Thoughts shared in celebration of the International Women’s Day March 2021
I believe the year was 2012. I was in Johannesburg, South Africa on a speaking engagement and also visiting a friend. On one of the free days, we decided to go to the cinema and watch a movie. We picked a movie, paid and entered what we thought was the hall the movie was on. The moment we entered, we instantly felt we were in the wrong hall. Everyone of the white faces turned to look at us.
They didn’t have to say anything, but the look was telling. It was a look saying “what are these black people doing in this hall?” Now at that time, we still didn’t know we were in the wrong hall, so we made our way through a row trying to find a seat. We could hear the audible gasp of those in the room as it was obvious we were disturbing the flow. It didn’t take 5 mins for us to realize that it was the wrong movie and we were in the wrong hall. The movie was about a ballerina girl. The kind of stuff white people like to watch. My friend and I glanced at each other and we decided to exit the room. As we moved towards the door, we could feel their eyes stinging our backs. They didn’t have to say anything but we knew they were happy to see us go. When we got out of that room, it felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted off our shoulders and we could breath easily.
I have often seen white people pivot to feigning ignorance about racism or why it appears like black people are either paranoid or exaggerating when they talk about systemic racism. To them, racism must be overt and obvious like using the “N” word or shooting a black kid in the back. The truth is that racism is not always overt, it’s more covert. It’s not always spoken, but it can be felt. This is what confounds white people. The white man cannot dictate to the black person what racism is because he lives in a bubble. It’s only the black person can who can explain it. Implicit bias is not just something you say or do, it is something you can feel and black people feel it more. It’s in the jokes, it’s in the body language. It’s in the feeling you get when you walk into a room. It’s an experience that only the people who go through it can relive.
One of the things I hoped I had learnt early in marriage was how not to put out a rational defense whenever my wife complained about something I did or did not do. When she comes up with a comment like “This is how I feel about what something you did’, my default always is to instinctively defend myself and prove she is wrong. I learnt much later that it was never about me but rather about how she felt about something I did. So, mounting a defense was me questioning her right to feel the way she did. The moment I got it, I changed my approach. Instead of defending myself profusely, I will listen to what she has to say and apologize for making her feel that way. By doing that, I recognize her truth (right or wrong) and will follow up with the questions — How do I make this right? And How can I help you to feel better about this issue going forward?
This is true not just in marriage, it is also true in the case of domestic violence. Many times victims of rape and sexual abuse come out to tell their stories. Some are told many years after the incident happened. Instead of listening to the survivor, we usually spend a lot of time analyzing their stories. We will typically ask questions like ‘Why are you just speaking up now? Why did you keep quiet for so long?’ As if there is a statute of limitation on the emotional impact of an abusive experience. Like racism, only the victim can speak to her truth. You do not get to tell victims of sexual abuse what abuse is or is not. You do not get to tell them when they can speak out or not. You do not get to question their “feelings” about what happened to them. What you can do is to acknowledge their feelings, help them heal and make sure that you work towards ensuring it never happens to anyone else again. As we end this week of the #InternationalWomensDay, I want to salute all the women who #ChooseToChallenge. Women who took on the role of abolitionist, challenging the limits that has held women back.
You are the true Heroes.
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