Knowing Our Worth
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.