“When we dare to speak in a liberatory voice, we threaten even those who may initially claim to want our words. In the act of overcoming our fear of speech, of being seen as threatening, in the process of learning to speak as subjects, we participate in the global struggle to end domination. When we end our silence, when we speak in a liberated voice, our words connect us with anyone, anywhere who lives in silence.”
I was on May 9, 2015 that I allowed an old, racist, sexist and bigoted white man to claim my voice. And because of that, I want to apologize both to my feminist-activist self, and to all of you reading this.
As I reflect, I want to share this with you to both give myself the opportunity to learn from what happened. I also want to remind both you, and me, that the struggle to end domination is not an easy one.
Ending domination and discrimination becomes even more challenging when we are confronted with, and surrounded by people, who are slow to yield to change, and a world that has told us and taught us over and over again that we as women, and as people of color have to maintain ourselves and remain comfortable in the spaces that THEY have given to US.
We have been told, and taught, over and over again that we must always look at ourselves in terms of those that dominate, and as such, should always keep in mind that the world is their space and as such they are free to roam it, and dominate it, as they want. However, we as women and people of color should be grateful, respectful and cognizant of the fact that we were even given a space at all.
I was having an exceedingly cheerful lunch with a friend I had recently reconnected with. Here we were, two gregarious personalities, in this somewhat cozy café, exchanging stories one after the other, laughing that laughter from the belly, like there was no tomorrow.
Granted, we were loud, yet by this point, there were only four other patrons in the place. With the exception of this old man who was sitting alone on the table adjacent to us, everyone else seemed to be minding their own business; engaged in their own loud chit chat and laughs.
Beyond the passing glances this man shot in our direction as he looked around the café and drank alone, I didn’t think much of him.
My friend and I continued our conversation chatting about her next big career move and departure from our beloved city, Geneva, our summer plans, and all the many weddings we both would be attending over the next year.
We laughed and laughed about my partner’s on and off bourgeois attitude towards everything, and my personal anecdotes about the relentless old white men in Geneva, tirelessly asking me “vous voulez boire un cafe avec moi.”
A fly on the wall could easily testify that this was a conversation between two friends, who were passionate about things happening in their lives, and as such who were just happy to share this moment together.
I was not at all prepared about what was about to transpire next.
As we continued to laugh, the man who was sitting adjacent to us walked to our table, and what came out of his mouth left me in a state of shock and disbelief, and with a heavy sense of, “this man cannot be seriously talking to me right now.”
As if she wasn’t laughing with me, the man disregarded my friend who was sitting next to me, looked directly at me, and with no shame in his voice uttered, “you are beautiful BUT you are TOO loud. You should learn to keep your voice down!” and he proceeded to walk away.
Yes, that is exactly what he said to me, and yes, he proceeded to walk away giving me no room to respond to him. Me, the beautiful BUT loud black woman (I’ll go ahead and add now that my friend is Persian) had been put in my place, and had been admonished to act appropriately! This man felt the need to come to remind me that as long as I was walking in HIS space, I had to walk in it silently.
In my state of shock, I blurted “excuse me? What is that supposed to mean? What gives you the right to say this to me?” He went on to share something incoherent along the lines of “I’m Norwegian and you are clearly American and I wanted to tell you….bla bla bla…congratulations on your plans.”
I don’t remember the rest of what he said, but I do remember feeling annoyed, sad, and then angry. At this point, shocked as I was, I was so angry, I could not even put together a coherent sentence.
I did not understand what did him being Norwegian and me being American had anything to do with the symbolic statement of power he was making.
As I was getting extremely defensive, and louder than I usually am and as I was about to say senseless mumbo jumbo, filled with profanities and random phrases asserting that he doesn’t have the right to speak to me or to “put me in my place,” and so on, the Spirit slowed me to silence.
I had this to speak but an even greater urge to not. So somewhere in the process of getting loud, defensive and rude, I looked to my friend and asked her “Am I being crazy? Am I being rude and loud and extremely defensive?” When she replied that I was rightly being defensive and advised me to let it go because he wasn’t worth it, I kept quiet and allowed to walk away.
Because I was so upset, I lost my usual senses and could not find a comprehensive and rational way of expressing my gender and racial equality sentiments. I just shut up, looked at him, and said “yah, okay or maybe thank you, you can go now,” I don’t remember how that ended.
In the next couple of minutes I started to feel shame and regret for not having been able to be myself. I started to feel like I had betrayed myself.
In those moments, I felt like running outside to find him and to use what had just transpired as the greatest learning moment for the everyday work I do, fighting for inclusion, gender and racial equality.
