Standing up for yourself as a racialized person in white spaces

Before I tell you my story:

It’s been a while since I have blogged on my Lawtina Elsa website. I created this space as means to navigate myself in law. Part of that journey entails reflecting and thinking about what I will write. Thus, forgive me if I take a while to write a blog entry.

During my time off this blog, I’ve invested in community. This means talking to other grassroots folks and learning from their praxis – as both activists and lawyers. Many of the leaders and mentors whom I’ve connected with are racialized/BIPOC/queer folks. I identify as cis, probably straight but who knows, mestiza Salvadoran woman. I have an invisible disability (depression) which I am doing a pretty good managing lately. Matching with other folks- from South Asian to queer activists, I’m learning we share one similar problem: gaslighting and microagressions from some peers in white spaces.

We talk about self-care as taking time for yourself, but under capitalist disguise, we are taught self-care is a trip to Bath and Body works and buying lavender perfumes. True. But at the core, self-care is a radical concept: you are setting boundaries. Part of those boundaries entail saying “No more” to people who hurt you or diminish your energy as a racialized person.

It took time to realize this about self-care and I’m grateful for so many BIPOC/queer/racialized folks & allies who have guided me.

So now I begin my story, after providing you context:

Story time: my friendship with Z

The names of this story have been changed for privacy. Let’s name this friend Z.

Z and I met in 2010 during my undergrad. She was from different socio-econ world than me.

Around 2012/2013, we started talking about more substantive topics like politics and religion. Anytime I refuted Z with my counter argument, Z would simply say “You are too emotional. You don’t use logic. You don’t listen. It’s always about race. etc.”

I was in my early 20s.

To be honest, I started believing that Z was right. Maybe I’m too emotional? Maybe I was wrong bringing up an intersectional view to our conversations.

I was starting to think I was dumb.

The gaslighting and microaggressions began for a few more years. Every time I stood up to Z, I would be shut down with “you don’t listen.” I would complain to my sister that Z was making me feel dumb. I only told my sister and later, my first year law school roommate.

Now it’s 2014, when I was accepted to law school in Canada, and Z was going abroad, I felt guilty. I couldn’t root for this person. But why? Z was my friend. I should root for them. I thought to myself, “maybe I’m jealous? Ya, that’s the reason. I’m jealous.” I kept my concerns to myself and my sister. Perhaps I was being too emotional to raise this issue? Z always said that I am not a logical person.

We lived our lives on separate continents while attending law schools. Our communication slowed down but I still considered Z my close friend. I remember sitting in the halls of my law school in Ottawa. I remember telling a mentor professor that I’m not sure if I can be a lawyer.

“Why?” asked professor.

“Well, lawyers are logical and use reason. I am too emotional.”

The professor paused and said, “Lawyers are human. You are human.”

I started realizing my confidence in myself was so diminished by Z that I believed her words about me.

The story goes on for a few more years, and no doubt, there were lots of happy moments in my friendship with Z. But it came to an end in 2019 – almost ten years since 2010.

Understanding gaslighting and microaggressions

What is gaslighting? What are microaggressions? I encourage folks to research this topic on their own but overall, microaggressions are subtle but hurtful comments meant to bring down a person from a marginalized group. Vox has a pretty good article for the basics of microaggression: https://www.vox.com/2015/2/16/8031073/what-are-microaggressions

The University of Minnesota has a few examples online, click here: https://sph.umn.edu/site/docs/hewg/microaggressions.pdf. So a few examples are “you are too emotional.” It panders to the stereotype that women are PMSing and they are too unstable to make reasonable positions. “It’s always about race” is another microaggression targeted towards BIPOC/racialized folks as means to erase their experience.

Sound familiar with Z?

Gaslighting is basically psychological manipulation. You start believing you were wrong and maybe you do talk about race too much. Or maybe you are too emotional to be a lawyer.

Again, sounds familiar with Z?

I’m a big believer that hurt people hurt others. I remember at my lowest stage in life, I was gaslighting a friend. But this friend was having none of it. This friend called me out and I realized, “Okay Elsa, take a step back and fix this problem. This isn’t you.”

In the beginning of my essay, I told you how I started healing and hanging with fellow grassroots friends, lawyers and activists. We once had a party. The topic of gaslighting and microaggressions came up.

Almost everyone in the room was manipulated by someone for bringing up an intersectional worldview to the conversation.

I wasn’t alone. I realized this is systematic, especially in white spaces where historically they do not want folks like us (BIPOC, queer, racialized, marginalized) to speak up.

Lesson: Standing up for yourself begins with “No more”

Around 2017/2018, I tried teaching Z about the topics of “privilege” and “intersectionality.” Her view was that she will stay silent and no one will get hurt.

Um, what? That’s not the point.

In our final chat, we started debating this topic of travel and privilege. Not everyone could travel because it’s expensive. Z could travel. I can’t. As I start to remind Z of this, Z begins her comments with, “Elsa, you don’t listen.”

That’s when I knew it was time to say goodbye.

Like any break up, it hurt.

The end of this friendship hurt and I took a few days to heal. I cried. But I also thought to myself, “Was I wrong? Was I too emotional?”

The voice of Z was drilled in me for the last 10 years.

I finally went to see my therapist and I opened up about Z. I learned by saying “goodbye,” I set my ultimate boundary and act of self-care.

Praxis/Takeaway for my readers

There’s a lot to digest in this essay. I am now a lawyer in a historically white, male profession. This means gaslighting and mircoaggressions won’t end with Z.

In fact, gaslighting and mircoaggressions will continue. So how do we (BIPOC/racialized/queer/marginalized) voices cope?

  1. Finding allies: I have surrounded myself with grassroots activists, lawyers and friends. Friends who know the struggle. Not every ally is racialized; but all my allies trust me to listen to my frustration and tears. An ally will always remember to protect your light – not diminish it. It takes time to find that ally but they are there.
  2. Telling yourself, “you are more than this.” For me, at the height of Z’s manipulation, I had my lowest confidence. It took time for me to learn that I’m actually going to be an amazing lawyer – I am trained in the legal procedure to succeed in law but also drive my clients’ facts to fill the case. When I realized that gaslighting was an attempt to put me down, I stood up and told myself, “I am more than this. I am my own empire.”
  3. Moving on: this depends on context like workplace and friendships. For friendships, you do need to consider who else will be impacted. It is not an excuse to stay in the friendship, rather have an open conversation about your experience with your other friends. The workplace could be tricky. I find that allies help with the transition of a new workplace or just having a conversation with your boss. But ultimately, you want to be in a workplace that respects your opinions, dignity, and honours your experience. It may not be easy but remember, you fought a lot to reach your achievements. No one should take advantage of you.

It’s been around 3 weeks since I ended things with Z.

I look to my baby sister – who is actually not a baby but a mid-twenty woman. I look to my sister and I want her to know that she will stand up to other microaggressors.

I want to lead by example – and I hope this essay helps others stand up for themselves.

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