TTDT -- Be Prepared to Speak Your Truth

I think we've all had the experience. Someone -- perhaps someone we know, love, or expect something different from -- says something, right in front of us, that we find so offensive, ignorant, discriminatory, and/or demeaning-- that we are absolutely flabbergasted.

Example: My mother (the woman who used to be all liberal and shit -- who taught me that racism was a really bad thing) says to me, during a phone call, of the Somalian refugees who are now living in her small town: "Well, they all look alike you know!"

Example: My co-workers, who work every day with my white boss (who happens to be married to a black man), and seem to love and respect her, wait until she, and every person of color, is out of the room before they exclaim over the picture of her new daughter: "Oh, thank goodness -- she's so light!"

These are only two of many (personally-experienced) examples -- examples of speech that I recognized, in the moment, as absolutely, positively, unvarnished racism-in-action.

When I heard these statements, I didn't wonder in my head (as I often do, when I receive or overhear a fat-phobic or homophobic comment, however overt) -- "Am I just being sensitive because this is 'my' issue?" I knew immediately that these comments were offensive, ignorant, discriminatory and demeaning.

Yet, in both of the examples above, I was utterly flummoxed at the moment. I did not make an immediate response. I did not speak my truth in the moment, and I lived with regret about that afterward, stewing for days and days about what I should have done in the moment, regardless of what action I took later.

In the first example with my mom, at that moment, I remember that I stammered -- my dad, lingering on the extension phone, jumped in for a quick recovery, changed the subject, and ended the phone call within the next 60 seconds.

In the second example with my co-workers, my jaw actually dropped -- I simply stared, speechless, at them over the picture of this beautiful child, and before I could think of what to say, they had already slunk away to their respective work-stations, and left me standing alone in the break-room.

In both of these encounters, and in many others -- like "Joe" (Vs. the Volcano), as he quits his "job" -- I found my mind whirling around this phrase:

"I should say something."

In truth, however, at each of these moments, I had no idea what to say. While I tried to catch my breath, my brain was, no doubt, busy calculating the risks of possible confrontation, the likelihood of effecting change in the situation, and the emotional and energetic cost of engaging with someone who could say "something like that" while I was a) totally pissed off/triggered, b) uncertain whether I ever wanted to talk to them again, and c) totally pissed off/triggered.

Would I/Should I? --

  1. Launch into an educational diatribe about the heinous results of racism, whether intentional and practiced, or unconscious and entertained?
  2. Simply say, in measured tones: "I can't believe you just said that," and stalk away, clothed in my outrage, hoping that they would understand what had offended me?
  3. Raise my voice to match the intensity of my emotional response and emphatically state: "That is a racist comment, and I won't stand for it!" and hope that someone might actually have the guts to meet me in the crucible where my personal activation was swirling with a global human issue?
  4. Shout with all my might: "You fucking hypocritical turd(s)!", and refuse to deal with them until they apologized?
I've actually done all of those things, in other situations. I haven't found them to be tremendously successful in effecting the change I want to make in the world.

Here are two of the most effective consciousness-changing actions I've ever taken (the first of which I wouldn't have even thought about if I hadn't answered a QOD at Shakesville the other night):

Action #1: Dark theater, 1995. Showing of "Higher Learning" in a cinema located in a well-known liberal west coast city. Audience of 200 or more, mostly urban, well-educated folk.

The movie is all about oppression, and the audience seems to be following along, getting the gist of it all -- until, HORRORS! -- there's a (minuscule -- like maybe three seconds, tops) lesbian kissing scene-- at which groans, retching noises, and choruses of "oh gross!" break out in the theater. I am stunned for a moment.
I can't believe what I'm hearing.

Then, somehow, without thinking, I say, calmly, in a voice just loud enough to be heard throughout the theater: "I'm a lesbian." The place goes dead fucking silent.

The woman next to me fidgets throughout the rest of the movie, but the woman who is in a seat two rows in front of me sits through the credits, as I do, and when the theater is all but empty, and I am leaving, she touches my arm, and asks: "Was it you who said that?" -- "Yes," I answer (after looking around to see who might be waiting to beat the crap out of me).

"Thank you for saying that," she says.

Action #2: I am leaving my brother's second wedding with my mom and dad. They are taking me to the airport. It's a long drive.

On the way, parental units are ripping my new sister-in-law a new asshole. I have no idea why, really.

I suspect they're really mad at my brother, for ruining the "no-divorce" streak that our branch of the family had maintained for a couple of generations, but they're ripping on the new wife, not my brother. I first engage in an educational manner, trying to appeal to "reason" -- but they're having none of it.

Finally, I said: "You know, when I hear you talk like this, I wonder what you say about me, when I'm not here."

Then there is a long, uncomfortable silence, which does not seem to portend any great shift of consciousness.

