Sitting Back

10 04 2010

I just read this personal essay at stuff white people do and need to share it here. I don’t regularly visit that blog, in fact I’ve probably only read it a handful of times over the past year but I saw a link to it from another feminist blog tonight and wanted to check it out again. Kind of glad I did and at the same time, what I just read was fairly upsetting.

Growing up, I’ve often been the one who talks too much and often about things that other people would rather not discuss. I was raised by a mother and step-father who were very successful professionally, very passionate in their personal relationship and very cruel about others. Intentionally or not (not, I’d say), they raised a very conscious girl who grew up to be an often very quiet and at other times, very outspoken young woman. Today I could, at any offensive moment, respond or walk away. I tend to respond because I value ‘teachable moments’ – I cherish what I’ve learned from people who’ve reached out to me to say ‘hey, that’s fucked up’ and I hope to offer the same kind of perspective-changing words if I encounter casual bigotry.

I figure she’s right that on average people don’t speak out – I think a lot of people quietly consent to bigotry without realizing the impact of their silence.

The most significant time that I tried to make something out of ignorance was just a few years ago – my effort was not entirely successful yet somehow was still somewhat positive in the end. As a temp in a corporate setting, I spoke out to a fellow temp without fear of losing my job because hey, I was temporary anyway. I had no expectation of being hired and really, sometimes real life matters more.

It wasn’t the most tense situation in the world but it seemed significant. This coworker asked what the big deal was about a celebrity making a gesture with her hands and eyes that was, essentially, completely, racist (although the coworker didn’t describe it as such obviously). I offered some words about ‘majority’ ‘minority’, and being othered, things like that as she studied the image on her screen of the celebrity. I’m pretty sure the conversation ended with her shrugging her shoulders and us quietly returning to our work.

I can’t remember how I dealt with that moment internally, perhaps a little glad that I said something, maybe a little pessimistic that it had any kind of impact. At the end of the day, another woman pulled me aside to talk about it – she wanted to thank me. I was floored – thank me? I had never heard that one before. She appreciated what I did on many levels apparently and said to me “I live and breathe social justice”. Damn – I thought – maybe this isn’t the worst place to work after all.
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