On Making Waves, Ruffling Feathers, and Speaking Up

I have spent my life avoiding conflict. Even as a child, I hated when anyone was angry with me. If I was confronted in any way, even politely, tears would well up in my eyes, and it was about a 50/50 chance whether or not I could actually keep them from falling. I have always been the person who wants to make everyone happy. When I started writing for the Huffington Post, I realized very quickly that this mindset simply would not do - not when I was reaching such a large audience. The first piece I wrote that ever went semi-viral was an essay on the ways white people often perpetuate racist ideals without even realizing it, and when I started reading the comments, it almost destroyed my soul. There was a lot of support, but there was also the opposite - unchecked hate and vitriol, spewing forth from random people who didn’t even know me, but made terrible assumptions about me nonetheless. Thousands of awful words, directed at me - simply because of what I had written. I had to learn, pretty quickly, that I couldn’t make everybody happy. That there would always be trolls out there, looking to get a rise out of the fat feminist snowflake. And, most importantly, that it didn’t matter if they disagreed with me - because I truly believe in what I do. I want to use my voice to fight for equality in this world, and I’ve learned I can do so, in spite of the way some people feel about it. So, lesson learned, right? Only sort of. As it turns out, the trolls are a piece of cake. What’s much harder is facing that sort of conflict with people who are actually a part of my life.

In recent weeks, I have been forced to analyze my level of people-pleasing-ness. And I’ve come to the conclusion that my desire to never upset anyone ever is still very much there, when it comes to my “in real life” friends, family and acquaintances.

I’ve been feeling a lot of anger lately, you see - empowering anger. The kind of anger that fuels me, that propels me forward, that gives me the momentum I need to make positive change happen. The kind of anger that simply will not allow me to sit back and watch as injustices happen, constantly and consistently, to marginalized people. This anger is something I have held within me since my early twenties, and it’s only been in the last few years that I have learned how to channel it - how to use it for good instead of letting it poison me from the inside out. A by-product of this anger is that I feel bold. I feel like being honest. I feel like speaking my truths and standing up for what is right, regardless of who I may upset.

In the past, I have felt this, but I’ve held back. Facebook is a prime example. If someone posted information that I knew to be false, or espoused sexist, racist or otherwise oppressive ideals, I would call them on it - but I would do so gently, meekly, with the goal of keeping the peace at the forefront of my mind. “Sorry to bother you, good sir, but I couldn’t help but notice this statistic you posted about how women just aren’t good at science might be a tad bit incorrect, so sorry for the inconvenience.” Okay, that’s an exaggeration - but it’s undeniable that I wasn’t giving the fight my all.

And why?

I was worried about the feelings of misogynists. Of racists. Of people who will happily throw marginalized populations under the bus, simply because their own privilege allows them to benefit from our oppressive systems. All the terrible things going on in the world, and I was worried about the feelings of those who perpetuate the very things I fight against?

Woah. That didn’t sit well.

I had to ask myself - what’s more important? The feelings of people who don’t really care if I have access to reproductive healthcare? The feelings of people who refuse to even acknowledge that racial minorities experience life differently than white folks? The feelings of people who insist on telling bigoted jokes at the expense of the transgender and gender-fluid community?

Or…staying in line with my own values and committing to using my voice for good, regardless of the resistance I may be met with?

These days, I am choosing my values.

I am saying, “This statement is factually incorrect” instead of “I may be totally off base here, haha, but is it possible that this may not be entirely true?”

I am saying, “You don’t get to decide that” instead of “I mean no offense, but do you think there’s a slight possibility that maybe someone else should have a say?”

And, with a certain member of my family, I am saying, “I won’t let you treat me this way” instead of sweeping everything under the rug in the name of keeping the peace.

This has been difficult - really difficult. This is a person who I have had a strained relationship with practically all my life. This is a person who has discounted my accomplishments and discredited my ability to think critically. This is a person who will scoff and say “What could you possibly know about that?” when I tell him Huffington Post has published my article about x, y, or z. We’ve had debates before, him and I - debates that generally end with him telling me, patronizingly and condescendingly, that I need to learn more about what goes on in the world, and me saying “Let’s just not talk about this anymore,” in order to keep the peace. I’ve bitten my tongue bloody for years, but at least he still likes me, right?

A couple weeks ago, I brought an issue to his attention - something I was simply unable to ignore. When I confronted him, instead of listening to my point, he immediately said, “Why do you always have to make everything so damn complicated with your drama?”

That sentence hung in the air - and with it came a realization. Drama is what I have been avoiding. Drama has always made me feel uncomfortable. I’ve spent my life running from conflict, not seeking it out - and for this man to fling such an accusation at me told me two things.

One: he doesn’t really know me at all.

And two: no matter what I accomplish or how much I know, if I disagree with him - if I do anything other than sit down and shut up like a good girl - he will write me off as being dramatic. Overreacting. Hysterical. Not because it’s true - but because it’s a way for him to invalidate me.

So I hung up on him. Simply pressed the button and ended the call. And I haven’t spoken to him since.

Because I deserve better than that.

I am done sitting down and shutting up. I’ve gotten over the fear of confrontation with strangers on the internet, but now I am getting over it with family as well. The next time I see this man, which will be fairly soon, I will not paste a smile on my face and pretend everything is okay. I will not allow him to sweep everything under the rug, to act like it doesn’t matter. I won’t blindside him, but I will tell him we need to have a conversation. And based on how that conversation goes, I will decide what kind of a role this person needs to play in my life, going forward.

It’s bittersweet. Bitter, because the disconnect is painful. Sweet, because I feel I am finally breaking through chains that have bound me since I was a very young girl. Because I am no longer prioritizing my likability over my values. Because I am finally standing up for myself, and being true to what I know and what I believe in.

And that feels pretty damn good.

Conflict is scary. But sometimes, it’s necessary for us to grow. And I think it’s so important for us to remember that as long as we are being true to ourselves - as long as we’re doing and being the best we can and standing by our values - we don’t have to sit down and shut up.

We can stand. We can speak.

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© 2020 by Ali Owens​