Something weird happened to me today. I willed myself not to speak from nine to five. Not to whisper. Not to grunt. Not to hum or sing or make a noise with my mouth at all. And it was weird.
The way it happened was that students all over the country called for this day to be a Day of Silence in solidarity with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in the U.S. who are forced to be silent about their identity in the face of general disapproval of their personhoods and general disavowal of their equal rights under the Constitution. Some folks seem to conveniently forget that the U.S. Constitution clearly protects the rights of every citizen. Some folks want queers to shut up. Want differently-abled people to stay at home. Want women to keep their eyes on the ground. Want people of color to be invisible except as needed.
So, anyway, I decided (I guess you could see this coming) to participate.
I was informed that participation would require wearing a black t-shirt advertising the event and the commitment not to speak for eight hours, no matter what. So, I picked up my t-shirt and a stack of cards conveniently provided to hand to people during the course of trying to handle the affairs of a day without speaking.
When I woke up this morning, I took care of one business matter early, so that I could move into the rest of my day. And by the time I had showered and donned my shirt, I found myself becoming acutely aware of something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Something strange. A new, more intense understanding of something I hadn't yet really absorbed: the feeling of "difference."
Now, I've always been different on some pretty unapologetic levels. For example, there aren't a lot of women who've chosen to be as bold as I have, considering my socialization as a middle-class, mid-western White girl. And there aren't a lot of college professors who once spent five years on welfare. And there aren't a lot of White folks who've made even a good attempt at renouncing racial privilege, let alone a lifetime commitment to doing so daily. I'm different.
I breast-fed my babies--one of which was bi-racial--till they quit (my son was nearly four). I married more people than some people have dated. I got de-funded in grad school for writing about a topic that makes some sociologists twitch--no mean trick. I teach everything I've learned and not just the text book. I'm trying to be the change I want to see in this world (a la Gandhi). And I quit my day job just when I was beginning to look half-way normal year before last. I'm different.
But when push comes to shove, on a given day in public, the average person on the street won't see me as a threat. Especially if I don't open my mouth. I may not look my age, but you can look at me and tell I'm on the back nine. And I may not look rich by a long shot (my less than late model car is still badly dented eighteen months after some irresponsible driver crunched into it in a Walgreen's parking lot). But my favorite store is Dillard's and it's more or less obvious by assessing my clothes. I might be walking with, talking with, or variously greeted by one or more people of color more or less often, but someone who didn't know me would be more likely to think I'm a social worker than that we're up to something. So the fact is: I can pass. And regularly do. Not on purpose, because I like nothing better than to catch ordinary folks off guard and give 'em something to chew on. But just moving through my life, that's not immediately apparent.
In fact, last week-end, a couple of young African-American men raised the issue of the title of my book on race, which is Reduced to Equality: My Odyssey to Renounce Racial Privilege~and Find Myself. "You can't renounce racial privilege," they charged. "And even if you could, you could also just decide to pick it up again, if you wanted to." But the deal is that while I may not be able to renounce the so-called birthright of people who look like me, I can, nevertheless, spend my life on a daily odyssey to do so. And, of course, some White folks take it pretty hard when you move in that direction, so it's not only not easy to "change back," but it's actually easy to find yourself in limbo somewhere in the middle at some point feeling as though you may no longer belong anywhere.
I had a class to deal with this morning, but it happened that I had already planned a speaker for that time period, so I thought I was home free. I told my students on Monday what I'd be doing on Wednesday and prepared them a bit for the speaker (who had nothing to do with sexual orientation). Then, this morning, I entered the classroom and discovered that he would be fifteen minutes late.
So, I led a discussion without speaking a word. "Clap once for yes," one of the students called out, "and twice for no." Which I did, also scrawling across the board half-thoughts they seemed to follow with no problem. And the speaker came. And was amused, I think, by my commitment. And I answered questions after class and even in my office by writing on a pad, I swear, and never said a word.
My daughter didn't believe for a minute that I could pull it off. I have a serious reputation for being what we could call very talkative. In fact, the only way I learned to let other people get a word in edgewise once I got old enough to realize that I needed to do this occasionally was by holding my lips shut with one or more of my fingertips. But I went all day--hour after hour--without a peep. Even when I was in my department chair's office. Even when I ordered an oatmeal cookie and a cup of coffee to wash it down. Even when I went to the library to watch a video. Until two women wouldn't shut up in the media section of the library while I was trying to focus and I asked them to move, which they did. I was so upset with them that I completely forgot what I was trying to do and didn't even think about the fact that I spoke until this very moment.
Crap. And I tried so hard.
The reason I felt a need to write this, though, was that somewhere in the middle of everything, walking across the campus, it occurred to me that I felt weird. I felt as if I was wrapped in cotton, that I could hear people talk and birds sing and noises made, but I was just part of the scenery. I could have been a lamp post or a concrete bench. I was unnecessary to the pulsation of life on the planet. I was somehow shut in on myself.
The other t-shirt wearers became my only allies, the only ones who could really see me. We often hugged. We always waved. While I was not in any way disrespected for my silence by non-silent campus-dwellers (quite to the contrary), I still felt outside the vale. I felt my difference in a whole new and wholly visible way.
When I was invited to write something I've been called on the Wall of Shame (which was scheduled for destruction later), I signaled that I'd come back. I had to warm to the idea a bit. It seemed such a private matter. And when, a few minutes later, I was "told" that the pejorative didn't have to be about sexual orientation, I took the wide magic marker and wrote with bold letters "nigger-lover" in a blank space. Tears welled up in my eyes and I couldn't look at faces. I hurried away from the "wall," knowing they understood and glad that the fate of the "wall" was already sealed.
By the time I left the campus, ninety minutes before time was up, I was exhausted and looking forward to going home to my little apartment. I still didn't intend to speak until five o'clock, but I just wanted to be where the silence wouldn't be so deafening, the difference so heightened. With this new level of consciousness, I tried to imagine what it must be like to look African-American, to be utterly, critically aware at all times of my "race" in a country where that means so much. As I walked to my car, past the chattering, laughing "others," I felt my lips knitted together and remembered an African student telling me once that his outsider status had made him feel that his tongue was rooting itself to the top of his mouth from disuse, that until I had called to him from my porch, he was thinking of killing himself.
The point is that being "different" is a function of who has the power to define the norms. As long as White, protestant, heterosexual, middle class and upper class men fill that slot in this country, then those who don't fit into those categories will stand, to one degree or another and sometimes greatly, on the outside of the circle. And that makes for a lot of folks.
It's after five now, and I'm released. It feels almost embarrassing, this ability to let go of my difference, to return to being my middle class, able-bodied, White-looking, educated professional self when so many will go to bed tonight and rise tomorrow unable to step outside the bodies, the selves that mark them in others' eyes and in their hearts as unacceptable or, at least, as different. But my experience with being different for this one infinitesimal set of hours is still hanging palpable, like a soiled suit of clothes in the corner of my bedroom, where it will hang for the rest of my life.