Last year, during the holidays, I blew up (yelling, cursing, and storming off), and the experience highlighted for me the need to embrace criticisms that I’m “too sensitive,” “too critical,” and “too complaining.”
On the day I blew up, I was so overwhelmed, disconnected, and worn down by systemic oppression that my body couldn’t take it. I held myself together until I couldn’t hold it in anymore: then, I released a tidal wave of rage.
I’m still processing, but I’m finally writing about that day—continuing to reflect on what it means to “speak up” and “stand TALL” for justice (social, racial, and environmental justice) when maintenance of the status quo prohibits open reception of this speaking.
Here Are Threads of the Story, Threads that Led to Me Blowing Up:
- I was overly hungry, then overly full, then overly crashing from sugar, and then overly tired.
- I’d already sat through smells of meat and a TV show about zoos and so many disinterested, discounting questions about “What’s vegan?” and “You can eat ham, though, right?” and “But [family member] went out of her way to get that cake. Won’t you at least have a slice?”
- I’d already been mansplained about the definition of justice. Though I was asked to explain why I don’t call people “slaves,” it wasn’t a real question because apparently my “little girl voice” couldn’t carry above the room’s loud volume and there wasn’t real interest in having this discussion—only in telling me that I’m overly sensitive.
- I’d already resisted sitting at the “girls table” and cried on the outside steps about the normative gender ideas put onto me and my partnership.
- I’d ended up on those stairs after shaking with anger and choosing to cry alone rather than yelling into a crowded room.
- I’d been confronted by constructs of whiteness as normative again and again—and not only in conversation, but in the pages of the Mad Libs and other games presumably meant to connect family. I was feeling more disconnected than ever.
- I’d spent the day witnessing the assumption that everyone is Christian and celebrating Christmas . . . in conversation, through social media posts, through pics of gift opening, through greetings.
- I’d already experienced and witnessed microaggression after microaggression, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I ended up snapping over what was read as “something small” (note: microaggressions are never micro-).
Embracing the Role of “Complainer”—Like “Trouble” and “Killjoy”
It’s been a year since my blow-up, and I’ve thought a lot about what, if anything, I could have done differently.
This year, while leading the 40-day practice, “Strengthening Emotional Literacies to Counter White Fragility,” someone asked:
How do you speak up without sounding like a ‘complainer’ or without being accused of ‘always wanting to start a fight’?”
And this question reminded me that it’s often not possible to speak up without fighting or being seen as fighting.
Challenging the status quo—which includes challenging whiteness, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, and normative constructions and power abuses of all sorts—raises defensiveness and critiques of the challenger (“the complainer”). We have much to learn from folks like Victor Villanueva who embraces the name “Trouble,” as in “Here comes Trouble!” and Sarah Ahmed who dubs herself “feminist killjoy,” reframing what’s meant to be criticism.
The bottom line is that truth-telling can feel shaming when the truth if shameful, and folks often respond as though you’ve done something wrong when you’re pointing out wrong-doing. These are among the reasons it’s important to invest in emotional courage and to shake off people-pleasing and perfectionism, which are both aligned with whiteness (and the maintenance of white supremacy).
Speaking Up Imperfectly with Love and Emotional Courage
Undoubtedly, we’re in a time with enormous barriers to meaningful communication—that is, communication aligned with truth-telling, relating, learning, unlearning, healing, holding space, visioning, interrupting injustice, and recognizing the humanity of us all. Many problems—including not listening and not listening critically—are long-rooted and related to epistemic injustice.
Ajayi shares these guidelines for determining when to speak:
- Did you mean it?
- Can you defend it?
- Did you say it with love?
If the answer is yes to all three, I say it and let the chips fall.”
Letting the chips fall means separating my emotions and responses from how others feel and respond. It also means acknowledging anger, embracing it, and looking at its roots, as Thich Nhat Hanh advises in How to Fight.
In the interaction that unfolded last year, during the holidays, I didn’t speak from a place of love. I had swallowed too much without speaking up or leaving the situation sooner. I was left with questions about when and how to speak, when there’s no interest in hearing the words. And I recognize (with compassion for myself) that the blow-up was the best I could do at the time.
This year, I’m asking about how to be more accountable in relations and practicing ways of speaking up that include “hell no” and exits from interactions.
This post is written by Beth Godbee, Ph.D. for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For related posts, you might try “Responding to Injustice: Why Settling the Nervous System and Slowing Response Times Matter” and “My New Year’s Resolution = Self-Love for Countering White Fragility.”
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