“Be quiet and get out of the way.” Huh…
So I’m working on this theater project with a bunch of great theater artists. I’m part of the team. It’s a devised piece, with a lot of moving parts at this point, which will culminate in performances in late Fall. The work right now is collecting words and ideas from hundreds of young people (ages 14-20 roughly) responding to this premise: what would you think and feel if all the adults in the world had been “crushed by grief” and you were left in a world without the older generation? What would you do, how would you go about starting over, creating a new world so to speak? What do you “owe,” if anything, to the ones who came before you? Yes, it’s a pretty wide swath; right now, it’s a process. I respect and like my fellow artists – it’s a pleasure to collaborate, to learn from them, to grow. All good at this point.
Last week, I was working at a local high school, doing one of the workshops for the show. We plumbed the imaginations of a few students. Most of those students were African-American, but not all. I did what I do…participating in a group, contributing my two cents along the way. I was moved and impressed by the students’ ideas. I am often moved and impressed by students’ ideas. I am often NOT moved or impressed. I have 30 plus years working in theater projects and classrooms, so I’m drawing on a pretty deep well here people. Blah blah blah…you really don’t want to review my credentials at this point. Why am I compelled to even mention them?
More salient than these years of experience is my general instinct in these kinds of settings. I am most often inclined to be encouraging, supporting, even loving to a certain degree. I often LOVE what folks are saying, and I tell them this. If I err as an educator/facilitator/ teacher/director/ collaborator, it is likely to be on the side of too much encouragement, as opposed to too much criticism. I make this choice fully aware and consciously – and so, I own it, I take responsibility for it. Thus, I write this story today.
After the successful workshop, we were packing it up to take off. The teacher of this drama class came to me, a bit tentatively at first, saying “I’d like to tell you something, offer you some feedback, something to think about.”
I sensed that she wanted to say something “negative.” I had just met her a few hours ago, we were strangers really.
“Now, I’m just saying this to give you some insight.”
I think, Okay… I’m always up for some insight. But something is up here…she’s apologizing? Is this passive aggression? The hairs on the back of my head stand erect.
“Sure, go for it.”
I am part of a team here…I want to be a team player, I really do. Stay positive LePell, don’t get snarky, don’t get contrary, as you are wont to do for all kinds of justified and/or insidious reasons.
“ What’s up?”
“I’m just telling you this in case you don’t know…”
“Well, a lot of my African American students…well, they… they don’t really like it when someone like you…I mean… you’re a white person…when someone like you seems surprised when they say things that are really intelligent. It makes them feel…I don’t know…diminished somehow.”
She continues: “It’s a put down, really.”
“Uh…Okay.” (Be positive LePell, be a team player!) “wow…I certainly didn’t mean it to…”(don’t be defensive LePell), ” I mean, thanks for the feedback…I guess.”
“It’s just that, you know…I mean… it’s like… you seemed so encouraging, and so…well, like you didn’t expect that they would be so … you know… I mean, these kids are really sharp. And when people…like you, I mean…white people…older white people…older…white…teachers or something…when they, you… I mean…well… seem impressed, then they… well, it makes them feel bad, not good.”
My colleague does not come to my rescue here. I explain, calmly and self-effacingly, “You know I teach at a place where more than half my students are people of color.”
Augh! Why do I have to say things like that? Why do I have to lay out my credentials…do I need to tell her my story of growing up in a poor, black neighborhood too? Augh! I hate this. Still, I go on: “I am often navigating the delicate waters between critique and praise. I’m not always perfect, and it’s never easy, eh?” (I’m trying to connect with this woman. She is, after all, a theater person, a teacher, a director, etc……be a team player LePell)
“I sometimes err on the side of being too encouraging I suppose. But I’m not, I was not SURPRISED, only truly delighted. Moved.”
She back-pedals: “Oh, I don’t doubt your enthusiasm, you were great, really, just great.”
I think, what the fuck is going on here?
“I just wanted to share my observations with you. Maybe this will be helpful to you in the future, okay?”
“Great…thanks.” I turn to my fellow team member…throw me a rope?
I say quietly, “well, that’s just…that’s part of the conversation these days, isn’t it?”
I’m quickly reminded of the Florida Primary’s commentary by Ron DeSantis.
Lots of loaded language, coded speech in the public arena between Gillum and DeSantis. “You are so articulate” has become coded racism and I can see how and why that has come to be true. But that’s not what I said in this workshop. But it appears that my support and encouragement was interpreted this way. Augh.
We walk to our cars without any further discussion. I say, again, to myself: be positive LePell, be a team player. No need to over-react, no need to get shrill. (Oh, how often I have been labeled “shrill” for voicing a strong opinion, even as I stay still in my seat without gesticulation, speaking calmly and slowly. “Shrill” is coded sexism nowadays, is it not?) My colleague and I exchange scheduling info—but what I really want to know is this: “what was that about, you think?”
The lesson here is one of caution.
This saddens me.
And the ironies are deep.
Quite recently, a few people in my life have said directly to me: “It’s time for you, maybe us, to be quiet and get out of the way.” The context of this was the same each time. I was, I am, worried about the public discourse around whom has the “right” to tell certain stories, to speak certain truths. Of course, it’s time for all of us to listen more and listen better. Of course it’s time to welcome more stories into the public consciousness. But get out of the way? Huh.
Even my own teenage son told me this week, “hey mom, you should learn to be more quiet when it comes to talking about politics and ‘stuff’ like that. I just stay quiet in my classes that discuss social issues, it really works better. That way, no one calls me out for being a white male who, therefore, doesn’t know anything.”
I retort, “but you know a lot. You bring a lot to the table, and participating in lively discussions is the very best way to expand our whole sense of the world, of ourselves. Blah blah blah…” These are important “blah blah blahs.”
“Yeah, yeah, but…well, it’s just better to be quiet, that’s all. That way, no one gets mad.”
“You might want to think about that, mom. You are, as a matter of fact, kinda old. Plus, you’re white.”
Is this just a teenager who is embarrassed that his mom even exists?
Ouch for the third time.
“You mean I should ‘be quiet and get out of the way?’”
“I don’t really know, but maybe.”
“But…But…this adds nothing to the human story, only another silenced voice in the great chorus. No, don’t be quiet, Sing! Sing! Sing!”
My son rolls his eyes at me and walks away, saying “oh mom, you’re so…you’re so…you.”
This particular teacher almost succeeded in making me afraid to speak, worried that I might be mis-interpreted in a most egregious way. ( By the way, we’re mis-interpreted and we mis-interpret all day long…it’s part of the deep challenge we face every day—how do I communicate my truth? How can my truth be heard? And how can I truly hear, truly listen to someone else’s truth and get it right? )
But it is this caution, turned up a notch into fear, that keeps the room so silent, so worried about saying anything offensive.