I have a bad temper. Or, at least, I’ve been told I have a bad temper. What makes my temper bad? Well it’s not that I develop irrational anger and thought patterns, that’s been made clear. And it’s not that my “outbursts” are random, cruel or unwarranted. Sometimes they are praised and sometimes they aren’t and it usually depends on whether or not the person judging it thinks it benefits them. That’s why I get a lot of messages that say “thank you for speaking up” at the same time that I get messages telling me that I need to learn to be “strategic” and to be “effective.”
This temper is wrapped in my gender and class. Most of the accusations come from men, and when men with my personality do the same thing they are given a bunch of gold stars. And yet, unlike many of the other things that I have to fight against and ignore about my acculturation, this is the one that I have the hardest time with, because often the accusation comes from people I know and respect. It’s intimate. And it’s usually said in a tone and with the preface that suggests that this person really cares about me. And I believe they do care. And so it hurts. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t stem from the same gendered and privileged place.
I’m obsessed with rationality and logical consistency and I can’t turn it on or off, so what some people see as as an outburst is my being consistent. If something is unjust here then it is unjust there and if I fight injustice, I have to fight injustice everywhere. If I wanted to have to “choose” when to do that for political expediency I would have gone into politics, but I know myself well enough to not do that. I’m a terrible actor. I will in some instances choose to be kinder or not attack specific people either because I believe them to be good people generally or when I don’t think the fight is worth it, but people seem to think my anger is random and uncontrolled and it’s not the absolute vast majority of the time, And I end up being the person that hate and anger gets directed at and I invite it because I’d rather be the one to take it then watch other people suffer. Most of my more intense responses to discussions stem from my attempts to protect people but my responses are never irrational or even in my native dialect, they are just aggressive for an oppressed person. And some people seem to think that we can overcome oppression by asking nicely, or that we are going to gain allies through sweetness. But the thing is, we don’t need allies who can’t hear us when we speak about legitimate pain and suffering, that’s not an ally, that’s an oppressor.
The thing is that an effective movement needs all kinds. We need the charismatic political folks, and the folks that do the hard but quiet organization work on the ground, and we also need the radicals that push and ask questions and do the hard work of being the ones that others can hate and martyr so the others can do their work. I’m not one to think this role or that role is more important. For the Civil Rights movement to work we need MLK and the folks on the ground that organized voting and drove people to the polls and organized boycotts but never get acknowledged, and we need people like Malcolm X who will be honest and forceful and capable of absorbing all the hate. I have long known that my personality and brain works like Malcolm X and not like MLK or the organized folks. And that’s ok because we need everyone. But the problem with every movement is that the infighting that results from these different groups not respecting and understanding the others, it is what allows us to be divided and conquered. But there is another way: we can appreciate and love and celebrate each other. We can respect the different roles. I’m not asking anyone to be me, I’m simply asking that the people who benefit from my “temper” to let me do my job. Because despite all the attempts to paint me as uncontrolled, I’m very controlled, just not always in the way that you expect me to be. But assume, from here on out, that I know what I am doing and have reasons for the choices I make. They may not be the most pleasant choice in the short run but they are effective in the long run.
I will give you an example. When I entered Stanford in 2006, schools were still not using social class as a marker explicitly. Instead they used the blanket term “first gen” which was inaccurate and misleading, because biggest problems that community faces are related to class and because you can be first gen and rich or not first gen and poor. Now, Stanford and basically everyone around me was afraid to use the class terminology, they said it would carry too much stigma and I said not using it suggested that poor students had something to be ashamed of and they don’t. It took four, annoying, frustrating, brutal years of fighting when everyone else gave up but ultimately I got the term added and magically we now have people actually talking about social class on campus. I still have people trying to tell me that demanding this isn’t politically expedient but I was thinking about the long term effects of language. What does it mean in 10, 20 years that “low income” is talked about explicitly? It means that class is talked about explicitly and less than a decade out, I’m proving to have been right about that.
I studied history, and social movements and language and revolution. I’m not fighting for things at random. You aren’t always going to like it. Maybe I hurt your feelings or your “friend’s” feelings or maybe you think it came at a bad time or that I should be politically minded or whatever. And I expect to be criticized and when the criticism is warranted, I change. But at least act as though you understand that I am an intelligent, conscious human being with a clear track record of fighting for the right things and of being successful at it and sometimes maybe think about the reaction you are having and why you are having it and consider that maybe I’m not the problem. And then let me do my job. I don’t do this stuff for the fun of it or for my health. I do it because I’ve been slowly but surely breaking down walls that you sometimes didn’t see or didn’t think it would be “effective” to break.
But if that’s not the issue and maybe I made a mistake and I’m having a bad day, maybe consider for a moment that being me is exhausting and that I’m human like everyone else and maybe consider that I might need help fighting once in a while and instead of lecturing me, come in and say, “Heather, you are tired and sick and I’ve got this handled, go to bed.” I often get thrown to the wolves, I fight and fight and fight and then have to deal with the very people who benefit from this lecturing me. It’s happens less often but when it has it’s been powerful, those times when people stepped in and took over for me or backed me up, those times where I’ve started the conversation and then have been able to fade back as more people have felt empowered to speak. That’s my end game, to empower people. It matters that I speak up and don’t back down, and it’s more important to me to empower people by modeling standing up than it is to have people like me. A lot of the time that I’m aggressive it’s either to directly protect someone or it’s to help others speak out and sometimes that’s not going to be pleasant because fighting oppression isn’t pleasant. But it has happened that I had a disproportionate response or didn’t express myself well, and when that happens, doing the kind thing and helping me and loving me is a lot more helpful and just than running to quickly cast me out because you are worried I’m going to make “allies” mad by speaking about pain and injustice.
I want to talk about language. My “native” dialect is a nonstandard version of English. It is aggressive and hard because this life is aggressive and hard. But it has many advantages, like the fact that despite being a victim of horrific and often gendered violence, I am a strong, capable and outspoken woman in a world that tries to squash that out of you. I think fast, I talk fast and I prefer to be clear and direct. But we live in a world where only one kind of English is acceptable for discourse and I am fluent in that as well. The fact that a person can only hear and understand someone when they speak their very narrow dialect which isn’t even better than any other dialect is their problem, not mine. It’s wrong for people with privilege and power to dictate the very way the oppressed can speak, that’s oppression and it’s rarely helpful for me to accept that, so I often choose to maintain my aggressiveness instead of softening my approach the minute I realize that someone thinks they have the right to dictate how people express themselves because I refuse to support a system that allows that to continue and I refuse to be directly oppressed by anyone for any reason. That’s just me, I’ve been through too much trauma and pain to do it.
I wrote this because all the people who have ever talked to me about my so-called temper love me but don’t hear me when I say that I’ve thought this all out. Despite the fact that it hurts, I wrote this so that you could start from the basis of assuming I have reasons for my actions and so that I don’t have to deal with a pile of messages from people concerned about how I choose to express myself because I’m a busy person who is supposed to be resting. So if I’ve ever responded to your concern negatively, now you know why. It’s because I’m
tired and don’t understand why you aren’t more concerned about helping me rest so I can be the strongest warrior I can be. I love you, but please think carefully before sending me these kinds of messages. If after reading this and reflecting you still think I’m wrong and want to criticize me then bring evidence because I change the rules for intellectual discourse for no one.