Being Silenced

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This post is about being a female in the United States.  It’s different here than in other places, because we expect that we will be treated a certain way:  with equality.  But it is not different here than other places in that our country by and large is run by older, usually white men.  And someone misspelled Malala Yousafzai in that quote up there.

Last semester I worked with a student who told me turmoil she ran into in her freshman year.  She decided to change her major and one of the hardest parts was knowing that in the eyes of some, she had slipped into being “another underestimated young woman”.  Expectations lowered.  The sharp truth of this comment left its stinger in me.

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In the past, I listened as a black woman told her story of growing up.  She recounted experiences at her high school with her guidance counselor, telling her that she wanted to become an attorney.  Her counselor from there made references to her being a paralegal, a secretary and other “more realistic” endeavors.  The comment this young black woman made was “I am not sure if there is Any Thing more demoralizing to a person than low expectations.  Consistent low expectations.  As a black woman, it is almost impossible to not incur this.”  Malcolm X told the same story of his own education.

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It’s been years since I heard this commentary, but her words struck a sharp tone in my heart and head that has resonated throughout my life.

Encouragement as a word means the action of putting heart into someone.  Discouragement being the opposite, taking heart from someone.  There is a time for each of course, no one should be encouraged to take a rest on the light rail tracks.

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I could recount these stories.  Patriarchs who suggest more “reasonable” pursuits to young women than becoming a doctor, perhaps a nurse.  Fathers whose highest aspirations for their daughters that they should not become pregnant out of wedlock.  Watching managers of drug stores follow my friends around, peeking around corners to make sure they aren’t stealing cosmetics.  Off-handed comments from male family members scoffing at professional aspirations.  Not being permitted to do simple tasks…change the printer cartridge, because of the high potential of failure.  Even watching older women enforce the old guard that they had to deal with in their own lives.

Sometimes it seems the most audacious thing a person can do is to persevere in dreams and goals.  In the face of profound indifference and low expectations… it seems the only option is to persevere in our most beautiful dreams and goals.

Being silenced, experiencing low expectations by those in traditional perches of authority, being underestimated because of gender and/or age, being denied access rather than trained up into capacity for success (consider an employee who fails and is dismissed vs. the employee who fails and is assisted to have the skills to be successful in the future), being told that we ourselves were to blame for actions others took against us, being told that we were “imagining things,” or “too sensitive,” are regular parts of being female.

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Scratching for mentoring or a strong ally left me wondering why so many are so stingy with willingness to fill in the cracks that appear in others foundations:  it quite literally costs nothing to see the worth in another person and encourage them.  Yet one would think that it was as gold, because it is so rare.

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Perhaps the only redemption can be found in being generous with encouragement to those closest to us with intergalactic goals and dreams.  I recall the response from a person in my community when telling them that a young woman in my life wanted to be a neurosurgeon:  resonant silence. Perhaps I expected too much.

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Transitioning home from Russia I learned about this confusing silence:  when good news came my way in my time of transition, I puzzled at why some couldn’t merely be happy for me.  Those who were indifferent or chewed away at successes with reminders of potential downsides perplexed me.  I realized that I may have overestimated their hearts for my good news.

These are shadows cast in life.  Not everyone has been loved well.   How can one show what has never been experienced?  If ones lives is filled with critics, gatekeepers, judges and discouragement the best victory we can hope for is to persevere in finding something different.

In parenthood there is a beautiful redemption; to make a different choice with regards to encouragement.  To make a different choice in the exploration of what it means to love well.  Attending a wedding once a slideshow before the ceremony offered a subdued but relentless tribute of the parents love for the couple to be married.  The slideshow recounted in photographs a life of watching the child grow up with great tenderness.  There was not minimizing or qualifying the child’s accomplishments, no gatekeeping to their success, no mention of their shortfalls, criticism or discouragement of the daughters highest aspirations.  Such is being loved well.

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