Sunday, April 12, 2015

On Owning Your Words


The word, directed at me, was laced with vitriol.  I was eight years old, and I didn't know what it meant; I only suspected that it was something hurtful.

I was used to hurtful words, but when I asked my mother about this one, she told me only that it was not polite to repeat words like that.  So I didn't.

I grew up as a little brown girl with a Hispanic last name in an under-resourced school district, because that's where my mother taught, even though that wasn't where we lived.  I was never hung out with the Puerto Rican or Colombian kids, because I wasn't brown enough.  Nor did I fit in with the white kids; I was a teacher's daughter, I liked my books, I wore all the wrong clothes.

I only learned what it was like to be afraid of being different when I was in the sixth grade, though, when some of what we thought were my mother's high school students (they moved her to teach high school so she wouldn't teach me Spanish) came to our house in the middle of the night.  They threw eggs at my window, and yelled "Spic!" as loud as they could before laughing and driving away.  We never knew who it was, because it had been too dark to see them across the street from behind the tree, even though my mother had a pretty good guess.  I worried that they would hurt us, burn down our house or who knows what.  What was most worrisome was the anonymity of the episode: people could say these things to us, or hurt us, or destroy our property, and we'd never know who they were, even though they knew who I was, and where I lived.

My parents, not immune to judgments of their own, created their own poorly informed categories for people.  My father, whom I knew was a bigot despite (or maybe because) of his own marginalization, opined that Black people were lazy.  My mother had her thoughts on Indian people and body odor.     I became less brown as I got older, but I didn't forget. It took me a while to disentangle the stereotypes from the truth, and a lot of getting to know individual human beings.  It's a project I'm still working on.

Incomplete though my collection may be, armed with the stories I've learned over thirty years, I find that the reports about police brutality continue to take my breath away.  These are human beings; these could be my neighbors.  And the worst part is that I know this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Just the stories that have surfaced.  Just the stories that are being told, and not even by the people who own them.  There is so much more -- both more brutality that never hits the media, and more insidious and deep cultural racism that prevents us from ever talking to one another.

This past week, I have watched students turn to social media to victimize each other through racist (or complete insensitivity to racism) remarks.  Though the whole point of social media is the opportunities it creates for us to connect, I find that sometimes I feel like I'm following monologues.  The smaller the text box, the less we understand each other.  Like the videos gone viral, the brutality is being recorded for posterity.  But in this case, a lot of the brutality is anonymous.

I don't pretend to know what it's like to be the target of police brutality, or  the victim of a system that has been completely rigged against me.  But I do know what anonymous hateful words feel like.  They make you worried to go to sleep at night, even in a house where your parents sleep just across the hall.

There are two things I would say to my students (and to all of us, really, all the way up to the President), if anyone were listening.

First, let other people own their stories.  Let them tell those stories and listen to them without judging them.  Because those stories are their lived experiences.  And if you walk in this world, you help to shape those stories, whether you intend to or not.  I don't give a f#*$ what else you learn in college, as long as you learn that.

Second, own your words.  I have attached myself to a blogging community that has its share of anonymous bloggers, for good reasons.  Some of those people would not be able to tell their stories if they had to sign their names.  To me, that's a crime; but perhaps it is more important for the stories to be told (see the First thing).  That said: if you're going to stand up and offer critique, don't hide behind some invisibility cloak that you find on the Internet.  If you wouldn't say what you have to say to someone in person, then you probably have no right to say it.  It's time to start remembering that there are human beings on the other side of our computer screens and our phones, just as there were human beings on the other side of the smoking guns.
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