A few friends of mine, who I previously would’ve said were some of the more socially progressive and woke individuals in my acquaintance, recently instructed me in how to engage with those on the opposite side of the political spectrum without causing them offense.
“It’s important that we don’t give them an opportunity to weaponize our language,” I was told. “Refrain from using insults and aggressive or accusatory language when communicating with people you don’t agree with. Minds are seldom changed after being insulted or personally attacked, and it is likely that such language would cause those you disagree with to double down on their views,” they said. “And don’t just block people you disagree with. Try to change their minds. We can’t let the lines of communication be closed.”
Now, I can understand and respect this point. Fighting rarely leads to cooperation, that’s entirely fair.
But what is not fair, and what I cannot abide, is being lectured by the Heterosexual CIS White Male Tone Police about how I must handle my own oppression.
How dare you?
How dare you say that I cannot cut the lines of communication with my oppressors, but must meet every confrontation head-on? Do you know what it is to me, to my mental health, to my spiritual well-being, to fight tirelessly, day in and day out, to “change the minds” of people who believe that the color of my skin makes me unworthy of respect and undeserving of human dignity? You’re asking me to make myself into cannon fodder for your fight to retain the High Road.
And then you tell me that in these interactions, I must only follow your approved script. You tell me that I have to put myself into the line of fire, armed with only the weapons that you think fit to give me, and you say this while with a straight face claiming to be my ally and to have my best interests at heart.
Let me tell you something, and furthermore let me tell you this something without apologizing should it should like an insult, a personal attack, or the aggressive and accusatory language that you so abhor:
If you would claim to be on my side, rather than on the side of my oppressor, while in the same breath telling me that I must choose my words more carefully, that I must watch my language, that I must check my tone– if you would claim to stand against my oppression, while you yourself question my right to speak of my oppression in my own terms, to speak to my oppressors with the words that are in my wounded heart, then you are no ally of mine. Do not tell me that we are in the same boat, only to name yourself captain.
I have spent my entire life trying to speak pleasantly enough, politely enough, articulately enough, White enough, to be granted a modicum of respect in the face of people who believe that I am lesser. It has taken me years to grow strong and proud and unafraid of speaking my own truth and in my own voice. I will not be putting my right to self-expression back its box because a White Man told me to do so for the greater good. I don’t care who you’re voting for; it doesn’t give you the right to tell me what I can or cannot say.
I ask again, how dare you? What throne of superiority do you sit upon that gives you the right to govern the words that I speak?
Perhaps you think of me as just another Angry Black Woman, who cannot help herself without your emotionally-detached guidance. And I suppose, from your perspective, I am unnecessarily angry.
I envy the ability to see things from that perspective. I wish that I could watch Black Americans be enslaved, abused, beaten, mistreated, locked up, lynched, burned alive, segregated, denied life-saving medical treatment, run out of towns that they themselves built, slaughtered in the streets by officers of the law and fellow citizens alike, see their very right to personhood struck through with a red pen time and time again, and feel only cool pragmatism.
I wish that my life was so untouched by oppression that I too could smugly armchair quarterback the conversation. I wish that I had the privilege of caring so little about the way Black Americans are treated that I could watch it without getting upset. Truly, I envy your ability to remain composed and dispassionate as you watch these atrocities occur, knowing these are atrocities that will never threaten your life.
But I am not you. Our experiences are not the same, and I am tired of my lived experience always being the one to be marginalized. I am tired of someone else controlling the rights to how my story is told, and I will not be handing the reigns over to you to control me further.
For me, unlike for you, the conversation about social justice and the political future of America is not merely a debate club exercise. I am clinging desperately to a rapidly-disappearing sense of personal safety, to my own individual freedom, to my right to be respected as a person, and for my very right to live.
And you tell me to temper my anger, for only then can we have productive conversation. I will not temper my anger, because I am not angry- I am filled with righteous indignation.
And in my righteous indignation, I say to you that it is not my responsibility to make sure that the conversation remains civil now, when for centuries we have been treated with a lack of civility. The onus is not upon us to couch our complaints of oppression and tyranny in soothing language that protects the egos of those tyrants and oppressors.
If you believe that pleasing and inoffensive language is the best chance at change, feel free to moderate your own speech. And as you do so, please ask yourself why you dare to tell me how I must react “correctly” to being oppressed. Ask yourself how your actions, in denying my right to speak freely and of my own mind, are any different from those who would see me silenced entirely.
If you’re so concerned about whose uncareful use of language is the problem, look in the mirror. And don’t you ever fucking tell me again to watch my tone.