The Compulsive Reader: On Words, Intent, and Rage

Sunday, March 22, 2015

On Words, Intent, and Rage

A few years ago, when my younger brother was a junior in high school, two boys took his notebook during study hall and wrote the n word on it, then left the notebook out in plain sight for my brother to find. By the time my brother re-claimed his notebook and saw that word scrawled across the pages of his notebook, study hall had come to an end and the school day was almost over with.

It was probably a good thing, too.

Because that word, written on that notebook, filled my brother with so much rage he could barely contain it. He could barely contain it for the rest of the school day until our father picked him up from school and that rage exploded. That night, everyone in my house raged through hurt and disbelief, then we all calmed down a tiny bit and the next day the incident was reported to the school administration.

I am white. My brother is dark-skinned. I have had certain privileges because of my skin color, many of which I never bothered to notice before that day. One of those privileges, I think, was an inherent sense of justice when it comes to this type of intolerance. I naively believed that when this incident was reported, the people responsible for writing such a hurtful word would be held accountable for their actions.

The next day, the principal of the school called my parents. He wanted to let them know that yes, the school did know who was responsible for writing the n word on my brother's notebook. Yes, the school did talk to those two white boys. But, the principal determined, the action--writing the n word on the notebook belonging to a dark-skinned boy--wasn't intended to be inflammatory. The boys were making a joke. A bad one, but see, they didn't mean to be racist. My brother just took it to be racist, and well, that's unfortunate. But let's all move on.

The boys got off with a warning.

The n word was still scrawled in blue pen across my brother's notebook.

That night, I was filled with so much rage I broke things. That doesn't even begin to measure up to my brother's rage, or my parents' rage and desperation as they tried to talk to the school, other parents, administrators. Eventually, the issue was dropped. We buried our all-consuming rage to try to move forward, because it became clear that no one really cared about our anger, about the hurt that had been caused by that one word. All that mattered was sparing those two white boys and the white male principal from having to deal with them.

When people say things like, "I don't believe that words can be kind or unkind, they are vessels filled with the intent of the speaker," I start to feel the same rage that held me in its grip for weeks after my brother's notebook was defiled with a racial slur. I want to break something again. I want that person to know what it's like to be discriminated against, to be told his feelings of being discriminated against are invalid, and then to have to face his discriminators again and again and again, every day until he graduates from high school, knowing that almost every authority is on the side of those discriminators.

Intent means nothing then.

Maybe it's because I'm a woman, maybe it's how I was raised, maybe it's the eternal optimist in me that believes that we can all be better, but I always want to give others the benefit of the doubt. Rage isn't going to combat ignorance. I believe in the capacity for change, and what's more, I want to believe people when they say they are working on change.

But intent and change aren't the same thing. Change means you don't use those words, you admit your ignorance, you admit your privilege, and you work on having empathy for others. Your learn what you can and you accept feedback without getting defensive and blocking those who kindly point out your discrimination.

And if you can't do that, then don't be surprised when people get angry.

There's no easy answer to discrimination of any kind, but my hope for anyone who is reading this is simply: Acknowledge the power of words. Know that your voice is important, your feelings are valid, and your worth is immeasurable. Be brave enough to call out discrimination when you see it in yourselves and in others. Above all, be kind.

1 comment:

Christina said...

Yes! Fantastic post. I agree whole heartedly, this is a subject I am very, very passionate about.