To be Vulnerable in a Hostile World

Apparently, I have something of an abrasive tone. At least, that was an important issue for those who disliked my last op-ed (“Should White Boys Still Be Allowed to Speak?”). They said I sounded angry, or that I was too aggressive and thus diminished my ability to get my point across. 

That may be true – many people took my arch tone, sarcasm, and hyperbole as ignorance or prejudice. These people found what they were looking for in a Black woman at a small liberal arts college. Tone policing has a long history in America, so I was not unfamiliar with the types of critiques thrown at me. I was not particularly surprised that people might willfully misconstrue my point to fit their own agenda, that some would be unwilling to confront their privilege.

Receiving so many messages of support and hate, I realized I wasn’t totally sure who I had wanted this article to reach. It was addressed to white boys, but so many seemed unable or unwilling to grasp a point made without gentle and patient guidance. If the article necessitated personal experience to understand and empathize, could only people from marginalized communities engage with it? Instead of grappling with the limitations of empathy, I decided to turn inwards and think more critically about where I was coming from. Why, of all the rhetorical devices at my disposal, had I chosen sarcasm and thinly veiled anger?

Over break I reread the essay that inspired me to enter college with empathy for myself and others. It’s called “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” by Leslie Jamison and I highly recommend it. In it, Jamison discusses the dismissal of female pain and how we have come to live in denial of it. She describes a generation of post-wounded women, women whose knowledge of the disdain with which people regard female pain forces them to deny their own.  So, they hide behind cleverness and apathy, refusing to let pain be a part of their emotional repertoire. I am a post-wounded woman. 

I have trouble talking about my pain without joking about it, or smothering it in disclaimers. For significant portions of American history, white scientists and doctors believed Black women couldn’t even feel pain. The world expects superhuman control from us. 

So, I hate admitting pain or weakness to a world that seeks to devour me, that doesn’t want to believe me anyway. Beneath the tone of my last op-ed was anger and frustration. Frustration and anger are good emotions, they spur action, they motivate change. But while listening to students of color talk about what my article brought up for them, I thought about the other emotions that motivated my piece.

I remembered an incident from freshman year, following a scandal of the racial variety that I’m sure many seniors remember. I was sitting in my first year seminar class, frozen, while the rest of the students discussed the particulars of the incident and cultural appropriation. 

It was a topic I was well-versed on, in front of a professor whom I respected and trusted, and yet I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t look up. I couldn’t understand why I, who had never been fearful of conflict before, had to squeeze my hands to stop them from shaking. I now understand this as my first interaction with race at Dickinson, when I first saw how my being Black posed a problem to the institution that it was not prepared to solve. I saw how demands for accountability were construed as violence, and I learned who would always be protected and what that would mean for me. This is all to say I was not actively silenced, but the actions of the institution and the casual way my white peers could discuss this incident made me afraid to speak up. Sometimes I still feel ashamed that I didn’t say anything. 

That was the type of conversation that needs to be had and the voices of people of color at a predominantly white institution are crucial to such discourse. But mostly I feel sad for that 18 year old girl who lost faith in Dickinson and her classmates before the end of the first semester of her first year.

People have been curious whether the hate I have received made me afraid. It didn’t, at least not more than I was freshman year. I certainly wouldn’t change the way I wrote that article. But this one I choose to write differently. Instead of humor and confrontation, I write with honesty and vulnerability. Perhaps not the wisest move of someone already targeted by trolls. Nevertheless it is a tone I deserve to take. In my last semester here I refuse to regard this institution as an opposing army. Everyday cannot be war, it is exhausting and it is unfair. I deserve to be able to be vulnerable and open.

But let me be clear, it is my right, not my responsibility. If you can only recognize truths that don’t challenge you, then you have shut yourself off from the vast majority of knowledge available to you. If your support for marginalized communities is predicated upon us tearing out our hearts and souls for you to investigate, maybe I never could have reached you at all.