Mirror, Mirror, in the Words


Have you ever caught a view of yourself in the mirror that surprised you? Where you suddenly notice a detail that betrays what you perhaps were feeling but you thought couldn’t be seen? That’s kind of what happened to me the other day, but the mirror I saw myself in consisted of words; a series of tweets, actually.  And each tweet seemed to bring that surprising detail into sharper and sharper focus. Then there were tears.

The tweets by Sonia Gupta described what’s at stake for people of color who decide to speak up against injustice on social media. She emphasizes that it’s not a show, and not about likeability or boosting follower counts but about claiming our right to exist in a society that recognizes us as fully human and worthy. She suggests that for those of fighting now, that we will not likely see significant change in our lifetimes; that “it’s a marathon we’ll never see the end of.” I think that’s the sentence that landed with a hard thud.

All of a sudden I had strange picture of myself ‘out there’ doing what I do: supporting, encouraging, reasoning, questioning, sharing, hearing, persisting and then crumbling under the weight. For some minutes I felt weak and deflated. Naming what was going on helped me recognize myself as both fierce and vulnerable these days.

The glimpse in that unexpected mirror reminded me of something I experienced in graduate school. Part of our coursework in Group Dynamics included attendance at a weekend Tavistock Institute. In a nutshell, a group of people convene under an artificial social structure which somehow forces participants to engage with each other and explore the elements of social organization: roles, authority, boundaries, tasks, and leadership, in the process. There were large group sessions as well as smaller group meetings where the structures given varied from nearly rigid to almost no structure at all. My whole cohort of 50 attended and another 30 or 40 people from another grad program were a part of this three day event.

A lot can happen in 3 days and being in close quarters with strangers and friends all bound to this emerging social structure we couldn’t quite understand but were constructing minute to minute – let me just say, it turned out to be pretty intense. Some folks behaved in surprising ways – they got loud, they broke rules, they challenged authority, they withdrew entirely, they broke down, they rose up. The experience proved quite unsettling for some. One breaking point came for me when I confronted the roles I had taken up in this process.

Leading up to the weekend there was a lot of excitement and also concern in my cohort about what might take place, how we might respond to this experiment of sorts. I distinctly remember being a voice of reassurance, counseling others not to worry, that we would be fine. During the weekend we were frequently asked to acknowledge the roles we were taking up in various settings. At some point it dawned on me that I, one of a handful of black women in my cohort, had taken up a “mammy” role in responding to the worries and fears mainly of my white male classmates before and during the institute. No one had asked me to take up the role, per se. I enacted it myself, with no particular forethought.

I can’t remember what event or words triggered my awakening. But I sat weeping for several minutes in the wake of that realization. Ever since then I have developed a greater sensitivity of how I select and take up various roles in different contexts. Sonia Gupta’s thread of tweets made me think deeply about the roles that I take up on social media. While my inclinations to nurture and support others remain strong, I have also become fiercer in my resistance to the social and political status quo. I find myself angry more often. I’m ready to fight.

And that new readiness – to fight, to assert, to push back, to protest – has me feeling like I’m holding my breath a lot of the time, trying to stay functional and constructive. But underneath there is sadness, fear, rage and exhaustion. Those are as real as my desire to assist and uplift. That the balance has become so delicate is perhaps the reality I hadn’t yet confronted.

image via Pixabay CC0