The meetings all start the same: “The other students feel that…. You are making people uncomfortable.”
“No one will listen to you if you don’t say it nicely.”
I watch as my friend writes the nicest version of it that she can, soft, gentle, accommodating. They rip into her, joke about how she is stupid, and that that is why she is majoring in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. People come up to me every time I speak and say the same thing: “I wish I could be as brave as you.” But then they tell me they worry about “effectiveness.” My professors would sometimes confess that while they agreed with me, they couldn’t say it in class. They watch my classmates come after me like rabid dogs as I fight back.
Three weeks into freshman year, a girl sits across from me and argues that poor people are poor because they don’t work hard enough. I’m shaking, but manage to keep my composure. I argue her down. My section leader tells me that I need to learn to contain myself while in class. I get a C+ on my first paper for too “angrily” arguing that John Locke is an elitist. I’m still raw and rough around the edges. I’m going to get softened.
“No one will listen to you.” “You are making me feel bad.” “You’re right but your tone isn’t nice.” No one ever successfully argues against my intellectual points. I go to parties and hear bigotry. I get emails from friends about how I’m alienating people by telling my stories about riding the bus in high school. Four weeks into my freshman year. a classmate comes up to me and says “I agree with everything you say, but you have to forget where you are from, you have to blend in here.”
The meetings happen so many times, and they all happen the same way. Every time they end, someone whispers their confessed support. When I enter my education program, I assume I will be with like-minded individuals, but it isn’t long before we have to have another meeting, this time with the dean. Horrible things are said in class by future educators. More emails from my colleagues about how I shouldn’t talk about my poverty because I am alienating people.
It’s a silencing tactic: the deletion of a piece of the human experience so that the same people who have always slept soundly can continue to sleep soundly. It is not long before I start to play it up. I wear the radical badge proudly. I drink so that the reactions to my truth hurt less. I go to therapy. I stop interacting with my peers, eating dinners during off hours and finding places on campus to hide. Sometimes I call my mom on Friday nights and tell her I’m on a train coming home because I can’t take it anymore.
After coming back from China, I wake up many nights with tears streaming down my face. In the therapists office, she asks why I think this is happening. I wave it off as a product of my childhood. She steps out of her role for a minute and says:
“I disagree. I think that what you experienced there with your classmates and the way they treated you and the other people was painful. I think you are an incredibly sensitive soul and the mistreatment of others is continuously hard for you to take.”
It is one of the most accurate assessments of me that I’ve ever heard. They call me a bitch, a radical, crazy, obnoxious, rough. They don’t know that watching them use their power to hurt people keeps me up at night, makes me cry in my sleep. I wonder if they know what that is like.
Their comfort is more important than us. They are unwilling to give that up. I go home on the breaks and buy food for my siblings. The words “people should join the military more because they are better at killing” ring in my head when my sweet sensitive brother enlists to feed his son. My natural state of being is sensitive, sweet and nonviolent. When I was a kid and one of my siblings was beaten I would sob on their behalf. Listening to the blows they took hurt me more than taking the blows and so sometimes I would try to get them redirected to me.
I’m supposed to be the asshole for talking about it. Other activists question my ability to be effective. But if backing down, being nice, mincing my words were effective, things would already have been fixed. In my time at Stanford, the first generation, low-income community is continuously derailed in their advocacy work because people get too scared to fight – people with power count on that, and it happens so often that they had no idea what to do when it didn’t work on me. That is what allowed me to build the community and resources that I built at Stanford. I refused to back down. Eventually, they had no choice but to deal with it. Other people always say that they can’t do what I do because they have to “work within the system,” and that they want to be more “effective” than me, after thanking me for saying the things they cannot.
It happens again during STEP, when my closest friend in the program is speaking. He is the only gay male of color in the program, and working class as well. He keeps saying “I’m sorry” every time he speaks. That’s when I point out that it is disturbing that he has to apologize. They never have another “equity” meeting for the rest of the year. It becomes very clear that the institution is more worried about upsetting the sensitivities of the privileged kids than they are about protecting us. This is what makes me most angry.
But I have peace with this issue, because I’ve come to understand something critical about it. The privileged aren’t my audience, though they always think they are. They always think that the world and dialogue revolve around them, but what I write isn’t for them. What I write is for my people and me. What I write is to give voice to the voiceless. So I don’t care if those people like it. They have all of the forums available to them to express themselves, but there are so few of us willing and able to stand up and say what needs to be said, to speak our truth. I am honored every single day that I am that lucky.
I was severely emotionally, physically and sexually abused by a sociopath until I was 13. Like nearly all abusers he would tell me that no one would believe me if I said anything. Finally, my sister did something so incredibly brave; she told my mom. He’s in jail for life for what he did to us. I can never repay my sister for what she did, and she did it to protect the rest of us. At the trial, my mom and my sister asked me to speak first. I’ve always been the best public speaker in my family. My writing, even at that age was powerful and dramatic. I’m good at keeping my cool. My sister couldn’t write as well as me, and I had helped her write her statement for the sentencing, but she asked me to go first. I realized that day that silence is the most effective tool of the oppressor. I have a debt to pay, and I will never again protect the oppressor with my silence. I am so lucky to have this voice and this gift, and if I don’t use it because of fear or concern about what people will think, or personal gain, or because I want to be liked, I couldn’t live with myself. What some people don’t understand is that that is the easiest option for me. Some people, most people, never have the choice.
So if you don’t like it, have a complaint about my tone, think I won’t be effective, am hurting your feelings, or making you uncomfortable, I want you to know that I didn’t need to be informed. I know I am. I made that decision openly, willingly, and happily to not care about that. It is the best choice I’ve ever made. It is a choice driven by a deep and profound love – a love that has sustained me in a darkness that few can imagine, that got me out of hell, that has followed me at my side in battle, that envelops me like armor, that will sustain me for the rest of my days. If you don’t know that kind of love, then the sensitive soul in me feels for you. But if you think that kind of love allows me to back down and to not enter the battle in the same way so many have entered it for me, then you are ignorant and the educator in me cannot stand for it.
So feel how you want to feel about my writing. Make comments or rebuttals. Complain to you friends. Send me emails. Use whatever language you want to do it. Call me whatever name you want to call me. I already have everything I need to be protected from that. And for that, I am grateful.