As everything I should have said to him began to flood my thoughts I wondered if it was the combination of his being white, being old, being male and being so unapologetically rude that had silenced my voice.
Looking back, I know that what I should have said to him as soon as he finished his starkly rude and condescending comment is:
Though he felt the social responsibility and duty to speak to me, it was not necessary. Since he was for one not the owner of the restaurant, it was none of his business whether I was being so loud or not. Further more, that he had no right to come to me, a complete stranger, to tell me that I am beautiful and should learn to keep my voice down. In making such a bigoted statement, what he implicitly insinuated was that beautiful women should just learn to shut up.
I should have further told him that his privileged position as a European man, who had clearly been afforded much, gave him no right to come to me as a woman, and try to “put me in my place” and “silence my voice.”
That his position as a white person did not afford him the right, or the freedom, or the privilege (which he clearly has) to assert himself to me, a black person (he ignores my friend remember) and remind me of my place.
That if he was really concerned about our loudness, he didn’t have to say anything about my being beautiful, and should have clearly and inclusively spoken to both my friend and I.
I should have asserted that in any human context it is rude to go up to a complete stranger and make what is clearly a condescending comment.
I should have pressed on and asked him what really gave him that kind of right?
I should have asked him if he thought that me, a black woman in a café, would go up to old white men I thought were being too loud and laughing too hard, and say to them “I think you fellows are handsome, but you are TOO loud. You should learn to keep your voices down.”
Would I ever think of doing that, even in my most uncomfortable moment?
Privilege is power.
If my loudness (remember it’s only me he was talking to) was truly the issue, he could have told me as soon as he walked in and sat down that my laughter or my stories, or my voice was so loud that it was making him uncomfortable and unable to enjoy his afternoon coffee.
I would have thought him as weird, but would have respected his request, since we were, after all, in a public space.
He could have even told the waiter to come and tell us to keep in down because one of the patrons was unhappy or uncomfortable. But no, he waited until he had finished his coffee, so that he could assert his power to say, “shut your pretty mouth. No one wants to hear what you have to say.”
After having thought long and hard about what happened, I want to say I am sorry to my feminist and activist self and to all of you who are in this struggle together.
I am sorry that out of sheer and utter disbelief as to what was happening to me, I allowed my voice to be silenced. I’m sorry that in the moment when I should have been an activist and should have used the moment to confront domination in it’s ugliest form, I was too absorbed in my anger and shock that I couldn’t properly form a constructive sentence to use as a response.
I am sorry that my initial human reaction was to want to spit in his face, and to shout profanities, and that anger stopped me from fully being able to express myself.
I am sorry that out of fear of embarrassing my friend in this public space, and out of fear of being seen as another angry black woman (which I was deservingly so), I stopped to ask my friend if my anger and my tone was rude, defensive and disrespectful to this old white man, who I am sure did not at all care about his rudeness or his condescending tone when he decided to take that stop at our table.
I’m sorry that in spite of the politics of respectability I have embedded in my psyche that sometimes in moments such as these, when I should be confronting these particular forms of injustice both loudly and provocatively, I’m thinking instead “good manners Eleanor.” I’m thinking instead “don’t let him – more than he already has – treat you like an animal ready to do his bidding.”
May 9, 2015 was a learning moment for me, and for all of us. I was reminded that confronting injustice and discrimination is an extremely difficult and emotional task even for those of us who proactively discuss and write about the ways in which we can better address these issues.
I also learned that even though I wasn’t able to make my argument clear and concise to the old white man, since I am after all simply but human, the words that I know and my mission are still just as powerful.
Therefore, experiences such as these become learning moments to advance the cause of ending discrimination. Furthermore, I am privileged that I have this amazing platform where I can share and where we can encourage one another!
Systems of domination and discrimination are very real. As such, each one of us has a responsibility to uncompromisingly challenge and fight them. Using the tools we have, we should, in whatever capacity, speak out and speak loud! It can be through constructive confrontation when we are hit by these situations, or through writing or other forms of expression after the fact. The most important thing to remember is our voices and stories are powerful. It is our right t to confront these systems head on.
Today, I speak because I am renewed. I am committed to fighting injustice regardless of the social narratives and constructions working against me, to stop me from doing that which I must. I am ready to let my voice be heard even if it means I am relegated to the margins of society over and over again.
I believe wholeheartedly if we all continue to commit ourselves to challenging different forms of domination and discrimination in our day to day lives, we can slowly begin to create a world in which we are free to roam without having any shame about who we are.
-Unravel Away Artist-
Note: This blog article first appeared on this blog site on May 10, 2015. Though most of it remains the same, aspects of it have been revisited.