How to be unapologetically intense (and embrace the consequences)
Based on the memes that I have been seeing on interwebs as we wrap up 2018, it seems like most folks I admire had a rough year but are ready to keep fighting in 2019. I don’t feel too bad about my personal life because I managed to have only one depressive episode and come out strong on the other side, a big accomplishment for a bipolar person. My team and I grew our social impact business EarthEmpower beyond our imagination and though we have a longgg way to go, we are filled with hope, inspiration and empowerment, which after all is our mission.
Though it’s great to celebrate my personal victories at the closing of this year, we cannot say the same about the world, which is why we collectively feel like we got punched in the ovaries (*not a requirement to have ovaries to feel this pain), the stomach, the face, the soul, and a lot of other painful parts. In 2018 tear gas was thrown at babies at the U.S. border. We nominated and confirmed a known sexual predator to U.S. supreme court. I can go on but I don’t think anyone needs or wants me to.
Despite my peaceful inner-self vibes of 2018, I channel some pretty intense external vibes, or so I am told. I am very aware of my intensity, in fact, and I love who I am and the intense person I have blossomed into in the last few years. I speak my mind, with respect and kindness (most of the time). I speak openly about injustice and I don’t hesitate to point out when we are the ones creating the injustices, even if it makes people a little uncomfortable.
I believe we need to be uncomfortable in order to change our behavior. We need to confront our privilege and tear apart the structural oppressions that we are apart of in order to create a just society. I did not make this stuff up, I learned from really smart people (here are a few of my favorites to learn from...Call Me They, Black Lives Matter, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Everyday Feminism) and I constantly get really uncomfortable with my own participation in the problems.
An intense choice of words
I love being an intense person. But when other people call me intense it isn’t very nice.
This translates to “It is a form of violence, also, if they call you or make you feel like you are intense or that you think too much, or that you are passionate and act on what you believe in. As if a woman is supposed to be balanced and measured, without any grand passions.” Flavia Freidenberg, via Centro Transdisciplinario de Estudios en Género.
I for one, am passionately opposed to throwing tear gas at babies, and all the other human rights we are denying the thousands of humans who have travelled thousands of miles to seek asylum from the violence that our own government created. I am intensely, passionately upset about that and if you aren’t I hope you take a calm and quiet moment to think about it before you call me names.
You may not think that "intense" is offensive. But data suggests otherwise. When I use the word to positively describe myself that way, it is absolutely fine. When used negatively, as commonly used against me, it is another story. Other words, like bossy, loud, feisty, emotional, excitable or tempramental can be used in similar contexts, especially in professional settings, and especially with women, as very negative characteristics. Research in workplace settings and even among military leaders, comparing men and women, and identified gender biases in comparing leadership and its impact on performance reviews.
So I keep speaking up
It makes a lot of people uncomfortable that I speak up about sexism and microaggressions, which is part of why I am called "too intense" about it, and it has caused me professional issues because “traditional” organizations (aka they have gotten away with being sexist for their entire existence so why stop now) don’t like to confront these issues. Again, people, friends, family, and peers have suggested I stop speaking up about it in professional settings ("Rachael, you should tone down that intensity"), because I might not get those professional opportunities anymore.
I COULD tone it down, but the problems just keep persisting so I won't. This year I had a consulting client tell me to suck it up, sexism is part of working in the field, that we just should deal with it, that I should know that by now. But I don’t want to work in sexist environments where my team and I get harassed, paid less, and discriminated against anyway. If I stop confronting it, who else is going to? Are the traditional organizations that run the world going to handle it themselves? Are my male peers going to take it on and solve the problem on my behalf? Is someone going to quietly and calmly confront them behind the scenes? News flash, no one is doing that. If they were, the problem would be solved. The change is happening because intense and passionate people are stepping and speaking out and being called nasty names and facing terrible consequences.
But will we be ok?
A low point during 2018 was the weeks surround the confirmation and nomination of our newest supreme court justice in the United States, a known sexual predator, and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. As she gave witness to her history and assault, myself and every woman I know, and many women and non-binary and transgender people I do not know re-lived every assault and harassment and unwanted touch and stare we have ever lived. We relived the storied our friends have told us. We relieved the stories that strangers on buses and park benches and clinics and hospitals have told us time and time again. There was an unspoken horror in the eyes of humans around the world during those weeks of deep pain as we re-lived those moments.
I had countless arguments with men and other women about victim blaming and shaming. About believing victims. It was a defining moment in my history in how I would trust and love men in my life, in whether or not they believed Christine Blasey Ford. They often said I was taking it too personally or being too intense about it.
