Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve always liked the quote “Justice is what love looks like in public,” and I’m trying to spread the love in real life. Sometimes I hear someone say something racist, sexist, or homophobic, and my gut clenches but I say nothing. It’s not often—I live in a liberal, urban bubble—but it happens. Maybe it’s the client taking a cheap shot at Caitlyn Jenner when we’re talking about a gender field on a form, my friend’s dad booming his support of the NRA just after Orlando, or a pal’s new boyfriend saying something about people on welfare being lazy.
You can probably guess where my politics swing, but the point is this: I want to say something when I strongly disagree, and maybe have an effect. I’m not looking to change hearts and minds (OK I am, but I’m realistic), but I’d like to be less of a coward.
Trying To Keep It Real
Most of the time, when someone says something I find distasteful, I don’t say anything either. In thinking on it, there are only three times in my life I have actually spoken up:
- I was performing at a show with a group of people on stage and someone made a joke about women having babies and that ruining their vaginas. I was on stage, I was high on the adrenaline that comes from performing and, without thinking about it at all, I snapped back, “Because that’s the only thing vaginas are good for are a place to put your penis? They don’t make it possible for every human in the world to be fucking alive or anything. Nope. All women should be concerned about is being a good dick receptacle.”
- I was in my early 20s, working at a real estate company, and responsible for hiring the new receptionist. I picked a bright young man who walked with two canes. After I made my hiring decision, during the morning meeting the mechanics started laughing about the way the new hire walked, imitating him and chuckling at how ridiculous it was. I slammed the door to the conference room shut and spoke/yelled, “Then we should take back our offer. If you’re going to make fun of him every damn day then he should find a new place to work where people aren’t mean jerks.” The guys stopped laughing, apologized, and promised not to do it again, though probably just not in front of me.
- I was having dinner with friends. One of our mutual friends had stopped shaving her armpits and was celebrating that decision by spending her summer twirling around gleefully in tank tops. It was an off-handed comment about how disgusting it was to see a woman’s armpit hair and that, if she insists on growing it out, she should at least have the decency to keep it covered. I started asking questions: Why is it gross? Is men’s armpit hair just as gross? Why do we expect women to shave their armpits? Who naturally has hairless armpits? Why do we want women to be little girls? Were they aware of the razor marketing campaign that first convinced women to start shaving their armpits? Why should your reaction to her body matter to her? Why are you so angry about her choice? What does her choice say about you?
These three cases are far outnumbered by the times I did nothing, said nothing, kept my mouth shut and silently squirmed. I said nothing at a barbeque as an ex-boyfriend’s uncle repeatedly made racist remarks as he slipped into drunkenness. It was his party, his home, and I was the new girlfriend. I was silent in college when dismissing something by calling it “gay” was so common that it rolled off of everyone’s tongue without a second thought. I was quiet as male friends debated the physical merits of different girls they wanted to have sex with. I was even quiet when, after having lost a significant amount of weight, a friend derided my earlier, fat, appearance. “You’re so much better now,” she reassured me.
What makes the difference between speaking your mind and keeping quiet? Confidence, privilege, power, and the ability to generally not give two shits about the other person’s reaction to your objection. If I am on stage I say exactly what I think without holding back, because while I am on stage the power dynamic is wholly in my favor. I have a microphone and lights and eyes all pointing to me, giving me explicit permission to speak. When I am defending someone else, someone specific, I can wholly abandon my fear of hurting someone’s feelings and instead focus on protecting my friend. In both cases, I speak because I do not worry about retribution for my speech. I am not caught in my own hurt feelings, or concerned that I am going to ruin a relationship for good.
This election cycle has given rise to all manner of hate speech. I believe that if you are in a position of privilege (white, hetero, cisgender, able-bodied) and you consider yourself an ally to those who are not privileged, then it is part of your responsibility to carry the burden of education. It is enormously difficult for someone reeling from the attack on the Latinx LGBTQ community in Orlando to also explain to someone what that community is and why it is important and why anyone should care. While they heal, others can explain. When you encounter an opinion founded in complete ignorance of a group or religion or culture, it is a gift to that group of people when you then question that opinion. It is a sad fact that opinions offered by the privileged are often listened to with greater interest than the opinions of the oppressed.
You are right in assuming that you’re not going to change hearts and minds. Confirmation bias all but ensures that our belief systems will remain unchallenged. However, you can speak your mind in a way that helps you feel less cowardly. Someone says something you disagree with and your heart starts racing: Take a breath, do not think about their feelings or their possible reaction to your objection. Their reaction is theirs to handle, just as your reaction to their opinion is yours.
When someone says something your find abhorrent, you have a few options. One is to remain silent, which has not been working for you, one is to attack, one is to question, and one is to simply state what you believe. I don’t advocate for the attack because real life isn’t the “West Wing” or “Designing Women.” People don’t sit still and listen patiently while liberals lecture them about why they are wrong.
Questioning is quite effective because it allows the speaker to unpack the beliefs that underpin their statement and take them to their logical conclusions. Is Caitlyn Jenner’s transition funny? Why? Because women are funny? Because a man becoming a woman is funny? Because women are worth less than men? Because you have some ownership over someone’s born gender? Because her decision threatens your autonomy in some way?
But there are some times where you won’t have the time or energy for questioning. In those moments, I suggest a simple sentence that will allow the speaker to know that they are not speaking for you, but also does not lead in to a protracted debate. They say something you completely disagree with, and your heart races, and your palms sweat, but you don’t have to think about what to say next because you already know. You look at them and you say, “I completely disagree.” That may be the beginning of a long debate, or it may be the end of the conversation. It’s a statement of fact about yourself that you can be proud of.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.