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.