A year later, my dad takes me aside, and tells me that he remembered what I said, and has thought (and acted) differently about gossiping or complaining about people in the family, ever since.

The commonality in these two actions, I believe, was my willingness to be vulnerable in the moment.

I usually find it much easier to speak up and out on behalf of others -- to protest and confront racism, trans-phobia, hetero-phobia, religious intolerance for religions that are not my own, etc., etc. -- than it is for me to directly confront fat-phobia, homo-phobia, or misogyny, or any of the "isms" that are focused at me directly.

I think this has to do with the fact that I have a suspicion/understanding that it is actually possible for me to see things and hear things through a very subjective filter that may, or may not, provide me with an accurate view of what has just happened. (Shorter Portly Dyke: I don't trust myself.)

I spent several decades of my life perpetually pissed off -- not without reason, mind you -- but, in retrospect, I believe that there was a period during I was actually addicted to my anger -- I became more loyal to my rage than to my reason, and more attached to my identity as an oppressed person/victim than to my desire or motivation to effect change.

So, now, I keep a sharp eye on my RighteousWrath-O-Meter, especially when responding to issues that strike close to the bone for me.

I don't have judgment about feeling mad -- I think that the energy of this emotion can be (and wants to be) transformed into action very effectively. I believe that feeling "pissed off" is telling me something (but probably nothing that feeling "slightly irritated" wasn't telling me, long before I registered being pissed off).

However, I haven't found pedantic lectures, icey walk-outs, or incendiary spews to be necessarily effective.

The one thing that I have actually found to be effective is: My truth. How I feel in the moment.

I wish now that, when my mom had said that, I had responded immediately with: "Mom. I feel sad and mad when I hear you saying that. It doesn't seem to fit for me with what I've heard you say about judging people by their skin color." (Because that's what I thought when I heard it.)

I wish now, that, when my co-workers said what they did, I had responded immediately with: "I feel very bad, and very sad right now. I have the sense that I've just been included in a 'whites only' conversation, and I don't want to be a part of that. I feel scared to even say this, because I think that if I say it, you'll start treating me like you just treated our boss -- waiting for me to leave the room to say what you really think."

This post was inspired by two things:
  1. Thorn's posts at Shapely Prose. Reading her story, with all the "messy" vulnerable feelings included, brought me closer to her experience, and helped me to commit again to speaking up in the moment when I witness or experience oppression.
  2. An experience that I had recently, where the power of telling a personal story of my own, and including the emotional content, without trying to look all "cool", shifted a conversation/conflict dramatically.
So here's the TTDT:

Be prepared to speak your truth -- not "the" truth, and not some "prepared statement". Your truth, in the moment.

Be smart, witty, whatever you will -- but also -- Remember to tell people how you feel -- describe your emotions and experience -- not just the feeling of being mad/angry/rage-full, but also the sadness, the feeling of being scared to speak up, the fear of being "thrown out" or discounted, or simply the dissonant twang that arises when something has been said and you haven't yet figured out, intellectually, what exactly is bugging you about it.

You may be thinking: "Well, they don't care how I feel -- if they did, they wouldn't say what they said!"

Just try it. Try a bit of vulnerability. Sure, they may go for your throat. But hell, if they're as bad as you are projecting them to be, they're going for your throat anyway.

I'm going to be working with this through the next week.

Posted byPortlyDyke at 10:35 PM  


Gender Blank said... July 19, 2007 at 6:44 AM  

Great post, PD. Much to think about.

Will I still be fulfilling my TTDT contract if I couch my emotional truth in some sarcasm? Just a little? I need to wean.

liberalandproud said... July 19, 2007 at 11:20 AM  

I'll do my best. I've pushed so many of those feelings down all these years living in the south. Delayed righteous indignation has tended to be my default. will strive to meet the challenge, though.

PortlyDyke said... July 19, 2007 at 11:47 AM  

GB, you may have a special dispensation of a wee bit o' the sarc every now and then.

Seriously though, I'd reserve this for interactions where you REALLY DON'T CARE if the other person gets any change of consciousness. When someone's sarcastic with me, I experience it as dismissive, and a sign that they probably don't really want to communicate or help me to transform. Just my opinion.

Not that I don't have a huge sarcastic streak. (Those mad wit-demonz)

Good luck to you both, and good luck to me too!

Phydeaux Speaks said... July 19, 2007 at 7:10 PM  

I don't usually have a problem letting fly with the truth - just one of the reasons I like to avoid groups of people. The one place I don't do it is on teh internets - because the written word doesn't contain force of the spoken (lack of inflection, the bits of spittle flying, and all that) :)

Have you ever noticed that, in general, the larger a group the lower the average IQ?

Liz said... July 19, 2007 at 11:37 PM  

Excellent post, PD. I was really moved by your stories. I find myself swallowing my truth all too often, so I very much appreciate the the nudge in the right direction. :)

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