Using my Voice

As a follow up to yesterday’s post about a time when I didn’t manage to stick up for whats right and educate those around me I’d like to talk about a time when I did. A few weeks ago I was sitting behind the desk at work when I overheard several of my co-workers making some comments that really saddened me.

A copy of that year’s yearbook had been left out on the desk and the conversation began with a rousing session of mocking aimed at individual senior head-shots contained within. I began to grow uncomfortable here as several fat-phobic and generally mean comments were made, sometimes even about people I knew. This alone, however, was not enough to spur me into action as the people involved were my supervisors and I worried about how the would respond.

(The rest is under the cut due to the presence of triggering and hurtful language.)

Then, they moved on to the section of the yearbook that detailed campus events over the course of the year: specifically, the section with pictures from Walk a Mile in Her Shoes. “So much f*aggy sh*t goes on here,” one of my superiors exclaimed, “look at this one; men actually put on women’s shoes and walk around like f*ags.”

This is where I started to really get angry… but again, what could I say? Every time I opened my mouth I found myself at a loss for words. I was at that event conveyed part of my anger, but left out the real issue: the slurs being used; that word makes me uncomfortable didn’t seem like a strong enough statement; shut up was not nearly eloquent enough; and so it went until way too much time had passed for me to actually say something.

In the meantime the conversation had gone on to discuss another event I had been at, a positive body-image event set up directly outside a Bikini Competition held at my school – part protest, part safe-space, part speak out… it had been an awesome night. Yet, according to my supervisor, “those crazy b*itches just can’t let anyone have any fun. Look at these ugly c*nts, they’re obviously just jealous.”

Again I was left reeling, with a million responses running through my head all at the same time. Again, I remained silent.

Walking out of work later that day I decided to shrug it off, but resolved to speak up if anything like this happened again. That decision lasted about five minutes until, as I got into my car, I realized: I have the privilege to just let this go.

Her words made me uncomfortable, yes, but I could just let them go because I wasn’t gay and I she wasn’t aware of my presence at the body image event; in short, she wasn’t aiming her hatred at me. If I spoke up, however, she would know who I was: a feminist, an ally to the TLGBIQ* movement, a Size-Acceptance Advocate… she would know who I was, and then, the attacks could be aimed at me.

I had the privilege to walk away feeling as if I had escaped a personal attack. I had the responsibility the give that privilege up and speak up.

Since this situation involved my supervisor I needed advice, so I sent an e-mail to the Women’s Center’s director asking for guidance. She advised me to speak to my other supervisor who would handle the situation for me so that the complaint would come from a place of authority and would not be as easily ignored.

Quite anti-climatically I did what was advised, and dealt with the situation via e-mail. I’m glad I said something and, as a result, f*g is much better understood as an unacceptable word in my place of work. At the same time, however, I’m mad at myself: for not speaking up when I had the chance.

By ducking the responsibility of immediate reaction I managed to confirm that the word was taboo at work, but I didn’t manage to change anyone’s mind. Had I spoken up immediately a dialogue could have started and, who knows, perhaps an understanding could have been reached that would lead to the elimination of that word from one (or more) people’s vocabularies permanently, instead of for eight-hours a day, five days a week.

Unfortunately I’ll never know.

What I do know, however, is that the next time a situation like this comes up I will say something right away, increasing my chance of making a positive impact. Hopefully, in reading this, some of you can learn from my mistakes as well and speak out more effectively against hate-speak in your communities.

Tips for Speaking Out in Spite of any Fear:

~ Don’t second guess yourself, say the first thing that pops into your head. Any of the things I had originally considered saying (I was at that event; that word makes me uncomfortable; even shut up**) would have been much better than the silence I wound up with… any one had, at least, the potential to start a better dialogue.

~ Don’t be afraid of what others will think of you. The people who like you as a person will like you despite your politics, by making your voice heard you are offering the speaker with a different perspective.

~ Don’t be confrontational when it can be helped. Think of yourself as an educator and explain why the words being used/ideas being expressed are harmful and hurtful instead of getting angry… it could be that the speaker doesn’t even realize the damage they’ve done.

~ If all else fails look around you; think about how the words spoken might be hurting someone else in the room who overhears them, even if they are not hurting you. Wouldn’t you want someone to come to your defense in the same situation? Use this as motivation.

ETA: In response to the comments this post garnered on feministing I’d like to note here that what I did is not really admirable. As several transgendered and gay commenters point out, I did give in to my privilege and (even after speaking up) I got out of the situation, feeling like my morals were in tact, having done little more than the bare minimum.

I’m not looking for praise. I do feel guilty for not speaking up sooner… what I hoped to gain from posting this was to publicly air my mistake so that others may learn from it and be able to better respond to similar situations in their own lives.

* I’ve seen a few blogs around the internet scramble up the order of the acronym whenever possible in order to avoid showing preference to one identity – this makes sense to me, so I’m doing it.

** Shut up really should be a last resort as it is more a silencing tactic that a dialouge starter.

2 thoughts on “Using my Voice

  1. I don’t think that you should focus on this in terms of not giving yourself a cookie. I really do believe that the lessons learned in this incident are what should be your main focus. It is far to easy when one has privilege to simply walk away cause no one wants confrontation and when dealing with work supervisors there is a risk to your employment. Walk away from this with the knowledge that speaking out is a tough thing to do but it is very necessary.

  2. Thank you for your feedback Renee, I hope you don’t mind me asking a question because I, honestly, am a bit lost.

    I added the note at the end about “cookies” in an attempt to direct the focus exactly where you (and I both) think it should be – on the lessons learned. I am honestly not proud of this event & my all too delayed response and would have been much happier not posting about it at all, yet i felt dishonest leaving it out.

    I only posted, in the end, in hopes that someone else could learn from what I have learned and avoid making the same mistake I did.

    The “cookies” note was tacked-on after the response to this piece on feministing, where people tried to congratulate me on my actions, justify my mistakes, and largely just seemed missed my point – I wasn’t seeking forgiveness or congratulations – I just wanted to share what I’d learned.

    That said, do you (or anyone else) have a suggestion as to how I can better avoid this issue without adding a footnote like I did? I feel like I’m really struggling to express myself here, which is an experience I am not used to at all!

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