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. -bell hooks
I allowed an old, racist, sexist and bigoted white man to claim my voice yesterday. 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 say to both you, and me, that the struggle to end domination is not an easy one especially when we are confronted with people who are slow to yield to change, and a world that has told us and taught us over and over again that as women, and as people of color, we have a certain space that has been cultivated for us and we must neither question nor God forbid, want to change it. 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, we should always keep in mind that the world is their space and they are free to roam it, and dominate it, as they want, whereas, we 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, but by now, there were only four other patrons in the place, and everyone seemed to be minding their own business, and engaged in their own conversations and laughs with the exception of this old man who was sitting alone on the table adjacent to us. Beyond the passing glances he shot in our direction as he looked around the café, drinking alone, I didn’t think much of it. 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 have seen that this was a conversation between two friends, who were passionate about things happening in their lives, and who were just happy to share this moment together.
Next thing I knew, as we were laughing about God knows what, the man who was sitting adjacent to us walks to our table, and of course I’m thinking “Oh God, here we go again. Old white man coming my way.” (Yes, he was old, 65+, and white and for the politics of my argument, I shall continue to refer to him as old white man for the rest of this post. That is not because of any personal racist inclinations, but because the “old”, the “white” and the “man”, has everything to do with the spaces he feels free and comfortable to dominate). But 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.” Old white 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 proceeded walk away. YES, YES. That is what he said to me, and YES, YES, he proceeded to walk away because for him, there was no room for discussion there. 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 in what was clearly HIS space. And he, the old and white and man had done his rightful duty by silencing me and could proceed about his business.
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.” and I don’t remember the rest of what he said. At this point, shocked as I was, I was so angry, I could not even put together a coherent sentence. What did him being Norwegian and me being American have anything to do with the symbolic statement of power he was making. I was getting extremely defensive, and louder than I usually am (and YES, I am usually VERY loud) and 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.” 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?” (I tend to also be be defensive if I am passionate about something and in this case I was rightly so). She replied that I was rightly being defensive and advised me to let it go because he wasn’t worth it. (Worth the anger and the craziness he was about to get in his face). Because I figured things were about to get out of control since I had lost all sense of rationality and was unable to put together a coherent enough sentence to make both my feminist and racial equality arguments, I shut up looked at him and said “yah, okay or maybe thank you, you can go now,” I don’t remember how that ended.
The next feeling I had was a feeling of shame, and a feeling of regret of not having been able to be myself. That’s the best way to put. I felt like running outside and finding him to use this as the greatest learning moment in the everyday work I do of fighting for gender and racial equality and inclusion. Everything I should have said to him began to flood my thoughts (and maybe it’s the combination of his being white, being old, being male and being so unapologetically rude that had silenced my voice) as soon as he left. What I should have said to him as soon as he finished his starkly rude and condescending comment is that:
First, it was none of his business that I was being so loud and 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, and implicitly that beautiful women should just learn to shut up.
I should have told him that his privileged position as a European man, who had clearly been afforded so much, gave him no right to come to me as a woman, and try to “put me in my place” and “silence my voice.”
I should have said 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.
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 and that it was making him uncomfortable and unable to enjoy his afternoon coffee. I would have thought that was 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 (actually me) 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.”
So today, 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 give a damn about his rudeness or his condescending tone when he decided to take that stop at our table (Because he lives and walks around with a privilege that I am sure has never been critically analyzed, he absolutely thinks that it is okay for him to dominate any space he occupies). 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.”
Yesterday was a learning moment for me, and for all of us. I was reminded that confronting injustice is an extremely difficult and emotional task even for those of us who discuss and write everyday 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. I can thus use that experience yes, as a learning moment, and can further use this blog platform to share with all of you that systems of domination are very real, and that in whatever capacity, whether it be through confrontation when we are hit by these situations or through writing or other forms of expression after the fact, our voices and stories are still powerful and we should continue to confront these systems head on.
Today, I am renewed, and I am committed to not allow social constructions, which I admit are still ingrained within 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. Because I do believe that one day, if we all continue to challenge different forms of domination, in our day to day lives, we can create a world in which we are free to roam without having any shame about who we are.
-Unravel Away Artist-