On Power

One of the worst things that social inequality has done to me is rob me of self-assuredness.

I spend portions of almost every day readings situations, conversations, contexts, in terms of perceived race, gender, age, class, ability, etc. It’s a huge drain, but it’s one of my survival skills that developed. It felt clearer and more helpful in Reno, where racism and sexism were more combative and slightly more blatant. Here…things are different.

When one person tells you that it’s a real shame that you aren’t getting out and that you really ought to, there’s a latent insinuation there that what you’re doing isn’t enough. Now multiply that so that it happens at least once a week. Add on to that all the clients or customers who regularly and daily insist that you walk to so-and-so’s desk or to the back stockroom or that you move your whole being because they don’t believe the answer you just gave them and isn’t it your job to make them happy? Don’t leave out all those times you came back to your desk and everything was a huge jumble for no discernible reason other than that you are the receptionist and so nothing is really yours. Be sure to include all the co-workers who come up to you because they’re bored and need a break, and so they say something about how they “had to teach [my] wife how to iron” or (jokingly) tell you how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking (“I know you’re happy to be back.”). Sometimes these particular interactions will morph into lectures about the religious choices of all Ethiopians or long recommendations of movies you will never choose to see. Finally, hide the fact that your undergraduate education scarred you in ways you did not think were possible. Don’t tell anyone that the aggregate force of all of those invalidations (“You don’t understand what really happened to you”, “It just so happens that all the best books on this subject were written by white men”, or even more abundant, the avoidance and interruptions) placed back-to-back with a lifetime of female socialization (“You’re too intense”, “You’re too aggressive”, not even being considered to participate and on and on) left you in a wild place where you became the worst version of yourself–someone you couldn’t even recognize and for whom you held nothing but disdain. Imagine that you can’t tell anyone this because as soon as you say you went to school in Reno, the person who is listening (who, in this particular reaction, is always white) says, “Of course it was racist!” As if you had any way of knowing.

As if that was an appropriate response to systemic inequality or to pain.

Go back through that day I outlined and try to parse out who was acting on ingrained, unconscious notions of binary gender norms. Who was reacting to your perceived youth? Who assumed you would be shy or subordinate, and was that based on your race? Gender? Age? Class? Body?

Who can you trust? Should you just write everyone off? Is there any way to avoid these uncomfortable, tiring interactions?

This is why you have to be stronger. This is why you have to build yourself up out of the shambles of your old experiences. And sometimes you have to do this every day–sometimes multiple times in a day. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes you just can’t muster up whatever it is that’s needed. Which is why you need to learn to forgive yourself for being defensive, for not always stacking up, for falling down, just like you learned to forgive others. You can’t assume people will know where you’re coming from, and in order to understand what’s going on you need to do the majority of the communicating.

This is your life. For now.

It is exhausting and messy. All of that tiring mess can leave you feeling powerless, but you’re not. Because you are stronger. And you are braver. And you are smarter. And now you know that you are powerful even if no one else does.

Being Reminded

Hello, dear reader. How have you been? Well, I hope.

This past week has been difficult. On Wednesday when I was trying to be genuinely upbeat while helping someone on the phone I was told that I didn’t “have to use that tone of voice.” When I responded that this was just how my voice sounded, I was told, “You don’t have to speak to me in that high-pitched, 18-year-old tone of voice.” Do I need to say here that the caller sounded like they were probably a man, or did you just infer that your own?

Later that same day someone higher up the work food chain that I overheard me explaining foreclosure mediation to some particularly difficult clients. She interrupted my basic definition by saying to the clients, “Hi. I am an actual counselor here. I heard you talking about mediation and I didn’t want you to get any wr— …I wanted to make sure that all the information you got was correct.” Later that same day she called me over to her desk so that she could reassure me that I hadn’t done anything wrong.

The very next day I spent an hour and ten minutes listening to the condescending ramblings of a program director who shouted at me every time I did not answer a question the way she wanted.

All of this got me thinking again about the paths I choose. I choose the difficult paths. They are certainly not the only difficult ways to go, nor are they even the most difficult (if such a thing can be quantified). But, they are indeed difficult.

I married a person who was diagnosed with Asperger’s. He’s “high-functioning,” meaning that he can hide it most of the time from most of the world. I know that he loves me, but I also know that he loves things, and that a slight majority of the time I feel that he loves his things and himself more deeply and more loyally than he could love me.

I chose service-oriented, buffer jobs, in which my role is to act as a buffer between the clientele and the organization that employs me. It requires a disposition of patience, flexibility, and clear delineation of boundaries that does not come naturally to me.

I moved to a new place. I’ve given up potential community membership here three times. I’m in the process of giving up a fourth because none of them were right.

These choices feel like choices. The vast majority of the time they feel right. My responses feel like they are a choice I have to make. And the way people act towards me: those are choices too. I don’t get to forget who people think I am: some girl who shouldn’t be in any position of any power; some young, Asian woman who couldn’t possibly know anything about state or federal law, or disability rights or scholarship; a set of ears and a smile existing to make the listener feel important. I give out gifts of my time and energy all day, and I give them out knowing that they are the most precious things I have.

The life I’m trying to lead is exceptional. So I take jobs that feel foreign and give me opportunities to strengthen my weaknesses. I listen to my instincts and follow where they lead. And, on nights like tonight, where I feel tired and as if parts of me are being eaten away, I lean into that sensation and start to feel lighter and freer already.