Fast Forward to October 6th. I am in Guatemala, where I work sometimes, sick that we have a sexual predator for a supreme court justice and fear that I may have finally lost hope for the world. I spent the day crying and finally decided to get out of bed and keep on living. A few hours later, in what feels like the world moving in slow motion, I watch as twenty policemen turn on an indigenous woman and her husband and push and pull and beat them with a stick after she made a comment about police corruption.
I don’t remember the details but I start to film the scenario because all I know at this moment, is that they are innocent and police brutality is a massive human rights violation and I need to document it. I can’t think about what I will do with the evidence, but this can’t be happening in 2018, right? 2018, the year we confirm a rapist to the supreme court. I will find something to do.
Within seconds, six policemen are on top of me, pulling my body in different directions to take the phone, the evidence of human rights violations, away from me. Hulk strength Rachael, defender of the video, I struggle, as I am no longer thinking clearly. But the six policemen overpower me, get the phone, handcuff me and take me in the police car with the sobbing woman. We pray together. We don’t know where they will take us or what they will do. I tell her that I work to defend women rights and that I will bear witness to anything these people do to us. I say it really loud so the police hear me.
We were in jail, for all of 6 hours. A friend spent the night on the phone with the US Embassy. I don’t know the details but a public defender and a judge showed up on a Sunday morning at 5am for a trial. And those twenty angry policemen decided they just want to reconcile and apologize, a big misunderstanding. As neither the woman or I had done anything truly illegal, we had been charged together, so we were on trial together, and the US Embassy powers, by paperwork stupidity, gave us freedom together. White privilege working its magic. To be released, with no fines, we had to apologize for disrupting the peace, and sign paperwork saying we wouldn’t sue the police for wrongful treatment.
During our six hours in jail, between praying and crying with my cellmate, taking deep breaths together, dealing with the fact that the guard robbed her, avoiding the threats of abuse and much worse from the guards, I had about thirty minutes of silence. In my thirty minutes of peace on my cell bench I started integrating in my head the possibility that maybe I would never get out. I reflected on the prison industrial complex in the US, about the treatment of people in color in jail, beaten and killed, about how so many of my black siblings are in jail or repeatedly returned to jail instead of receiving mental health care, or simply for existing and being black.
At 6am on a Sunday morning, my cellmate and I are released and are wandering the streets of town together. We are “OK” but a little more broken inside.
I think about #NiUnaMenos (a hashtag to protest the outrageous rates of femicide, murders targeting women, just for being women) and how the woman I am with cannot read or write and has just been robbed of all her money by the guard and how easily she could have disappeared in this justice system. I think about all the #MMIWG (a hashtag for the alarming rates for missing and murdered indigenous women that have never been investigated in the US and Canada), so similar to indigenous women around the globe, little care from police or the public about what happens to them.
It is time for intensity, unapologetically
I got out. I am fine. I have some bruises on my arm from the six police who tackled me and wrested the phone with video evidence away from me. I am afraid to walk by policeman because I know now what they can do to me. I am afraid they will take everything away from me and my teammates, the business we have built. Or find the woman I was with and do to her what they would have done if, me the white woman shouting about human rights hadn’t been there in the first place, if my embassy had not intervened. This bad night for me, is every day for my siblings of color, indigenous siblings, LGBTQIA siblings around the world.
People have said to me: “You will be ok” -- “With time, you will forget” -- “It will just be a thing that happened”. And I think to myself, of course, because I am white, I could forget and move on, because institutions have not been built for centuries to structurally oppress me. I won’t ever forget and I won’t ever move on. For those who thought I was “intense” before jail, you are definitely going to want to avoid me for the rest of eternity, because my intensity has ramped up a few notches.
I do not apologize for who I am. I do apologize if in my process of being hurt, I hurt you. But we need intensity and we need it now. We need to be uncomfortable with our privilege and our country’s actions, because we need to change it. I am not suggesting you go to jail or yell at your employers. We all have a different voice and a different role. I have a lot of work to do to direct my intensity into better dialogues and I am committed to working on that in the coming year.
As I close off 2018, full of intensity, full of intense joy for the opportunity to live my dreams, to live in a beautiful country which is my adopted home, I truly hope we can all find new ways to intensely seek a more equitable future in the coming year for all people.
More about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
This book is from the founders of #BlackLivesMatters and digs into issues of Mental Illness, People of Color, and the criminal justice system
Further resources from #BlackLivesMatter
Femicide and Latin America