I was packing away some winter clothing, I’ve been so slow about it, I figured I needed to hurry before it was winter all over again.
Anyway, I was listening to an audio book when I heard a woman say to someone in the story: “You need to take responsibility for your life.” I smiled when I heard it because those exact words took me back to an incident that happened a few years ago, and I can tell you , I certainly wasn’t smiling then. A white man said those same words to me. When he uttered that phrase, I very nearly lost it. The nerve of that man to imply that I needed to become responsible. I saw red – the impertinent so-in-so. I really wanted to clock him one.
It took a long time to defuse the situation back then because he couldn’t understand why I had unravelled. And I, well I, was thinking “the nerve of this white man!” And by the way, what’s up with pretending that you don’t know what you just said. The phrase was bad enough, but adding race too? Way, way too much.
I don’t know about you, but for me that phrase was a loaded one. In my world “you need to be responsible”, implies that I am at present behaving “irresponsibly”. Irresponsible people don’t meet their obligations, they don’t get to work on time, or pay their bills on time, they don’t take proper care of their children, they don’t look out for their aged parents or they are just plain careless in the way they live their lives.
That was the only context in which that phrase was ever used. It was a negative, no doubt about it. And here this man was carelessly insulting me.
In the context of the story it was easier to hear that phrase to mean something very different. The individual was being challenged to “take hold of”, to “be empowered”, “to direct one’s own life, and not be like a leaf in the wind”.
The thing is, the phrase is still anchored in my psyche primarily as a negative thing in spite of the fact that I can see it in a broader more empowering context. I hear the criticism first, then I have to filter it again as I question its context. Okay, so what I heard today was: Take hold of your power to affect change in your life. Leave passivity behind. That which you want is not outside of you, so take charge.
Language is a minefield. I find if I look at your face when I’m speaking to you and I see the clouds roll in, then maybe it’s time to get clarification before moving on. Lol! Asking ‘what exactly do you mean by that’ could prove to be the most important question in a conversation. And it’s worth is increased one hundred percent when sex, class, culture or religion is added to the equation.
By Sharon Wilson
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