You never had to prove them wrong

When you grow up with stigma, people tell you a lot of well-meaning things that actually cause problems. When you face people treating you like you’re less of a person, someone will often say something like:

  • “You’ll prove them all wrong some day”.
  • “It’s ok. You’ll show them. You’ll prove that you’re better than they ever could have imagined.”

And then, when you accomplish things, it often becomes, “Well, you proved them wrong, didn’t you?”

People who say this often mean well, but this is a form of victim-blaming, and it can hurt people who believe it really badly. The truth is:
You didn’t prove them wrong. You never had to prove them wrong. They were already wrong.
Prejudice is not something you have to earn your way out of. Dehumanization isn’t your fault. You don’t have to prove that you are human in order to be human. You don’t have to have amazing accomplishments in order to prove that you have worth. Everyone has worth. People who don’t recognize yours have always been wrong.
You didn’t prove them wrong. They were already wrong. About you, and about everyone else too.
You might have to fight to be seen as a person. You might have to fight for your life and your safety and for basic respect. That’s a fight you may or may not win. It’s a fight that, no matter how hard you try or how good you are, you will never win all the way. There will still be those who hate you and see you as subhuman.
But you can be ok, anyway. You’re ok. You’re whole. You deserve better. It’s not your fault they don’t see it. It’s theirs.
You have always been a full person, fully deserving of respect and equal treatment. People who treat you as a lesser being have always been wrong.
Knowing that helps.

Living with our anger as marginalized or abused people

When you’ve been mistreated for a long time, it can be hard to notice that something is wrong. 

Even if you do know it’s wrong, even if you hate it, even if it makes your life awful, it can be very, very hard to realize that it’s ok to object. It can be hard to be upset or even actually *mind* what’s going on in any active way. (And, if you’re like me, you might feel like the problem is that you’re just too broken, and try to shame yourself into becoming someone else)

And then maybe you finally start to get angry. And maybe you meet other people who are angry about the same thing.

And maybe – you start to say so. You find ways of expressing anger. You say the angry things and you even tell people they’re hurting you and that it’s wrong. And you yell and express yourself in emphatic terms in other ways. And you don’t die. You learn that it is, in fact, actually possible to say these things out loud and actually press the issue and win from time to time. And that even when you lose, you survive.

And at first it’s exhilarating and liberating. Because it gives you really, really important things that you’ve never had before.

But sometimes, for some people, this can lead to a place where most of what you have access to is rage. And.. that’s not a great place to be in either. It’s dramatically better than not being able to get angry and express it, but it’s still pretty horrible.

And, a caveat here. Do not even think of using this post to shame people for their anger, or for the amount of time they spend being angry. People have damn good reason to be angry, and sometimes anger is all you have and it is a terrible, terrible idea to try to stop being angry in those circumstances. Anger is important.

Anger is also exhausting and draining.

And anger is not the only way to be able to say what’s wrong without backing down. It is possible to get to a place where you can do that, *even without being actively enraged*. It’s very, very hard to do that, and it’s not always even remotely possible. But it’s a useful skill to acquire and use sometimes, because it means you can sometimes fight these battles without it costing you as much all the time.

It doesn’t mean you stop getting angry. We all get angry, even enraged, sometimes. Trying to eliminate anger is incredibly destructive. Don’t do that, and don’t pressure others to do that. We need anger. We have reason to be angry. Anger is not a failure.

There are other tools, in addition to anger, that we can use to protect ourselves and fight these battles, for instance:

  • Avoiding or limiting emotional entanglement with toxic or dismissive people
  • Spending time explaining things to people who are worth talking to and actually give a damn
  • Spending time with peers who understand and face the same things, and doing things other than being angry about the things
  • Emphasizing and appreciating the value of people like you, even when everything in your world is trying to tell you not to. (Eg: celebrating your culture, eating your food even when it’s stigmatized, body positivity, supporting businesses run by marginalized people, seeing unique value in the perspectives you have)
  • Saying no to things that hurt you even when you’re calm
  • Telling people that they’re hurting others and need to stop even when you’re not enraged by what they’re doing

