my silence and yours

(This is an edited version of something I sent to a friend a week or two ago, when I was sad about disagreements/trouble with allies who expressed frustration, hurt, and anger when the people they were supposed to be allies to criticized them, or called them out. It wasn’t specifically about the “autism community” or parents or advocates–it was actually about a separate situation–but I spoke with both parts of my life in mind. So I thought it would be valuable to share here.)  

i know the perspective they come from. i know it. i know it i know it.

it’s the one where people who have tried to dedicate their lives to being supportive and helpful face marginalized people who simply cannot, and will not, hide their anger and hurt at being demeaned, erased, and abused.

and these people who feel like they’ve done everything they can to help, they think to themselves “how are we supposed to actually hear debate and work with each other when every time something awkward or controversial happens, these people express their feelings and their feelings make us feel bad?” except, the way they say it instead is “why won’t they let us talk! why are they saying all these bad lies about us?”

and like, when it’s from people who’s perspective i can understand…i do get it. “get it” in the sense that i can understand the context and cause of their feelings. and if they had said exactly what it was that they were saying, i.e. “how am i supposed to contribute and feel listened to if, whenever i talk, people get angry at me and say things that hurt my feelings?” i would consider their statement valid and constructive.

and i would want to tell them “i know it’s hard, but if you believe strongly enough in what you’re saying, it’ll be worth the hurt.” and i would know this is true, because marginalized people deal with silencing and painful words every. single. day. of. the. week. all. their. lives. and they deal with these words when they’re speaking up about even the most basic stuff, like “hey, i should be able to afford my medicine” or “hey, i should be able to be outside at night without being raped” or “hey, i should not be demeaned and abused because of the color of my skin.”

but the thing is, these helpful people don’t ever say what they mean. they say “why are you silencing us and attacking us.” because they’ve been taught that any feeling that isn’t in line with their own experiences must be a fiction, or a slanderous attack. and how the fuck am i supposed to agree with their expression of their feelings when to agree means accepting their feelings as the standard against which all discussion and reality must be tested.

and then i am angry, because they have made it impossible for me to show them that i believe their emotions are valid without simultaneously perpetuating the idea that their emotions are the same thing as “reality.” and i’m stuck. because if their emotions are the same thing as reality, i have to go back to assuming mine don’t exist, or don’t matter.

i want to say to them: it’s not that your experiences don’t exist, or don’t matter; it’s that you never call them experiences, you call them reality. and you get to call your experiences reality because people like you have spent generations treating people like me as if our experiences don’t exist.

but usually, i say nothing. neither silence nor speech ever keeps me safe, but at least silence is familiar.

Let’s take this figure of the feminist killjoy seriously. Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy? Does bad feeling enter the room when somebody expresses anger about things, or could anger be the moment when the bad feelings that circulate through objects get brought to the surface in a certain way. Feminist subjects might bring others down not only by talking about unhappy topics such as sexism but by exposing how happiness is sustained by erasing the very signs of not getting along. Feminists do kill joy in a certain sense: they disturb the very fantasy that happiness can be found in certain places. To kill a fantasy can still kill a feeling. It is not just that feminists might not be happily affected by the objects that are supposed to cause happiness by that their failure to be happy is read as sabotaging the happiness of others…Feminist consciousness can thus be thought of as consciousness of the violence and power that are concealed under the languages of civility and love, rather than simply consciousness of gender as a site of restriction of possibility. We learn from this so much, too much. We learn to see what is concealed by signs of happiness. You can cause unhappiness merely by noticing something. And if it can cause unhappiness simply to notice something, you realize that the world you are in is not the world you thought you were in.
Sarah Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, pp. 65-66, 86.
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10 thoughts on “my silence and yours

  1. there is so much here .. so much i am compelled to say in response to all that you have said, exposed. i fear i’ll write far more than i should, but you invited me in and in i shall come.

    this is it, isn’t it? the vulnerable underbelly that none of us wants to admit exists – the unvarnished truth that any conversation in which there is an imbalance of priveledge (historical, societal, current, no matter — real) is tainted by its presence. it’s a hard pill to swallow, that, particularly for those of us who pride ourselves in not seeing it, when it is that very blindness, the lack of acknowledgement, the tacit dismissal of something so big, so heavy, so painful which actually hurts the most.

    and this ..

    “i want to say to them: it’s not that your experiences don’t exist, or don’t matter; it’s that you never call them experiences, you call them reality. and you get to call your experiences reality because people like you have spent generations treating people like me as if our experiences don’t exist.”

    my god, that. the fact that one perspective is thought to be — accepted as — capital T truth while another is “perspective.” the idea that there is only one fundamental Truth rather than all of our individual Truths … that’s it. the supposed king of spades upon which the whole damned house of cards so precariously sits. once we expose the king as the joker he really is, the whole house comes tumbling down. the idea that there is one and only one gold standard of how to perceive and interact with the world to which all others must comply or be labeled defficient, lacking will fall as flat as the cards on the table. because it’s bullshit, isn’t it? all of it. but as long as we persist in calling our experience, our perception Truth we avoid the dreaded work of dismantling and rebuilding. real work. meaningful work. terrifying work.

    and shouting into the abyss, pleading to be heard amid the anger and the hurt and the defensive posture of those who fear nothing more than their own vulnerabilty is bloody, effing hard. but it’s everything.

    your silence will not protect you, audre said. “i was going to die, sooner or later,” she said. “whether or not I had even spoken myself. my silences had not protected me. your silences will not protect you…. what are the words you do not yet have? what are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.”

    speak yourself, em. keep exposing the king. he’s nothing but a joker, after all. and when it’s scary, think of audre.

    “next time, ask: what’s the worst that will happen? then push yourself a little further than you dare. once you start to speak, people will yell at you. they will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. and the world won’t end.

    and the speaking will get easier and easier. and you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. and you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. and new ones will find you and cherish you. and you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” and at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

    no more silence.

    from the bottom of my heart,

    thank you.

  2. So very powerful, and very well put. Reading this, I think, will help those who consider themselves allies to make room for the discomfort that comes from not having a 100% shared experience. We only know so much, only understand so much, and if we get defensive first when we make mistakes we stop learning and we can’t help. So thank you for this.

  3. Wonderfully written. I so appreciate your perspective, as it makes me slow down and consider my own reaction to the voices of others. Thank You!

  4. To quote Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, ” well behaved women seldom make history.” We are asked by society to be silent and follow the lead of a select few. But, history has shown us that it is those who break the ranks that inspire the others who have been silent to be silent no more. Once that silence has been broken then change can come. Change must happen…

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful words. As a result, I will work everyday to remember that I see things from my perspective, using my experience set. That anyone and everyone sees the world differently based on who they are and where they come from, and their way is no less valid than my or the majority’s.

  6. Wow…just wow. So eloquent. Please keep speaking. Reading your words reminded me of cleaning a wound – painful with the first splash, but ultimately soothing and healing. Thank you.

  7. Thank you for sharing your words…your thought-provoking and amazing words! They remind me that I must be ever vigilant against rigidity of thought. I must be willing to discard a notion or belief I embraced yesterday if a new experience shows that notion or belief to be limited in inclusivity. I must continue to search out new perspectives so that I may continue to grow and be a better advocate for my son. Thank you for your part in making me a better advocate for my son!

  8. Sometimes I stay silent because – it is more important for me to listen. Especially when someone who lives what I can only try to imagine or understand intellectually since I do not experience it personally is speaking. All I can say that is useful in those times is – I hear you.

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