How I was shut up

I have a weakness in engaging with white women. I cannot engage with this cohort of humanity with the fullness of my own personhood. Here, I am pointing to being psychologically disabled in my engagement with many white females. In this piece, I reflect upon an experience which suggests that this stunted emotion may come from a deep wounding that I have experienced in earlier engagements with some white women. With some difficulty and fear of personal exposure, I select one case to share with you.

The marketing consultant to whom I am directed is not the person that I regularly work with. I have not really spoken to her throughout the three years that I have been in and out of the marketing department’s open plan office. I approach her with trepidation and hover besides her, hoping to catch her attention. She stares into her computer screen aware of my lurking presence but not prepared to engage it. I need her. The project is urgent. My boss has delegated it to me midstream. I begin talking. My tone is apologetic because I am clearly disturbing her. She turns around, her eyes flashing and her cheeks on fire. “Can’t you see that I am busy?” Her voice is menacing. “Get away from me. Leave me alone! …You can’t just come here and expect me to drop what I am doing.” She is yelling now.

Something is happening to my body. Sweat prickles under my arms. There is a vague ache in my lower back. My head is hot and my legs beg me to sit down. My face reflects my humiliation. My eyes glaze over; mercifully sheathing any tears. I am disabled and not sure what to say. I am shut up. I look at her colleagues at their desks. They look at me in sheepish amasement. Someone shifts their weight in a chair. Maybe I mumble an apology. I walk unsteadily towards the consultant that I regularly work with. I lean on his desk and resist the urge to go to the bathroom. His face is full of concern. His colleague speaks to me in isiZulu, lamenting the incident and apologising. She explains that this woman is rude to most customers. I allow them to placate me.

I should leave the room but I do not. This job needs to be done. Guests have been invited and the brochure must be ready. The deadline looms like a noose. When I can breathe again, I force myself to approach the women’s desk. Her whiteness envelopes the space, taking up the very air necessary to breathe. My cheeks retain the heat of the initial exchange. My voice is clear in spite of itself. I explain that I have been sent by my boss to give her the correct content for the brochure. I hope that since she refuses to see me, she might recognise the authority and seniority of my manager. To be sure, I am a few rungs higher than her on the bureaucratic hierarchy but my identity; the black face that I bear makes this count for naught. She listens to me but gives no indication of having heard me. I walk back to her colleague and reassign the job to him. He is not happy, but he agrees. I walk out, my head bowed. I feel removed from myself and observe a little boy from a dizzying height scraping along the ground. Brought down low and shut up.

Image Image: William Blake

I have spent two years attempting to make sense of my disabling rage. I have tried to link this incident to others that have made me feel like a little boy. I have resolved to write about them elsewhere. Fortunately, many black men come before me. Strong men like Biko and Baldwin, who when they were brought down low, would sit at their desks, reflect deeply and document their pain. I have some tentative interpretations of this event. I have learned that it is necessary to link seemingly innocuous once off events, to a complex lineage of past events and histories. I concur with Vera and Feagin (2004, p. 67), who state that perpetrators of racism and other isms often act now, “but not just now, for they and their reference groups carry congealed actions of the past into the present – often with an eye into the future”. So, while I was screamed at and humiliated in that moment in time, I understand that black men were verbally abused in the past and that these abuses carry on in morphed forms. They are no longer limited to the “garden boy” but have insinuated themselves into the modern day post-apartheid workplace. Finally, these once off events are also directed at the future. I, as the black man and those watching my humiliation, must know our place in future. I cannot be making demands on whiteness. Here whiteness denotes an attitude of entitled privilege not limited or necessarily attached to “race”. For those invested in whiteness, a world of inverted hierarchies where black people hold ascribed authority is not desirable and occasionally someone snaps and attempts to return black men to their place.

For those of us that experience these moments of abusive infantalisation, if we dissociate from our history, we will keep chasing our tails and over analyse what our role in our abuse is. We need to consider the peculiar historical relationships that are conceptualised as ‘racist’ so as to understand why a particular event happens.

I was not rude to the woman that stars in this narrative. When I informed the women’s manager about her behaviour, her blue eyes told me that I should wait in line and not assume that I would get immediate assistance. Those close to me suggested that I might have been weak in not retaliating against the woman. I own my weakness, but I own it in context. I opened this piece my sharing my inability to appropriately respond to white women. I understand this difficulty historically. I suspect that there are sedimented layers of hurt lurking below. I strive to maintain a feminist sensitivity because I am acutely aware of how patriarchy continues to operate in ways that subjugate all women. I am aware of how quick some men are to use brute force to “discipline” women and to resist equality. I do not want to be that kind of man. I contrast the stuntedness that I experience with white women to my easy ability to engage with black women. I know black women intimately because they gave birth to me and continue to nurture and love me. I have fairly healthy relationships with white males. I do not fear them and they do not disable me. I forcefully assert my equality when necessary. Perhaps I have an easier time with them because we share patriarchal privilege. My arguments are becoming entangled and I suspect that there are multiple possible explanations. Perhaps the circle does not close.

Finally, I must state that there are a few white women that I have come to love and respect for their humanity and good work. Someday I hope that this number will grow as more and more of them realise that we too are people. We are equal people who exist and who experience hurt and humiliation when we are seen as anything less than human. Our bodies react to our humiliation. Even now, recalling how I was screamed at, I feel my breath shorten and the vein in my head throbbing as the blood surges – heightening my heartbeat. A heartbeat that with each pump, asserts that I am fully human.


2 thoughts on “How I was shut up

  1. Wow HC- you are brave for sharing this. Over and above your explanations about where this might come from, I wonder if you have also considered another dynamic that could be at play with the white women you are referring to, perhaps an empowering dynamic, that says that many people that act like that effectively act out their own insecurity and fear. I wonder if many of the women that make you feel disempowered have this effect on many other people who are “Human” in their demeanour (i.e sensitive, considerate,etc). I suspect this might be the case, that these feelings of disempowerment are generalised in these people’s interactions and have nothing specifically to do with you other than the fact that you are considerate and human, particular towards women.
    Either way, thanks for sharing this most personal insight.

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