These tools do not replace anger, but they are also helpful. And so are others. There are a lot of reasons it’s worthwhile to learn additional approaches, for instance:

  • Anger is expensive. It is not as expensive as seeing yourself as someone who isn’t entitled to anger and suppressing it at all costs, but it is expensive and being angry takes a tole.
  • Anger can center the villains more than the good guys. We have damn good reason to be angry. But, push come to shove, good is more important than evil and sometimes it’s worthwhile to center the worth and lives of our own rather than focusing on those who seek to harm us (we can’t ignore them; this is not about positive thinking or pretending that if we don’t acknowledge evil it will go away or any of that BS. What it’s about is making sure we’re remembering to value the people we’re fighting for)
  • Sometimes anger isn’t as effective as something else could be. (It’s more effective than doing nothing, and it’s absolutely legitimate so don’t even try to use this to tone police people. And sometimes it *is* the most effective available tool. But it is not *always* the most effective approach, and it’s good to have other options sometimes)

This is hard. It is also worthwhile.

Don’t turn all your tools into weapons

i sing sometimes like my life is at stake ‘cause you’re only as loud  as the noises you make…….i sing sometimes for the war that i fight ’cause every tool is a weapon – if you hold it right.
-Ani Difranco

I think most people who read this blog are fighting some battle or other. Maybe it’s a battle for justice, on behalf of many. Maybe it’s a principle. Maybe it’s mostly your own life you’re fighting for. One way or another, I think most of you are fighting.

And the thing about fighting is, it’s *hard*, and it wears you down.

And some of you are fighting more or less alone, or with limited support. And you have to take your weapons where you can find them.

Maybe it’s your words. Maybe it’s your affect. Maybe it’s your hands. Maybe it’s relationships. There are all kinds of things. And it’s important; you have to take weapons where you can find them.

And every tool is a weapon if you hold it right. And when you’re fighting, and looking for weapons, it’s possible to start seeing everything as a weapon first and foremost. That’s dangerous. It can destroy you.

If you see everything as a weapon , it can be hard to use tools in other ways. There will be times when you have to fight, there are times when hurting people is unavoidable. But when fighting is the center of your life and all your tools become weapons, it can cost you absolutely everything you care about.

Even when you really need weapons; sometimes especially when you really need weapons.

When all you have is a hammer, then all problems look like nails… But it works in reverse too. If all your problems look like nails, all of your tools will like like hammers. It works that way with weapons, too. If you see everything in terms of physical or social struggle and violence, it’s hard to see your tools as anything but weapons. And that can end up costing you everything you care about.

You have to fight the fights; but it shouldn’t be the only thing you do.

Your hands can make fists. Sometimes you have to make fists; sometimes you have to fight. But don’t let the people you’re fighting make you forget that they can also make bread. Or whatever else. Hands can do many things, and the fight is necessary, but it’s not enough. Don’t let your enemies deprive you of all the other uses of your hands.

Similarly – Your words can be weapons, you can use them to hurt people when it’s needed, and to assert power when power is what’s need. But don’t let them make all of your words into weapons. Because you need them for other things too. Words aren’t just for tearing down oppressors. They’re also for honoring people you respect. They’re also for love. They’re also for telling stories.

You’re probably singing sometimes like your life is at stake. But don’t forget that you can also sing love songs. When you’re singing like your life is at stake, make sure that you don’t forget to value your life as an end in itself. Don’t make your whole self into a weapon.

Don’t forget that patterns and beauty and love exist, and that we can build worthwhile things even in this messed up world. Life is worth fighting for; it is also worth living.

Don’t hang your identity on being counter-cultural.

It’s better when good things become mainstream.

If something is good and right, it’s best when everyone knows this and it’s not substantially controversial.

Opposing things hurts. 

There is a lot that is horribly wrong with the world, and a lot of fights that have to be fought. There are many lives in the balance (and other things). But the point isn’t the fight, and it’s not being outside the mainstream.

The point is the values and the people.

Serve your values, and your people. Fighting is a means. It is necessary. But it is not an end in itself. And you can serve your values and people best by looking for ways to serve them – and when that is fighting, to fight, and when that is building, to build.

When people make the fighting an end in itself, bad things happen.