In my last blogpost, “Too Much? No, Not Enough,” I discussed the online harassment from alt-right sites and neo-Nazis that Dr. Darci and I experience because of our work in fat studies and fat activism. We even wrote a separate piece about this for Conditionally Accepted. Honestly, I thought I’d said everything I needed to say about the topic for a while. But here’s what I left out: both the blogpost and the Inside Higher Ed piece focused on the pushback Darci and I receive from people we don’t know who want us to shut up and get back in our place. What I didn’t talk about was how often we receive these messages from people we encounter in our everyday lives.
First, some context is in order. I live in a bubble on social media, created by my own design. I love my mother, but I am not even ‘friends’ with her on Facebook. My research and teaching on racism, sexism, fat studies, etc. means I spend a lot of time navigating difficult discussions, so I don’t want to deal with hate speech and intolerance in my personal online spaces if I can help it. If we are not connected on social media, let me give you the flavor of what I typically post or tweet about: (1) upcoming events in my community; (2) my kids; and (3) reputable social justice-oriented news stories. I often share these stories with little or no commentary or perhaps a quote that stood out to me in the reading. I don’t get into fights, debate people, or "rant" (okay, I may have ranted once or twice) on social media. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t care if anyone else does, but I don’t.
Right now we are in the midst of a global pandemic and are having a global dialogue about systemic racism, especially in policing. There have been A LOT of news stories to share about both and I have. A few weeks ago, I received a DM from someone I am connected to on social media and know IRL peripherally (my kids would be impressed that I even know these acronyms). Nevertheless, they apparently felt they knew me well enough to write to tell me, and I quote, “Laurie, please work a little harder at managing your anger," and threw in a Gandhi quote for good measure. I can only assume she didn't like the onslaught of stories I was sharing related to police brutality and instead of simply unfollowing me wanted to let me know personally how she felt.
I was incredulous for several reasons. I immediately told my partner and then I messaged Darci and her partner just to make sure they were as incredulous as I was. Then, I went on about my day. But the next morning as I lay in bed I was still ruminating on what happened. I do not use words like “trigger” lightly, but there is no other word that truly captures how I felt: I was triggered by this womxn's unsolicited message.
The reason I was triggered was because this was just one more example in a lifetime’s worth of examples of me being asked to tone it down, be a little nicer, take up less space, make myself more palatable for the world in which we live. So while my last blogpost focused on the correspondence Darci and I receive from people we don’t know personally, let me give you just a few examples of the times I was told I needed to watch myself by well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning people I have encountered in everyday life.
There was the female colleague at one of the university’s I taught at who told me that I needed to be careful about coming across as “too emotional” in faculty meetings where male colleagues often yelled and cursed at one another in the same meetings. There was the time I was asked to chair the board of a non-profit organization and the white, male head of the organization at the end of our first meeting following the transition implored me, “Just be nice to me, okay?” Or this experience that I can’t even talk about to this day without getting that same sick feeling in my gut I had throughout the entire episode:
An organization I worked for hired an outside “consultant” to come in and address interpersonal conflicts in our office. It was clear from my first encounter with this older, white man that among the things he was tasked with doing during his visit was putting me and a female coworker in our place. There were many problematic things said to me during his visit, but perhaps the one that takes the cake is when he told me that I should start modeling my behavior off a white, straight, cis, able-bodieminded man in my office because, and again I quote, “people seem to like him.” I remember sitting there, my family’s livelihood at stake, and feeling totally helpless. I knew anything I said to defend myself would be used as proof that I was an unruly womxn. The narrative had been set; I was completely silenced. The organization later apologized, but the damage was done.
Now, at this point some of you may be wondering just what I have done to evoke these kinds of responses. Believe me, as someone who is very self-reflexive (read: way too hard on myself), I get it. And I’m the first to admit when I make a misstep. But I’ve been studying these interactions more closely the older I’ve gotten and I am no longer accepting them at face value like I did in my twenties and thirties, when my immediate go-to was 'Wow, I must have really screwed up here.' And here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: I am already managing my anger, and I am not convinced that is a good thing.
What I’ve come to realize is that overwhelmingly these attempts to shut me up or dress me down are not about how I said something, but rather that I said it at all. I always say when you speak truth to power, power speaks back. Turns out, white people don’t like it when you talk about white supremacy; men don’t like it when you talk about patriarchy and misogyny; people who say they support equity work don't like it when you hold a mirror up and ask them to account for the substantive equity work they have done; and a lot of people who are invested in fatphobia, diet culture, and healthism don’t like it when two, fat womxn professors challenge all three.
I actually fear I spend TOO MUCH time trying to “manage” my emotions, including my anger. A quick case in point: recently, an email went out to small group of people including myself soliciting feedback about an issue. The two highest-ranking folx in the email chain were myself and a man who might be described as 'having all the privilege.' While I was spending an exorbitant amount of time crafting a response that I didn’t want to sound too assertive, bossy, or make me seem “unlikeable,” the man responded with a short, direct, authoritative response. I am embarrassed to admit I spent almost thirty minutes working on an eight sentence email because I was hemming and hawing over every word. That thirty minutes could have been better spent on so may other worthwhile things.
I know this blogpost deviates from previous ones Darci and I have written in that it doesn’t focus primarily on fat bodies. But the experiences I have shared here are wrapped up in my whiteness, my fatness, my social class, and other identities I hold. In my lived experiences over the past several weeks, I can testify sexism is alive and well. Now, imagine that sexism amplified by racism, ableism, fatphobia, transphobia, and/or homophobia, for example. The experiences I share here, while salient to me, are only further exacerbated when we consider the ways systems of oppression work together to produce injustice, as Dr. Patricia Hill Collins and intersectionality theory reminds us to do.
Finally, we live in a world that continually works to cut womxn down to size, literally and figuratively. And you know what? I am angry about that. We live in a world where systemic racism exists in every institution. I am angry about that, too. We live in a world that is ableist, transphobic, and homophobic. Yep, angry again. And here’s the thing: we should all be angry about this. So, no, I won’t work on managing my anger a little better. Frankly, I’m spending too much time trying to do that already. Instead, I’m going to keep having hard conversations and continue working to dismantle systems of oppression. I hope you will, too.