The Politics of “Nice” as a Black Woman, Doing Advocacy Work, in a Social Justice-y Arena

I was telling a podcast guest this just yesterday: There’s very little that I won’t say to someone’s face. This is a positive and a negative. I haven’t always been this way but the more you know, grow, and learn, the less you may be inclined to play by certain rules you feel are destined to make you a performance artist in your everyday life.

You know the image of the two faces? Specifically the one used for theatre: one mask smiles widely, the other frowns on the verge of tears. That’s what I mean. I also like the phrase “tears of a clown” or “laughing through my tears” to express that dichotomy of pain and either a semblance of hope or one on the brink of mania.

Back in my teens and 20s I was pretty damn obedient. (Obedient is the best word I can convey in this instance.) I was “obedient” in that I rarely if ever disclosed my concerns publicly and especially to people in authority who may have been the issue. I always went to my confidants and we bemoaned our lives as assistants working unpaid overtime, willingly though not happily, too nervous to say anything. We were taken advantage of for hundreds of dollars by our publisher, inciting this kind of work ethic that to get ahead and be respected was to show how much you would do for free before being compensated in any way. Now, I cannot say this is tied to my race or even my gender so much as I noticed many of us (white, Black, male, female) going forward with this seemingly known fact: We weren’t worth it. Now, take that into other realms of your life where maybe not money but time or at least presentation is taken into account. Where you see bits of yourself being chipped away in public or private and you take it day by day. You don’t want to say anything, particularly if you’re a Black woman in my case, because you don’t want to be that person. (I had a friend/former co-worker who refused to eat Popeye’s at the office because she didn’t want people to smell her fried chicken and assume she was a ghetto Black person.) This is how deep these representations go. We have to be dainty, polite, articulate, even in the face of problematic comments and engagements. It’s exhausting. We have to be nice. When a man touches me on the street I should’ve been “nice” in my reproach of his advances. When a boss yells at a vendor but says you cannot use a “tone” to express your dismay, instead be “nice.” When someone who has openly said something racist says, “Well, if you’d said it a different way I would’ve listened” meaning you have to be nice. Even when a problem arises our approach to trying to squash it needs to be calculated and plotted out like a friggin’ novel.

The issue of niceness is one that is forever embedded in every aspect of our lives and as a woman of color it’s a big part of how my life is expected to be molded around other’s expectations but also feelings. (Exhausting.) I am not a politician for a reason. If I were a politician I’d like to think I’d be the Maxine Waters (or Shirley Chisholm) of politicians, asking direct questions and brushing off inane comments about my hair to keep focus on the facts of the situation. Dodging ridiculousness at every angle to say, “Can we focus?” But she’s also had a much longer time in politics to say “I really don’t care” and while people, like myself, are as invested in her message and how she handles herself for her constituents, I can guarantee before this hype and even after she has been told time and time and time again that she needs to consider how she looks to others, that she could be a bit more “subdued” or “kind” in terms of someone else’s ego. I can totally see one of her fellow congressmen or woman saying: “You may wanna tone it down a bit, Maxine. More people would listen if you said it in a nicer way.” It’s an expectation and weight put on people, particularly the marginalized, unfairly and it’s not only the majority and men who thrust this at us, it’s also those within underrepresented communities.

I’ve been told I’m respected because you know where the wind blows with me. My face doesn’t hide much these days and I push not an agenda as much as the necessity to think and ask questions. I can react pretty quickly but when it comes to how things are handled I can also be very deliberate before making a decision because I want to know everything involved to make an educated guess. My barrage of questions, I have been told, “makes people feel bad” or “stupid.” This is not my problem. One’s inability to fully formulate a plan then present it to others for involvement means people, like myself, want to know what we’re getting into. This has no bearing on feelings or one’s emotional stability. This is about facts and facts alone.

Within the social justice arena some have made a profit off of being blunt. That is their brand and platform, but it’s not safe for all of us to pursue that path because of obvious reasons. Some women of color shroud or mix this honesty with humor to make others feel better about listening. There’s a reason why we hear the same voices spout thoughts that those in the marginalized community have said years ago, however when they pounded the desk and shouted it into the rafters it becomes a gif gone viral rather than someone who is attacked by trolls with no recourse for defense in their own home.

Within social justice as within any other arena the work is about others but that doesn’t mean politics are not involved nor does it mean the expectation of niceness is dormant, it’s ramped up there as well. For all the times I’m told I’m well-respected, I’m also given the cold shoulder for being that verbose and that honest. It’s not my brand so much as it’s how I live my life. Games are exhausting, they take a certain level of dexterity and mental skill. If I want to play games I’ll open up my Mahjong or Tetris or Food service app and sweat it out.

Being honest (i.e., for some reason not synonymous with nice) doesn’t mean rudeness by default. It means, requesting that someone say what they mean and mean what they say without concern for relationships so much as a determination to be on equal footing. If you said you want more marginalized writers I expect you to stand by that. If you say you would consider me for something, I’d hope you meant that because I will follow up. If you say you hear the calls and issues of those around you, I’d really want to see that you’re following up on this. If you say you hate seeing Black bodies discarded by police brutality then I expect you to speak up on the issue when it arises in your sphere, not remain silent. If you say that you’re learning from your mistakes and yet, and yet, said mistakes arise again and again and defensiveness comes up then it’s showing that this was lip service, not an eagerness or real determination on one’s part to be better. It means you want your kudos for reciting the right script and not going beyond that. You can be “nice” and be a horrible person. You can be brutally honest and a good person. These things are not mutually exclusive no matter how much people want to believe in the easy, yet flawed, categorizations of good vs. evil or hero vs. villain.

№45 is not a nice person nor is he nice in how he comes off and yet, and yet, he’s the leader of the United States. Do not act as though being “nice” is all uphill in terms of how one lives their life or what their successes are.

It’s taken work for me to get to a point where I’m comfortable with being as honest as I am. I still have work to do in various areas but in this I am good as long as mutual respect is given. I don’t chase, I don’t drag, and I don’t do petty/high school back and forth. If you want something, say it. If you feel a certain way, be open about it. If you need time to consider where you’re coming from, take that time. Fact is people go ghost rather than reflect. They get into arguments, presenting their CV of work done without accounting for hurt caused. They will go into their feelings without ever reflecting on others or the larger issues. They will take a paycheck for one statement and never do any further work on self nor learn the institutions that have gotten us to the place we are now and continue to be. This is a problem and time and time again “tone policing” continues to pop up as a reason to not listen, to not adhere to certain values, to not consider others in what goes on behind the scenes or in front of the mic. It’s a problem everywhere and it’s disconcerting when it’s also an issue in regards to work to better this world let alone ourselves.

I’m up for critique as is everything I do. No need to mince words but also not to just blurt out “I don’t like it!” If someone asks my opinion I give it, but I may dole out certain things and not others based on our relationship or lack thereof. I may abstain from speaking all together knowing I cannot give someone what it seems they actually seek. I cannot continue to be “nice” for the benefit of someone else if it puts me in a position of discomfort or the words being used against me when I didn’t inherently mean them. It’s a play I don’t like participating in, so I choose not to. When it comes to what I say I tell people this:

It’s not literary theory, it’s philosophy. Don’t try to read between the lines of what I said, read what’s there. It’s right there.

My goal is to be good, not “nice.” Perhaps the work we do and the world will learn the difference.