Recently, I was on a conference call, listening to my colleagues discuss another colleague involved in a controversial situation. “She’s pushing the envelope,” someone said, and instinctively I thought, what’s wrong with this person? Why does she have to make such a big deal? Can’t she just go with it? The irony, of course, is that I’m often the person who won’t just “go with it.” Still, on the phone, deep in my socialized, gendered guts, I flinched. It was an important flinch.
Of course, our imperfect world demands the following of certain rules. If you happen to be female, the rules look something like this: Shave your legs. Do not take up too much space with your body or your voice. Look pretty, even if it’s uncomfortable or dangerous. Do not ask too many questions. Find a man, no matter what. It is your job to make sure things turn out well. Do not be a troublemaker. If you are, people won’t like you. Then, who will you be?
Everything about being an activist requires that we break this mold. Once you see the world for what it is, you cannot unsee it. The choice then becomes one of whether to live genuinely, in spite of the flinches. The work of building a more just world, in which we can reclaim power and strength and build the coalitions and communities that will create change, depends on this unlearning. We can’t simply erase what’s been written on the chalkboard of our brains, but we can grapple with real stories and create new truths.