Feminine Social Norms Aren’t Getting the Credit They Deserve For Their Complicity in Sustaining White Supremacy
When I was little, I would get a lot of compliments for being such a polite guest. Freakishly adept at reading a room, from a very early age I could intuit what others needed and all that was required from me. I had a special talent for keeping unobtrusive so others could take up all the space they thought they deserved.
I didn’t do any of this because I was born with some innate gift for unhelpful social graces. I became skillful early on because I suffered a substantial amount of neglect as a child. As I saw it, conforming to the myth of being “good” equaled being loved. Which meant I could be safe.
The stealthy form of self-neglect that I carried with me for too long served as a reminder that it was best to assume less than more. Be good. Stay back there. Don’t mention that. Don’t raise your hand, you’ll look like an idiot. You’d better not speak up. Morph yourself back into pliability, sweet girl. Ah, see, you look so pretty.
I adhered to these invisible boundaries and lead only from the vantage point of perception. Instead of cultivating my own voice, I focused my energy on crafting the identity that would get me approval. Because I kept my focus on being a receptacle to nourish this need instead of learning how to feed myself, it took me a really long time to see it, acknowledge it, and then work to unlearn it.
When we’re kids, we think we’re the only ones who feel different. Then we grow up and realize how deeply intimate so many of us are with this rhythm. It can take so many different forms depending on our own parents’ experience and the cultural norms they carry with them but often we’ve been groomed with comparable conditioning as females. The common themes are disturbingly similar. Negate self = loved by others = avoid abandonment from the group (survive).
Today, the good woman narrative shows up fully disguised as independence and autonomy, which is actually especially disturbing when you think about it. Buried within the Superwoman/I-can-do-it-all archetype, we find a shape-shifted version of the same problematic narrative. Be strong. Do everything without breaking. Make it look easy at all costs. Stay beautiful and young, but effortlessly so. Vanity is disgusting but so is that line on your face. Whatever you do, don’t make others around you uncomfortable. Read the room. Cook a meal. Be a lady. Stay desirable but not desirous. Be sure to always stay so tiny people might fear you’ll blow away at any moment. Exist for others.
Sometimes we find ourselves here, completely stunned that we fell victim to our own victimhood. With only an echo of our full voice, we try to understand when the shift happened exactly. When we stopped speaking up quite so loudly. When we stopped proudly proclaiming ourselves as artists. All of those times we were shamed for stepping out. Those memories of being shunned for having a divergent opinion. When we stopped believing we are as powerful — and as responsible for both our action and inaction- as we really are.
When we are so focused on keeping ourselves inconspicuous, at the mercy of other’s approval, how can we hope to know when to listen to ourselves and cultivate our own power? We can’t possibly stand solid for others if we’re still engaging from a sandcastle identity. I suppose the first step, like with anything else, is acknowledgement of the problem.
At this point of my life, the good woman role feels somewhat residual now. Friends and family don’t know me to be someone who is quiet about much of anything. But it’s still deep in there. I see it pop up here and there and remind me of where my boundaries have been set early on. I still find myself silently surveying the room and, despite what may I end up doing, my initial, knee jerk inclination is to say nothing rather than risk saying the wrong thing. Very problematic for change.
I’ve spent the majority of my life so damn crafty at being inconspicuous so to avoid criticism that it took me a long time to even realize what was actually being accomplished. I was someone who didn’t cause waves so as to make anyone else confront the horrific possibility of their own discomfort. Depressingly, I was really good at being a chameleon. All of this awarded me significant social shelter. In return for this gift, I simply needed to continue to snuff out my fire and stay agreeable.
I don’t tell these stories to make excuses, rather it’s a calling out. We can’t hope for change if we continue to just unconsciously repeat our problematic behaviors. Too often, we still make the mistake of confusing our acquiescence with keeping the peace. It’s ironic because this is precisely what gives violence free reign.
Silence is the antithesis of peace. It can be more impactful in its harm than the violence itself because it denies lived experience. Our silence is a cultural gaslighting that places the burden on those who are deepest in trauma to navigate the depth of their experience alone and without basic justice. I believe that it is the cruelest thing we can do to another human being who is suffering. When we choose to stay quiet in the face of another’s anguish, we are not part of the problem, we ARE the problem.
It’s really tempting for us all to center ourselves as the hero of the story. Nobody likes to admit and come to terms with the stark reality of causing harm, regardless if it’s unintentional. That’s why we have to be diligent about prioritizing honesty over comfort. Too many times, I have opted to stay quiet in the face of an ignorant remark that made me burn inside because I was too afraid of making others uncomfortable. Or because I thought it was a lost cause to talk to the person.
Actually, what it comes down to is that I was afraid of making myself uncomfortable. I allowed my actions to run so far off course from my values because I was too busy embodying a lethal combination of unconscious patterning with my own anxiety about exclusion. Inaction is still an action.
The decision to get real with ourselves means that the shame we have tried to beat back into obscurity is exposed to the light. As such, it begins to dissipate rather than mutate into something far more nefarious. We begin to realize that we can actually handle a little discomfort without crumbling into dust.
When we claim a commitment to self-analysis, we start on a path of becoming better equipped to have authentic relationships with others. What once might have been a horrified terror of being called out as complicit in racism shifts to a somber and clear-eyed acknowledgement. It becomes a focus on what we can do, individually and collectively, to repair and heal. The desperate need to coddle our fragile psyches gets replaced with maturity and a concern for humanity. It becomes an opportunity to examine our behavior rather than to defend ourselves right back into the shell of denial.