You’ve probably seen articles or videos lately about introverts. Possibly you have friends you never would have suspected who’ve made references to being introverted. “Really?! You? But we met at a party where you were wearing hot pants!” Okay, maybe your friends don’t go to those kinds of parties, but many people who I’ve always thought of as extroverted are now coming out, as it were, as introverts.
At first, I was excited to see and learn more about this. I live with someone who fits every characteristic on the misunderstood introvert list, including dating an extrovert, and I thought it might be helpful for me to better empathize with him.
However, the more I’ve read, the greater my skepticism. I’ve been trying to figure out why this introvert stuff bothers me so much. It’s not because I think people are lying about their personalities matching the 23 Signs you’re Secretly an Introvert list on Huffington Post. It reminds me of horoscopes. I wonder what the science is behind this and who is making money doing the introvert speaking circuit?
And because any time labels divide the complexity of human expression, perspective and experience into two kinds of people (the poor ambiverts always get left out), I suspect they are far too simplistic and most likely based on dominant cultural norms. How could the categories of introvert or extrovert alone possibly apply cross-culturally, given the extent to which our gendered, racialized, class, language, disability, etc. experiences are so different?
Clearly the label of extrovert is based on white, hetero-patriarchal, Christo-normative culture. Although they don’t put it quite that way, the articles about introverts usually mention the pressure they feel by not fitting with dominant cultural norms. But that’s part of the problem. They don’t put it that way. And in so doing, take culture, privilege and power out of the picture.
I could let all of this go if it really were just some new pop culture phenomenon that made people feel better about themselves and helped us recognize and respect our many differences. However, another dynamic I’m seeing as a result of the introversion conversion, is privilege protection.
For as long as I’ve been facilitating conversations about race, I’ve had people saying they were shy, and that’s why they wouldn’t engage in the discussions. This holds weight to a point, and that point is when white people in particular use shy, and now the introvert label, as an excuse to disengage from race conversations.
Examples of privilege protection I’ve seen increasing lately:
“Introverts” only talking with other people they know agree with them that racism isn’t really a problem. This reinforces their beliefs and keeps them insulated from those whose experiences and perspectives would prove otherwise.
White “Introverts” not saying anything in front of the large group while people of color do the heavy lifting in conversations about stereotypes and white privilege.
White “Introverts” looking at their phones during small group discussions when everyone else in the room is engaged in conversations about race.
“Introverts” not sharing their vulnerabilities with coworkers, especially in situations where someone has just told them a story about the deep pain racism caused in their lives. The introvert is quiet and the first person wonders if they’ve revealed too much, if their story will later be used against them as they so often have.
White “Introverts” refusing to attend training on cultural competency because they say workshops where they have to talk with others don’t fit their learning style.
Rather than introversion, much of this behavior actually lies in the fear of making mistakes, especially in public. In the fear that if we make mistakes people will assume we are racist and therefore irredeemably bad people. So in trying to protect ourselves from embarrassment or having to question our biases, we instead stay safe behind a convenient label.
The impact of this is we don’t let in new learning about ourselves that might reveal the ways we’ve colluded with systems of oppression, and therefore learn to change those behaviors. We don’t engage in conversations that can lead to deeper understanding of differences and significant change. By saying, respect my difference as an introvert, a person has a great excuse not to be involved in social change movements.
This doesn’t mean everyone who identifies as an introvert is practicing privilege protection, I know quite a few activists who identify with this label. But I’ll maintain my skepticism as long as I see the label introvert being used for overly simplistic groupings of people and the popularity of this idea providing a convenient way to maintain those same dominant cultural norms they want you to know don’t apply to them.