It’s cheap. It’s too easy to ruin the Fourth of July. My auto editor corrects when I don’t capitalize fourth. All those tentacles of oppression, one barely need scratch the surface before this holiday becomes fraught. Independence for whom from whom at the expense of whom? If you have to think for longer than it takes to read this sentence to come up with a way to ruin celebrating the fourth day in July, you are in denial.
July 3 was to be a preholiday chill hang: friends, snacks, games, laughs. As we could have seen coming, I managed to ruin it. Mid chill hang I swerved out of super-fun-time-with-super-fun-friends lane and into please-stop-calling-grown-women-“girls” lane. That merge usually goes something like this:
Male friend: So this new girl who’s our office manager —
Anne: A girl?
Male friend: Yeah, the new office manager.
Anne: Oh, man. I think it’s illegal to hire children. You’d better talk to HR. That’s fucked up.
Male friend: Ahahahaha. Yeah. I get it. Woman. This new woman who’s our office manager ...
And so on and so forth. But this time he was in my blind spot when I tried to merge and he was kind of like, “But my intention is not to be dismissive.”
Well, sure, but intention and impact are different things. Which is what I said. In the middle of a chill hang. An immediately somewhat less chill hang. Here’s where I say I understand that it seems like a small thing, the girls / women thing, and that if you move past it being a small thing or swat it out of your vision it becomes not a thing at all. And if you stop and stare at it and notice all its filigree and history it inflates, or reproduces. In any case, after you scoop it up and turn it over in your hand, it’s everywhere all of a sudden. Like, was it always this pervasive and I didn’t notice it? (It was.)
But the other thing is that it’s coding. It’s a way many, most, of us learned to talk about women. It’s a thing we say without much thought, reflexive and without intention, dismissive or otherwise. So, yes, that is on its face a reasonable argument.
Except then there is a person sitting in front of you saying “This hurts me because regardless of intention it reflects a culture that dismisses the intellect and authority and contributions of women, a culture that is not really so long away from women not being able to have a credit card or buy property and still deep in not giving women the authority to make decisions for their own body largely because a tiny group of wealthy white men are holding fast to their power and are doing so by hoarding the spoils of a system intended to keep everyone else out of power even through cruel and brutal means. I know it’s just a word, a casual word, but it’s a symptom of the culture that still does not view me as your equal.”
So that happens. A lot. Well, sometimes. And then the response is sometimes a
“This shouldn’t / doesn’t actually hurt you because my intentions are good.”
or “This shouldn’t / doesn’t actually hurt you because my intentions aren’t bad.”
or “This may hurt you but that’s your choice to be hurt and I have nothing to do with that.”
or “This may hurt you but you have no right to feel or express hurt about it.”
I gave up rapping the n-word lyrics along with the recordings of my favorite hip hop artists and I say that with only deep and rotting shame that I ever somehow thought doing so was OK. Or not bad. Or some weird expression of allyship. And it is in no way my fault that I come from a culture that used and uses that word or some variant made up to make us believe that there is more than one race in order to kidnap, steal, oppress, rape, torture, enslave, shame, and every stripe of marginalize millions of humans to benefit a very small few. It doesn’t need saying that it’s not my fault, but it’s so often said that we might as well throw it in here.
What is my fault is when a person who is hurt by that word because it was / is used to kidnap, steal, oppress, rape, torture, enslave, shame, and every stripe of marginalize them and / or their family tells me that they feel that me using that word in a flippant or even respectful way is harmful to them and then I — as unwitting or even unwilling representative of a group who benefits from the oppressive power dynamic — tell them I don’t believe them or they are wrong because they don’t understand my intentions or that my intentions however strong and heartful should absolutely be considered over (or even along with) their pain.
And it really doesn’t ultimately matter if it’s just one person’s opinion of me using that word and if others don’t mind it because once I’ve heard that I’m causing pain by using a word while knowing full well that using or not using it will make such a minute difference in my life as to be really not any difference at all, once I reach the plateau in this trek where I can look out and make a choice to
hear people when they tell me a specific action, one that feels to me to be small and insignificant, contributes to their pain and oppression and stop engaging in that action because the world needs less pain and oppression, or
hear people when they tell me a specific action, one that feels to me to be small and insignificant, contributes to their pain and oppression and continue engaging in that action because free expression and tone policing and why can’t I say it if they can and I don’t mean what they think I mean and if they would only hear me and understand and see my good heart or my intelligence or my merit and this whole time it takes to think this more pain and oppression is growing and expanding and infesting us all.
And like Will Smith and probably thousands of nonfamous therapists say: It is not my fault but it is my responsibility. Which is why I step onto the coals of my own discomfort around being a part of an oppressive class and walk over them to the other side where new cells begin to grow. Then I change my habits, because that’s what they are.
So I ruined July 3 by cornering a friend whom I love and trying to convince him it's worth looking at how he can evolve his thinking on this issue.
And then I ruined part of July 4, first by feeling bad for having the conversation at all and spending a lot of time wondering if I hurt our friendship irreparably and then by realizing that all I had done was have a conversation in which I said something hurts me and asked the person doing it to not do it anymore, but that because of our coding and the sometimes invisible power dynamic built into our relationship by virtue of our relative stations in this society and the filigree and history attached to them, I felt like it was wrong to ask him not to contribute to my pain.
Which, I guess, is what the oppressed citizens, those who are not fully free, have been doing for the entire history of this country: asking those in power to stop contributing to their pain.
Happy Fourth of July! You’re welcome!