Just Speak by Ann E. Michael

Much has been going on in the blogger’s back-of-the-blog life, compounded with news of the nation. And frankly, I have been mulling for well over a week on how to say what I want to say; or how to say anything, for that matter. There are times in the life of a writer when said writer recognizes the limitations of words.

Also: words can be dangerous—inflammatory, distracting, powerful, persuasive, false, painful, hurtful. People get defensive at words they feel are “aimed” at them. Aimed, a weaponized word. I have had people (okay, white people) tell me they are tired of hearing about their privilege, because they and their families worked hard for their place in the world and because many, many white people are underprivileged and suffering, just as people of color are suffering.

While this is true, it is also fails to address the argument. Defensiveness is a diversion tactic used when people are too uncomfortable to address hard discussions. A student at my university recently exhorted us—“us” being mostly the uncomfortable white people who teach or take classes here—to speak up. “Even if you’re afraid you’ll say something the wrong way,” she said, “if you let me know you are uncertain but that you really want to have a discussion, speak up anyway. Because then at least I know that you’re reaching out to me, and I’ll dial it back a bit.”

It’s easy to understand why people would want to avoid the topics of privilege and of systemic racism. We are taught to be polite; one of the social contracts I was urged to respect was to keep conversation friendly, to avoid religion, politics, and other hot topics in order to get along with my neighbors and coworkers—to maintain friendships with people whose perspectives are different from my own. This approach does work, to a degree. Politeness, though, is not the same as compassionate interest and doesn’t always encourage listening and reflecting.

So it stops the conversation just when the conversation might be getting interesting. Or difficult. I have seen this play out in the course I teach time and again. Some students try to mediate as soon as a disagreement starts. Some tune out; some get embarrassed; some shut it down. Some talk to me after class, individually. Only a few times are my freshmen confident and mature enough to speak up assertively but in a way that admits of, and permits, other points of view.

That behavior is what I try to teach and to encourage. We need to admit of other perspectives rather than keep comparing this with that or bring up side arguments or shut people down with ad hominem attacks. That means ideologically “liberal” people also have to listen and to allow opposition, by the way. I teach in a fairly conservative university; and as a rather unconventional thinker in that environment, it can be a challenge for me to let students express views with which I disagree. But that’s the point: to listen and try to understand, and then to show where the argument goes awry—if it does—and acknowledge the validity of the stance, as there often is some.

Photo of marchers holding Stop Racist Killer Cops sign
Black Lives Matter, New York City by Paul Lurrie. CC license.

I am not defensive about my privilege because I can admit to it. I acknowledge that things I have little control over—the society into which I was born, the family that raised me, the historical structures of the social contract norms, the assumption that I would be educated—have randomly assigned me to accepted norms of privilege. In simplest terms, I’m lucky, randomly fortunate.

Which had little to do with how hard my ancestors worked. They scraped and toiled and suffered, they may have been run out of Europe for their beliefs, or out of poverty or risk of prison, they may have arrived with nothing and been poorly treated by the elite in the early USA. All true. They worked their butts off for generations and never became wealthy or politically powerful.

They were permitted to attend school, however. They were permitted to own land. They were permitted to vote.

These foundational opportunities for equity were denied—often by the laws of this democratic nation—to black slaves, who were brought here completely unwillingly and indeed by main force under even worse conditions than any poverty-stricken European on a ship headed to this continent. These opportunities were denied to the Chinese who labored on our railroads. They were denied to the original residents of this continent, whose own nations and norms were largely and purposely erased by the European immigrants. The historical barriers became legitimized into social norms.

Do I have privilege? Yes. Do I value my privilege? Yes. Do I think I’ve earned my privilege? Absolutely not.

I am for equity. I have no idea how we can possibly achieve it in the United States, and I cannot say I have a lot of hope. My dad was working for civil rights back in 1965; fifty-five years later, there are more female than male students at my college, and more students of color or of diverse national, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. . . so some things have changed, though mostly due to “leg up” approaches rather than “barriers down” actions. It is a start.

Equity means that no mother residing in this nation would have to worry about the safety of her young adult son while he is driving to work, walking down the street, taking a jog or a bike ride, or going to a pool or a beach. That’s been one of my privileges. Of all the concerns I may have had as my son grew up (he’s past thirty now), I never needed to think about the danger of “walking while black.”

Because he isn’t black.

And that’s not equitable.


Ann E. Michael
Ann E. Michael lives in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley and is coordinator of the writing center at nearby DeSales University. Michael has long been an active writer, even while raising two children, building a house with her husband, and earning an MFA from Goddard College. Her poems have appeared in print journals since 1981. During the 1990s she began publishing poems, essays and book reviews in online literary sites. Since 2011 she has maintained a blog on poetry, books, nature, and philosophy at www.annemichael.wordpress.com.

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