Millions of white Americans have gotten a taste of what it takes to speak up, and how hard it’s been for Black Americans to go unheard for centuries, in the months since George Floyd was murdered. Americans who remained silent in the months that led up to Trump becoming president found their voice too late to change the outcome of the election but have become very vocal in the 3 ½ years since. Women became empowered when Harvey Weinstein’s house of cards fell, to speak their truth about sexual harassment and abuse. Speaking up in numbers feels liberating and empowering.
But when you’re alone, it can feel confrontational and lonely to have your boundaries and voice challenged, especially if you suddenly find yourself outside of a group of people you used to belong to. We hopelessly social creatures are so driven by acceptance that standing firm in our beliefs when they don’t align with those of our friends, family, or colleagues when it really counts can feel overwhelming.
Every time I have ever had to speak up for myself, it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It amazes me when friends and acquaintances reflect a strength they see in me. “You’re so strong, Kristin/Kunlha. You’re so powerful.” In the moments when I am confronting, defending, protecting myself, my loved ones, a stranger – I do not feel strong.
My knees get weak. My heart pumps so fast. I don’t see very well. My voice shakes. I stand in my truth of this life – that I am raw and flawed, pudgy and getting older, and for some reason that can only be explained by karma, I continue to find myself fighting, having to be strong. And strength continues to feel like standing naked in the middle of a stage with my violin, and even though I tuned it a hundred times before the lights went low and the spot narrowed on me, every note is out of tune.
I do not feel powerful, no G.I. Jane “hoo-rah” moments. I can’t smile, I sob, there’s no power in my strength. I feel vulnerable, delicate. I want to hide under my covers and wait for the storm to pass. As powerful an act as it appears to be on the outside, of speaking up and standing up for myself, as much strength I get credited with to protect and take care of myself, it always comes at a price.
Even though there is a choir standing behind me, with one person holding my hand, another touching my shoulder, and someone else in arm’s reach for the hug I am going to need, the moment I start to speak my truth, I still stand alone in it. The hard edges of the spotlight make the world around me so dark; I can feel the heat of the light rosing my cheeks and blinding my eyes. The words squeak from my mouth, my throat is dry and trying to close. My brain starts to scramble and if I don’t get out ahead of the panic attack that is starting to make its way to the surface, the words are going to come out backward and I am going to lose the listeners. I pray I don’t stutter or repeat myself.
Then it’s over. I’ve said my piece. It’s out, it’s done. The spotlight operator has closed the lens and the heat is off. My crowd of support is high-fiving and side-hugging me with attagirls. But as my eyes adjust to the ambient room light, and I look out into the theater, I can see there are hecklers in the seats. They heard everything, and they think I’m bullshit, that my beliefs and my story are bullshit.
They tap easily into the inner dialogue that I’m not good enough, not worthy of being treated well, that all the horrible things that have been said to and about me are actually true. I’m an opportunist, I have an axe to grind, I’m disgruntled, a snowflake. I really am a bad person. I don’t deserve good things or human decency.
They’re waiting with smirks and accusations and they talk fast, and are locked and loaded with the best comebacks, the best one-ups, to cut me down and poke holes in my beliefs. They talk so fast I can’t think straight, they’ve hit puree on the blender in my brain. They don’t know my story and they don’t care. They judge me anyway and they are intent on sucking the power out of my bones, leaving me in a heap in the middle of the stage. They will prey on my inner voice of doubt and second guess me and it won’t be long before I start believing they’re right. And now the real battle begins.
This is how strong I am when I speak up. Speaking up when it’s just you is the hardest thing to do.
To be continued…