I once had a colleague who could be blunt as a barbell, direct as a laser beam, and unblinking as an ancient tortoise. A middle-aged white woman, she eschewed the feminine niceties required to earn her likability badge in the gendered game of social, political, and spiritual acceptability. She didn’t smile self-effacingly. She didn’t half cover her mouth with her hand as she spoke, or cower, eyes downcast, when scolded by blustering white men. I never saw her indulge in pettiness, but she was often urgently insistent and uncompromising when it came to issues of importance, though this subjected her to accusations of being strident and overbearing. You know, a bitch.
As many of us have now noticed, even overtly aggressive speaking patterns may be barely noticeable when enacted by middle-aged white men. In fact, I have a distant white male associate who periodically lets fly with splutteringly defensive tirades so intimidating they might as well be staged vignettes for an anger management class. While my former female associate’s style was legendary, though, I have never, not once, heard anyone remark upon his explosive, steamrolling rants. Not. One. Time. It’s like sitting down to eat with members of a family so habitually demoralized by Uncle John’s unnerving outbursts they simply pass the salt shaker and get on with dinner. The tantrums of middle-aged white men are knitted so tightly into our homes, boardrooms, bedrooms, and hallowed governmental chambers that we may forget that they function as a low-grade form of terrorism. And, of course, it’s not just conservative extremists who close their eyes to it.
Even progressives — of all genders and races — may be discomfited by the simple outspokenness of a woman or person of color as we are not by a white man’s tirade. Don’t “our own people” know that their “harsh” words make it harder for the rest of us to assimilate? As the collapse of every single democratic presidential candidacy this year by a woman or person of color underscored, retrograde racial and gender double-standards are alive and well. Whatever our race or gender, many of us are so damned accustomed to white male rage, even in professional settings, it’s a miracle it ever registers on our radar. Not incidentally, she who dares to point out the man-baby’s tantrum is more likely to have his rage turned on her than to inspire support from a conspiratorially silent room.
The betrayal to those courageous enough to speak up against entitled white masculinity is bad enough. But there’s also the self-betrayal of those of us who sit in complicit silence during yet another of his rants, but wince when anyone else is “too loud” or “too much.” It’s an even more noxious betrayal when the legitimate anger, or mere directness, of devalued others is dismissed as uncompassionate or ungrateful. For example, several times, I (a white woman) have been schooled by one and the same distant associate on the need to modulate my “tone,” together with her reflections on “kindness” and “compassion.” This, by the way, has been in response to communications that, style-wise, were much like what you read here. Whether in speech or writing, I tend toward deliberateness and directness, but I am no one’s idea of a hothead. In fact, because of my soft-spokenness, I often need to repeat myself to be heard at all.
As far as I know, my “tone” critic never resorted to crass sexism to shame me, for example, by calling me a bitch. But she felt perfectly entitled, perhaps even obligated, to enlist spiritual values in the service of this same silencing end. Rather than addressing the content of my message, she challenged my spiritual credibility. It’s remarkably similar to the gendered and racialized dismissals that pushed every single non-white, non-man out of the presidential race this year. And, as a reminder, no one chastises the pissed-off white guy, not even when he trains his outrage on very specific victims, including soft spoken white men. Apparently, beatific silence is a virtue to be enforced only with respect to less entitled others.
Sexist and racist silencing is a slippery art that has never been made less disgusting by being blended in with spiritual platitudes. And as we’ve become better at naming overtly racist and sexist dismissals, the abuses of spirituality to silence women and people of color can be especially insidious. Those who try to silence women and people of color by making oblique appeals to faux compassion — or, its cousin, faux civility— play a card that can be as difficult to challenge as a cute puppy picture: “What?! Don’t you believe in being kind?” Further, one’s very act of objecting to the policing of her “tone” by a self-designated spiritually superior other is guaranteed, from the outset, to count as confirmation of the accusation.
Upon even minimal reflection, of course, we see that compassion ought not be reduced to bland, shrinking politeness, that, in fact, it must often be fierce, especially in the face of willful stupidity or deadly injustice. And because the current catastrophe is as much a political and social debacle as a public health crisis — exponentially exacerbated by incompetence, greed and social inequality — the outspoken voices of women and people of color are more necessary than ever. But in the midst of such generalized overwhelm, we may become more worried than ever about being insufficiently spiritual. It’s worth remembering, then, that, as has always been the case, spirituality will be shamelessly exploited to perpetuate sexist and racist tropes. No matter how confidently pious the inquisitor, though, the message is always the same: “Smile politely and shut the hell up!”