People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

This fear that Martin Luther King Jr. talks about is also present in groups united with a common goal to advocate for an equitable cause. Yes, even in feminist advocacy circles.

How? It’s simple: a lack of communication. Ineffective communication is the same as no communication.

We’re currently in what some would call the fourth wave of feminism which is characterized by digital advocacy and intersectionality. As a result, there has been a resurging fight for the representation of socially stratified and historically marginalized groups in feminist advocacy circles. To achieve this, we need, now more than ever, to properly communicate with each other and reach those goals.

To me, effective communication is an equitable, dynamic transfer of meaning and shared goals that are understood by all parties involved.

My involvement in several advocacy circles led me to the path of learning the barriers to effective communication after seeing conflicts arise and progress thwarted.

Hence, I find three communication barriers developed by LaRay M. Barna: anxiety, assuming similarity instead of difference, stereotypes and prejudice, applicable in feminist advocacy circles.

Barrier #1 – Anxiety

The first barrier, anxiety, involves the initial phase of interaction with someone, which motivates one to reduce uncertainty in the advocacy circle. All forms of interaction can provoke anxiety.

Still, when you interact with people in an advocacy circle (especially if they are different from you), anxiety increases as you have unique factors to consider.

Will the group accept you?

Will your concerns be addressed?

Will your interactions with others go well?

These questions and others similar may plague your mind.

Anxiety in new situations is common and natural – it’s our body’s natural response to stress, after all. However, high anxiety can cause someone to avoid communication altogether, while extremely low anxiety could induce apathy or a disregard of the circle’s activities.

Anxiety is a natural pathway to fear, an emotion that shouldn’t be present in supposedly inclusive circles striving for gender equality. Likewise, populations more vulnerable to harm due to systemic injustices shouldn’t be exposed to the same issues within advocacy groups.

Tip: Next time you’re feeling anxious about communicating with diverse groups of people, take a deep breath and explore the root of the anxiety. Are you just prone to anxiety in any situation and will adjust after a while? Are there biases you have about the group that are making you anxious? How can you get support, and what tools do you have to ease your anxiety?

Barrier #2 –  Assuming similarity instead of difference

The second barrier, assuming similarity instead of difference, as the name implies, involves assuming similarity between advocacy circles and the people within them.

You may be thinking: Why is this a bad thing? Shouldn’t we focus on what we have in common with other people?

It’s not wrong to see similarities between people and similar causes; in fact, it is encouraged. It only becomes a barrier to effective communication when the similarities are immediately assumed. Assumptions are things that are believed to be accurate but not proven or known to be.

It is easy for one to think that most people from an advocacy circle you’re exposed to share the same things as you do, but when we do that, we lose sight of essential differences.

The core principle of intersectionality lies in recognizing people’s multiple socio-political identities and how they intersect to create unique forms of oppression and privilege.

To illustrate, if a white feminist assumes total similarity between herself and a Black feminist within feminist advocacy circles, she overlooks the additional barriers Black women face. Similarly, if someone assumes complete similarity between feminism movements and womanism, they dismiss its distinct origins, theory and the historical conditions that birthed it.

Consequently, this barrier can lead to miscommunication in feminist advocacy circles. As a result, people fail to be on the same page in achieving the circle’s goals, especially since other vital goals would be excluded.

Tip: It is better to assume nothing and continuously research and ask first.

Barrier #3 – Prejudice & Stereotypes

The third barrier, stereotypes and prejudice, involves making judgments about individuals based on group membership.

Stereotype refers to the negative or positive judgments made about individuals based on any observable or believed group membership. Prejudice refers to the irrational suspicion or hatred of a particular group, race, religion, or sexual orientation.

This barrier resonates with me the most since I am a racialized person who has been affected by stereotypes and prejudice before, and since I am interested in advocacy work, it is a barrier I seek to break down for other people.

At first, it may seem unbelievable that this barrier would exist within feminist advocacy circles since you would expect such groups to be the most inclusive and equitable. Unfortunately, however, advocacy circles are not exempt from perpetuating oppressive beliefs since they too comprise individuals, and human beings are naturally prone to biases.

Those biases, usually implicit, can grow into prejudice and reinforce stereotypes of marginalized members in advocacy circles. Communication in such circles becomes tainted.

This becomes a significant problem and can impede the progress fourth-wave feminism seeks to implement. Moreover, not only can stereotypes and prejudice hinder effective communication, but they can also harm the targeted individual in several wellness dimensions (emotionally, mentally, physically, etc.).

Tip: Feminist advocacy circles should create an awareness of stereotypes & prejudice through informational anti-oppressive resources and tools instead of assuming that this barrier won’t affect them.

To conclude, it is essential to be aware of these barriers to effective communication and practice the tips suggested so you can address them when they inevitably come up. Of course, there are other barriers, but recognizing anxiety, assuming similarities instead of differences, and stereotypes & prejudice will serve as a stepping point for discovering others and ensuring effective communication in feminist advocacy circles.

About the Author

Priscilla Ojomu is a Nigerian-Canadian 3rd-Year BA student majoring in Psychology and minoring in Sociology at UAlberta. Priscilla's work at WEW is fuelled by her passion for promoting awareness of the experiences of marginalized communities through accessible information and resources.

Literature, tea, podcasts, Studio Ghibli movies (Fun fact: she has 100+ collectible postcards of the feature films from 1984 - 2014), art, volunteering and advocating for equity keep her busy.