"I don't think that being a strong person is about ignoring your emotions and fighting your feelings. Putting on a brave face doesn't mean you're a brave person. That's why everybody in my life knows everything that I'm going through. I can't hide anything from them. People need to realise that being open isn't the same as being weak."

- Taylor Swift

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

On Not Having Words

Now Playing: Angels by the xx (and with words unspoken, a silent devotion, I know you know what I mean)

I am a terrible student.

How do I know that? Because I've reached Level 321 on Candy Crush, a game that epitomizes the addiction to mindless disengagement that is procrastination; in fact, this whole blog, seven years of teenage rambles, is the sum product of many hours of time when I should have been doing something else. Right now I should be writing an essay, but I have a pathological aversion to doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

I may be an intellectual teenager, but I'm still a teenager.

Many people ask me why I study what I study, and why I relentlessly pursue subjects and topics that are widely considered to be useless and not beneficial to the Business of Being Employed.

By the way, this question has been a part of my life long before I became a Gender Studies student; it existed when I read Harry Potter instead of pretending to enjoy AFL, it existed when I read Harry Potter during maths class, it existed when instead of memorizing dates and the names of Dead White Males in history I was wondering what women wore and what rights a married woman had and how they dealt with menstruation in that socio-historical context. I have always focused on whatever interested me, and never paid much attention to whether or not the skills I acquired were profitable or employable or marketable.

This total disconnect with the Real World is from a position of incredible privilege, of course. My family were not well off for most of my childhood but I enjoyed a level of economic security that neither of my parents had at my age. I have exceptionally enlightened, educated parents who basically let me go my own way (I mean, they thought I was deranged, but not dangerously so) and I have learned in my life to value things other than money (which is why my bank account is always dangerously close to red). But the main motivation in my life, the thing that makes me finally tear my focus away from Candy Crush and towards my due-in-a-few-hours essay, the thing that always pulls my path away from the pedestrian and conventional into uncharted territory, is not having words.

This seems like a strange thing for someone like me to say. I have always been a very literary person; I've been a chatterbox for as long as I can remember and my inability to shut up is one of my many annoying traits. I am in the business of using words to make meaning and I am also in the business of teaching that to others as my primary source of incredibly meagre income. I always come across as someone who always has something to say and the words with which to say it but that has not always been the case; and, in some ways, it has never been the case.

When I was a child I had a stutter; even now, I am rendered speechless more often than most people. It was incredibly frustrating and I was always frustrated at my lack of words; but beyond that, I knew that my youth and ignorance disadvantaged me, and I was always aware and annoyed that I couldn't conceptualize things, couldn't imagine things complexly, and didn't have the means to argue a point or to present my case. I lost many arguments - and there were many - with grown ups simply through not having the words I needed. As I got older, I got snarkier. I had found a means of communication through sarcasm, through nonchalance, through contempt and active rebellion. It was by no means the most palatable or effective way to make a stand but it was the only way I knew how. They were the only words I knew.

A lot of my fights involved straight white male peers or straight white male teachers (and even straight white female teachers who were intensely disagreeable) and I was always aware that I seemed to have some kind of inherent disadvantage, separate to being a student, even separate from being really short and very nerdy. But I didn't know how to articulate it. I knew what racism was, but not what microaggressions were, I didn't know what privilege and oppression was even when I was experiencing the impact of my own oppression, and it was an intensely strange and dehumanizing and frustrating experience. And in not understanding, other people definitely didn't understand. They didn't understand why I couldn't follow the rules or stick to the status quo or why every moment felt like a betrayal of either myself or my community or my culture or all of the above. I had internalized a lot of the racism and sexism and xenophobia that I was experiencing so I didn't know why the people I was arguing with somehow seemed right and wrong at the same time. I didn't have the words to explain or understand my own oppression and so I didn't have the words to push back against it.

This failure in communication, this lack of words, has led me down some dangerous paths. I was astonishingly terrible at school and didn't remotely live up to my potential. I was a bitter, angry kid and I battled, wordlessly, through an eating disorder, anxiety, and depression. I also got into a very abusive relationship with someone with the same lack of words but a very different place on the intersections of privilege and oppression, which proved disastrous.

I was, however, good at English. I didn't really study but I read a lot, and I thought about things a lot, and it was the first time I really felt like I got something, I really understood something; how to get meaning and how to make the meaning that I got from something seem meaningful. It was also the first time I was described as 'lucid' and 'eloquent', and the first time I had any sense of authority; I knew what I was talking about. I couldn't contain the endless stream of words and for the first time I didn't feel like I was running out of words; I was learning new ones. The debates I got into in English class I usually won, and I learned how to have an opinion and hold it even when nobody else agreed.

Being a Gender Studies student has given me more words; the words to explain, succinctly and clearly, difficult and complex and convoluted things like oppression, gaze, privilege, perspective, context. And I don't know what I'd do without this training; I don't know how I'd live my life without knowing what I know, without the tools that I have learned that I use daily to navigate my life and throw shade on the haters. I don't measure the value of my education by the kinds of jobs I will get and the salaries they attract (although admittedly I should think more about that than I do), but in the words that I am learning. I was a stuttering child and a bitter, frustrated highschooler and now I think I am a better person and a better fathomer of the universe because of my useless education and I can't put a price on that.

I think there is a great anxiety about people who study what I study. The vast majority of people like me - queer, female, person of colour, etc. - lack voice and lack representation. Education, and specifically an education that gives you the words to say what you need to say, is a dangerous thing - an educated woman is a very dangerous thing in a patriarchal society. And that's why there is a constant need to belittle, or to mock, or to continually cut funding and arbitrarily close majors. It's not because they are unimportant; it's because they are too important. Because graduating with these degrees might not produce CEOs or people to cure cancer, but they do produce troublemakers; people who have the words to question a deeply problematic, violent authority. And there is value in that. There will always be value in that.


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