Line Dancing

“The terror of failure can make you feel like a failure. So a bunch of people think you’re not very good at your thing. How much do you invest in what they say? How much do you care? Failure is not putting yourself on the line.” – Dylan Moran

Jane Elliott (Eye of the Storm) spoke at my campus recently and I finally was able to see her. I have shown her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes “experiment” in my classes and used her work to help students understand how racism and privilege get created and perpetuated. In short, Jane Elliott is a pit bull. She takes no “guff” from anyone and speaks the truth of racism bluntly, directly, and fearlessly. For example:

I admit, I’ve used that line in my own classes. It works. It also takes a good amount of guts to do it. I am not able to deliver my stuff the same way she does, but of course it would be foolish to try to be a copy of her. Her way of doing things is exactly that, her way. But my way can also be direct, challenging, controversial, and make everyone in the audience as uncomfortable as her audience. It is not an easy thing to do because it invites people to really, unreservedly, dislike you.

The thing is, I do like it when people like me. It’s kind of nice. But my adult life has been full of realizing that being liked and being respected are two very different things that often don’t lead to each other. And that means I get a lot of people not liking me.

What has baffled me about this is most of the time though, I’m not really intending to be controversial. Challenging classroom scenarios aside, most of the time I seem to set people off just by asking a question or making an observation. Lately I seem to be getting serious criticism because I keep noticing when someone breaks the rules. But even there it is a matter of me saying, “what did you do?” and then someone curses me with the fury of their ancestors.

It isn’t always that naive though, as I’ve written plenty of times about needing to speak up in order to identify injustice or highlight bias or instigate change. That definitely doesn’t win popularity contests. So there I am choosing to enter a situation where my likability will be questioned, even threatened. And I often find myself thinking in the middle of an altercation, “why the heck did I do this again?” If I would just keep my mouth shut, people could just like me and I wouldn’t have so many sleepless nights.

Except it wouldn’t really happen that way, I think. It’s true that if you spend your time being pleasant and conciliatory, you’ll have way fewer arguments. But what would really get done? In my own experience, I had plenty of times when I went along for the sake of going along. Perhaps I wanted to be part of the crowd, or was afraid of an argument, or not sure if my stance was worth defending. I could just say the thing that makes someone else feel good, or the thing that distracts from what is going on, and keep things simple. But it never really did make anything simple, because then I’d leave and think to myself, “why did I do that. Why did I go along with that stupid thing.” And when my eyes opened up to see how keeping my thoughts to myself mostly allowed other people to be overlooked, ignored, or even mistreated, it became much harder to justify why my comfort was more important than their humanity.

So I learned to say things. I later found out that many people do actually appreciate me saying things, whether I am deliberately controversial or innocently inquiring. Some have even said that it was validating, because they found out that someone else had the same thought they did. This led to me eventually building the confidence to keep talking. After enough arguments, it also led me to realize that the worst thing that happens in an argument is: having an argument. People get mad and say dumb things. The truly hard part is staying cool and not saying dumb things. But I learned I can do that too.

But it does mean I spend a good portion of my time being disliked.

What people don’t realize is that even when someone like me learns how to take such experiences as the norm, it doesn’t mean that we don’t get hurt in the process. It is not fun to have someone shout at you, call you names, criticize your work until you want to bleed from your ears. I get filled with doubt, I want to go home and hide under the duvet and not come out for several years. I will ask myself over and over again, what is wrong with me. Just shut up already. No One Cares.

I’m writing about all this because lately I have felt particularly disliked. It is not easy to bounce back and sometimes I don’t want to. I have spent several sleepless nights of late debating in my head if I should just pack it all in. Things were supposed to get easier, and yet I think it all really got harder. Will it ever end?

And then I get to see Jane Elliott, up on stage, telling it just as hard as she ever has and letting that audience know she is not fooling around. Okay, so I don’t agree with every single point she says, but that is insignificant. Because what is real is her passion, her fire, her fury, and she has been doing this for 48 years. That’s longer than I’ve been alive. And she has sacrificed and suffered, and definitely not been liked. At the end of a very emotional 2 hours, she shares:

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputations… can never effect a reform.” – Susan B. Anthony

I am reminded that the important stuff is never easy. Because if it’s easy, it means you’re just going along, riding the current. It also suggests there isn’t anything needing to be changed. And if you’re okay with that, then keep on going along. But if you for a moment think that something looks, smells, feels, seems, just in the teeniest bit askew…

Then get ready to be disliked.