Miss Communication

I don’t know when I became a direct person. Perhaps it was sometime in college when I came into my own power. When I stopped caring what people thought about me. When I got strong.

Not that I wasn’t strong before. It was just hidden behind a lot of insecurity and uncertainty. But in college, as I learned more about myself, as a woman, as a black woman, as a black woman from a working class background, as a black woman from a working class background with a history of mental illness, I came into being me, and being comfortable with that. And since then, since I discovered my voice, I’ve used that voice to its fullest.

Now, I think I’m known to be assertive. I can speak to audiences without saying “um.” I can be direct and forthcoming without hesitation. I do not particularly worry about being liked. I have a lot of friends, people close to me who love me and know my soft side. And when most people get to know me, they see that side too. But if we never get past the surface, you might conclude that I’m a bit hard. You might even call me a bitch. You’d be wrong, but whatever.

My most difficult relationships by far are with white women. It’s been this way since college, when I really began to get into social justice work around race, gender and class. Although I get that social justice movements posit that white patriarchy and its variants are the ultimate enemy, much of the personal discrimination and social injustice I have experienced has come at the hands of white women, so my difficulty in relating to them is not a surprise to me. When I first read about the racism in the women’s movement, I was so angry. How dare white women decide that woman = white? Ain’t I A Woman? by Sojourner Truth changed my life, as did bell hooks’ book by the same title.

White women who wanted to establish coalitions between “feminism” and racial justice movements rubbed me the wrong way since then, since the boundary was still there, and still clear. Furthermore, there has been a constant presence of white women in my life that I felt just wanted to be my friend because I was black, perhaps wanting to up the racial diversity in their friendship circle. I felt like an affirmative action object, and I refused to be any white woman’s object. They were rejected, and probably hurtfully so. (To all my white female friends, and you know who you are, this doesn’t apply to you. If we are friends, then you weren’t rejected, because you were/are genuine, and I love you. If you were rejected, you would know it. Please know I’m not talking about you.)

Beyond the rejected wanna-be friends, I still just have problems communicating with white women. I’m taking a negotiation class, and in our first negotiation I had a meeting with the opposing side (they really were opposing us, and I went into the meeting in an adversarial position), whose representative was a white woman. I wasn’t angry, but I was very clear on the message I wanted to get across. I presented a deal, which she refused. In the end, at the debrief, the professor (also a white woman) remarked that she overheard our meeting and said that it was more of a lecture than a conversation. WTF? Funny how my assertiveness, as a black woman, comes across a lecturing. Why doesn’t the white woman’s lack of assertiveness come across as weakness, or lack of initiative? The instructor’s gloss on the meeting gave the white woman student permission to remark that she “only said 12 words” during the meeting – she actually counted. Really? I find that incredibly hard to believe. And when I tried to interrupt to point this out, I was told to let people finish their thoughts. Even if they are outright fabrications that I’m sure no one really believes.

This is far from the first time this has happened to me. Most recently, last year, a professor talked to me after class because a white woman cried after class because of some criticism I gave in a creative writing workshop. A class that is all about giving and receiving critique. This white woman pulled the classic white woman tears bit to gain sympathy and paint me as the angry, threatening black woman. The negotiation situation reminds me of the critique so much; I am shamed, as a black woman for daring to assert myself against the purity and fragileness of the white woman.

The thing is, this whole way of thinking is not only harmful and hurtful to me, but harmful and hurtful to white women as well. In many cases, I treat white women as weak because of these tactics and strategies that white women use to attempt to oppress me make them weak. They put their power in others – professors in these two examples – to attempt to silence me. So instead of fighting them outright, I have to fight some authority. But they, the white women, are in the background, pulling the strings.

I have to admit that I go into most relationships with white women with my guard up. Trust with white women has to be earned in a way that doesn’t occur with other people. It really starts with honest communication, taking words for what they are without the stereotypes that accompany them. Just because I’m direct doesn’t mean I’m angry; just because I’m clear and articulate and don’t say “um” doesn’t mean that I’m cocky or have a “chip on my shoulder.” It also doesn’t mean that I’m mean. It means that we aren’t friends (yet) and I don’t know you that well.

I suppose I’m going to have to figure this out in the long run. Although I don’t want to. Not only do I want to ask, “Ain’t I a woman?” but also “Ain’t I allowed to be me?” Why do I have to change who I am to appease white women’s preferred mode of communication in order to get by in this world?

2 thoughts on “Miss Communication

  1. I’m on the direct blunt end of things myself and have taken a lot of heat for it over the years. When I was younger, I had some experiences similar to yours, although I don’t recall other women crying, just men being offended. I can recall a woman who cried after being criticized in seminar (by a senior white man), but she was embarrassed and humiliated about crying and was determined to learn not to do it. I agree with your criticism of white women’s tears as manipulative or inappropriately weak.I learned not to cry young, when I was teased in kindergarten. I talked about this with my daughter (who cries pretty easily) after reading about “white women’s tears” on another blog, and she said, “yeah, well it gets results, so you do it.” I assume white women do this because when they are girls, they get sympathy when they cry, rather than scorn.

    I’m not saying we are in the same place. I’m white and, now that I’m older and tenured, protected by privilege. Men get to be blunt and get away with it. When I was young and in grad school, I was chastised by male professors for by way of speaking. But I do think black people have it worse. I see lots of evidence that white people are threatened by black people speaking bluntly when they would not be so threatened by a white person (especially a white man) acting the same way.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. It’s really frustrating. But I think it comes down to that I have to pay my dues, fair or not. I’m a grad student, and after this, a junior faculty member. I have to adjust to the environment, not the other way around. In the last class, I just tried to be silent, and that worked out ok. I felt decent about my choice to be silent because I was choosing it. I just decided it wasn’t worth it. I’ll speak and really be me when the stakes are high enough. But in a class that I really don’t care that much about, I’d rather not waste my time being stressed out.

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