doesn’t mean turning on anyone or anything who may have given you incorrect information or shared their beliefs with you though it might mean having the courage to realize that not everything you believe is true.

The art of unlearning is the practice of continuously being open to discovering something new that is in direct opposition to what you previously believed to be true.

Have you ever experienced that magical moment of reckoning with yourself that it’s possible to be wrong about something you’ve known with certainty? To feel that tension of rightness slide off of you as a new world of possibilities open up because you allowed yourself to unlearn in order to be taught again in a different way, in a more informed way? That’s what I invite you to do now: Be open to putting aside your opinions in order to have space to gain new ones based on information gleaned from other people’s perspectives, experiences and knowledge.

We can't wipe our brains clean of what we've thought or learned before us, but we can make space for thinking of things differently, and unlearning that what we've previously believed to be true might not be true at all.

It’s not easy, and it’s not going to happen automatically. That’s why it’s called a practice.

This is where the journey of being authentically inclusive and affirming begins—and continues.