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Knowing Our Worth

August 19, 2014

When I took self-defense classes, there were more important things I learned than the value of a good elbow strike (though delivering a nice solid elbow to the head is very satisfying). The very first lesson we learned was NO. We did role playing with a variety of people asking us for things, more and more insistently, and we had to answer no. Over and over until we got it.

It was surprising how hard it was to hold our ground. We were all women, most of us young, but even the older women had absorbed messages that made it difficult for us to refuse requests, no matter how coercive.

The messages we had gotten from society were the same as women get everywhere. Be nice. Don’t make waves. Go along with the program. People won’t like you if you aren’t nice to them.

Learning NO – first spoken, then yelled – was the first step on the road to valuing ourselves. As part of the class, we examined how we had denied our true worth, how we had given pieces of ourselves away, how we had said yes when we meant to say no in all kinds of situations.

To learn to defend ourselves, we had to learn our own value. To have the energy to dig as deep as we needed to fight hard, to not give up in the face of overwhelming odds, we had to feel it. We had to know, absolutely know, that we were worth defending. Only then could we trust that we would use our new-found physical skills with all the power we would need to fight assailants who were bigger and stronger than we were. We needed to know it so we could react appropriately at the first sign of danger, rather than waiting.

After that class, I started treating myself a lot better in many ways. It may seem ironic, but I didn’t take as many risks.You’d think having great fighting skills would make you bolder, but it actually made me more cautious. I quit getting tipsy in public, even in my safe little town. I kept a much better look out for danger. I had felt my worth down to my core and I began acting from that belief.


The other night I was at the gas station when three young black men came into the mini-mart. After I paid and was pumping my gas, I watched them, dark-skinned and wearing black short and t-shirts, dart out across a busy street that was three lanes across on each side. Traffic there travels 40 to 50 miles per hour. It was a dark night. It was bold, foolish, careless and quite possibly deadly. They made it across.

I had left my twitter feed earlier that night and it was full of Ferguson, and I knew I would return to an even worse situation than when I left the house.

Sometimes as we watch the events in Missouri, I feel like all of white America has the look that Mike Myers did when Kanye said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” on the Hurricane Katrina fundraising special.

We look sideways out of our eyes and think “What the hell is going on?” It takes something like this to make us ask that question. I don’t think black people even have to ask. They know what is going on. Nobody has to tell them.

I remember being with my sister Laura when I was a teenager. There were some cops frisking a couple young black guys against a fence.

“I wonder what that’s all about,” I said.
“In Santa Barbara, they used to call that ‘the n***er on a sunny day’ arrest,” she said.
“What does that mean?” I asked, even though I had a feeling I knew.
“You know. Any excuse to harass people so they know they’re not welcome here. Get out of town. Don’t let the sun go down on you here.”

At the time, it just seemed like an offhand remark, but then again, I had never had to get out of a town by sunset, so I had never had to think what that felt like.

I was never followed, stopped, harassed, hunted. I was never locked up on suspicion and then let go, never roughed up, never made to feel like I didn’t belong.

I got some bad messages about my worth as a woman, but there was never anything like that.

That conversation happened 40 years ago.

Now it’s 2014 and young black men are getting killed by police while sitting on the floor in public transit stations. Choked to death for selling cigarettes. And now shot to death and left in open in the sun for four hours in Ferguson.

My Facebook feed fills up with people trying to make sense of Michael Brown’s death by blaming Michael Brown. He was a criminal, they say, a thug, one of them, you know. Violent. Animals. Gangsters.

I don’t know who Michael Brown was, though people said he was supposed to start college that next day.

I see the young black men at the gas station wearing black clothing, out running foolishly in the dark, acting crazy like young men do, and I know they don’t know their true worth. Why would they, with what they see, with how they are treated? How could they know? Not here. Not now. Not yet.

  1. August 19, 2014 22:15

    You absolutely did not mess this post up. I am so upset about what happened to Michael Brown and the police response in Ferguson. I’m upset about the racial implications and what it means to now have a police force in small town America that looks a helluva lot more like an army than Andy Griffith.

    I am stunned at how many of my Facebook white friends just don’t seem to get it. Even people who I know are concerned about the loss of our gun rights don’t seem upset, and that baffles me because this seems like something they’d be upset about seeing the police point guns at unarmed citizens who are using their 1st Amendment rights. The 2nd Amendment is worthless without the 1st. That’s why it comes 1st!

    Anyway, you aren’t alone. While the press has focused on the 66% of white Americans who think the police response has not been inappropriate, there’s 33% of us who do see what’s going on. And we don’t agree with it. Not one bit.

    • August 20, 2014 10:37

      Thanks, Chloe. I think this is so upsetting in so many ways. The police are behaving just frighteningly.

  2. August 19, 2014 22:37

    Struggling to find the right words to comment about this. I think you put into words what so many of us not there, not being young black men are trying to grapple with and understand with what has been happening. My head and heart hurts even more witnessing what is happening in Ferguson, in our heartland.

    • August 20, 2014 10:32

      Yes, it is awful. It has been awful, but this brings it right out where no one can say they didn’t know.

  3. August 20, 2014 08:46

    I wish all of this weren’t true.

  4. August 20, 2014 13:33

    It feels impossible to define or highlight or teach people what this worth, this being worthy, is. I don’t know how to begin. Thanks for beginning so I can get some momentum.

    • August 20, 2014 13:42

      We had a whole 8-week class at church on worthiness. It meant a lot to people, because these ideas are ones we need to explore, but often don’t. A lot of the class was also about paradox. One of my minister’s sayings is “I am perfectly imperfect.”

  5. cindymaddera permalink
    August 20, 2014 14:14

    I had a cousin from MS tell me once how lucky I was to go to school and live in a town where everyone was white. She told me that “at least they know their place there”. Except she used a different word for “they”, so I shouldn’t really quote that. I was so shocked by her statement that all I could do was stand there with my mouth hanging open. Sort of like I’ve felt every time I want to say something about Ferguson. Racism is wrong. WRONG. We are all worthy.

    • August 24, 2014 21:12

      I know. I always find it weird when people think equality is some kind of special treatment. No – it’s EQUALITY.

  6. August 22, 2014 00:28

    Your observations and well written comments on each topic are extremely important.
    They need to be posted for other people to read. You have a style that initiates what i call a mental conversation with ones self.,one that puts your opinion out there for us to think about and usually consider adopting (agreeing with)

    I’m not speaking for others – I really can’t – but you offer me and others the workings of your sound and ethically correct mind. Your insights are very valuable for me and others to read. You will produce actions as well as reactions and that is a good thing.. Keep offering those thoughts. They are constructive

    As you say, each one of has worth and writings like yours help to get that point across.
    Thank you. Bruce

    • August 24, 2014 21:13

      Coming from you, Bruce, it means a lot. I appreciate your insights and intellect as well. Your sense of humor is pretty great, too. It was good to see you last week. Hug, Sue

  7. August 24, 2014 12:36

    This is heartbreaking because it is true. It’s 2014 and we don’t have gender or race equality. And it’s exactly why I get SO angered at those that say racism doesn’t exist or that we don’t need feminism anymore. Those people are so ignorant of the reality of this world and what is going on across our whole country.

    • August 24, 2014 21:14

      I think it’s easy to overestimate the good changes that have happened and to underestimate how much there still is to be done. People who aren’t oppressed have no idea what it feels like, and so much flies under the radar that it’s hard to point out without sounding angry or crazy.

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