We are joined today with the author of Sister Seen, Sister Heard (Fernwood Publishing) Kimia Eslah, who shares her experiences of speaking out against injustice and trusting her own interpretation of events. She knows that while retaliation can be frightening, silence can also have a devastating effect on the lives of queer women of colour.
“He’s not talking about you. You’re not Chinese. Let him speak!” Ashraf* scolded me from the armchair across the room.Our two families had been enjoying a summer barbeque up north. It was the first time we had vacationed together since childhood, and I had arrived with high hopes, imagining our little ones playing together as we bonded over the strangeness of being the grownups.As a member of the Iranian diaspora, I had few relatives growing up in Canada, and our relationships had been fouled by untreated alcoholism, mental illness, and domestic violence. Once I had my own family, I was determined to build healthy relationships with relatives who wanted the same. I wanted to write a new narrative where get-togethers didn’t end in hostility.“He’s being racist!” I insisted, glaring at Ashraf’s friend, Steve*. “It’s not okay to talk like that.”Tears streamed as I explained how Steve’s remarks about East Asians were hurtful and inappropriate. Steve didn’t defend himself; he hadn’t needed to. He’d lowered his gaze while Ashraf stared me down. The disgusted look in Ashraf’s eyes broke my heart. An hour earlier, we had been playing Frisbee with the kids and sharing parenting woes.Tragically, this scene was all too familiar.“He can say what he wants,” Ashraf sneered, daring me to challenge him.Upon hearing our raised voices, my worried eight-year-old made a beeline for Ashraf. With his little hands on his hips and his lower lip protruding, he glared at Ashraf, willing him to stop yelling at me.To my shock, Ashraf growled, “Make him stop.” I grasped his threat. Make him stop or I will make him stop. While I shook with anger, my spouse corralled my son.“He’s a bully, just like you,” Ashraf barked. “You’ve always been a bully!”Ashraf was not the first person to call me a bully; my parents were the first, when I was a few years old. They accused me of bullying my siblings with my opinions. As a child, I accepted their interpretation. They’re my parents, I thought. They know me best. Choosing silence and demanding silence were their defense mechanisms, my family’s strategies to protect themselves from recognizing the tragic truth: my father’s untreated addiction was destroying our lives. When I beseeched my parents and siblings to recognize the abuse and neglect, I was scapegoated by all concerned. They lashed out at me because I was an easy target: a queer girl-child, dependent and without recourse. They exploited prevailing social stigma and shamed me with labels like bully, boor, and loudmouth.When I speak out against injustice, my heart races, my hands become clammy, my voice quivers, and my body shakes. In the moment, I might cry tears of frustration. Long after the ordeal, I cry from the trauma of being abused for speaking out. My body relives the fear and sadness from past encounters, triggering nausea, tremors, and days of bedrest.During encounters, I hear my tone: angry, scared, and determined. My voice is clear, loud, and unrelenting. There are also echoes, the voices of people who have called me righteous, uppity, and hysterical. They had tried to shut me up with threats and insults, even imploring others to silence me, bystanders who assured me in softer tones that I was overreacting and misinterpreting events.As I speak out, I do worry that I am upsetting others and misinterpreting events. I worry that my companions might walk away or side with the offenders. These worries are a normal part of the experience of speaking up.Afterwards, I remain preoccupied by the encounter, reliving the trauma and recalling the contempt directed at me. I can’t eat or sleep properly, and I struggle to relate my feelings to loved ones, a complication that can contribute to my relapse into depression and substance abuse. This too is normal, however disturbing.Speaking out against injustice is not easy. Feeling empowered is not the same as feeling uplifted. Truth be told, my gut reaction is to walk away. For a queer woman of colour, it is dangerous to speak up–it can readily lead to violence because my humanity is trivialized by predominant messages: women are unequal to men, people of colour are unequal to whites, and queer people are unequal to cis-gendered heterosexuals. I am seen as less than human, and I am more likely to be the victim of a hate crime.More often than not, I speak up in the moment. I don’t wait for others to take the first stand. I recognize that despite my vulnerability I am one of the bravest people in any room. I have experience on my side: experience recognizing injustice, experience trusting my interpretation, and experience voicing my indignation. While, I might fear retaliation, I still speak up.Speaking up requires courage, conviction, and privilege. It is the courage to be wrong, to be dismissed, to be demeaned, and to feel uncomfortable. I don’t have to be perfect to stand up to oppression. I don’t need the perfect words or perfect timing. I need to be courageous: to act, to react, and to break the silence that facilitates victimization.My conviction is founded on equality and equity. Equality is our universal humanity: we are all deserving of equal rights and respect. Equity is about fair treatment in light of present-day conditions and historical injustices. As an example, imagine a family dinner. Everyone has a plate of food; this is equality. Some members are spoon-fed; this is equity. When my conviction waivers, I ground myself in these principles.My privilege allows me to speak up with less fear of reprisal. I might be insulted, threatened, or assaulted for speaking up but I won’t lose my job, my home, or my support network. In the past, I have been incapacitated as a result of speaking out, and it took time to recover, but I did. Many people don’t have the privilege to speak up but many of us do, and we continue to remain silent.Silence is the weapon of oppressors, and we all have reasons for remaining silent, but know this: in the vacuum created by silence, predators and bigots thrive. The vulnerable continue to be abused and neglected when we choose to remain silent. This is the cost of silence, and we need to consider this cost. What does our silence say about our priorities and values?Ashraf wanted me to be silent. I could have left without a word but my silence would have affirmed his behaviour and his friend’s hate mongering. By speaking out, I disabused them of the belief that they could spread hate without fear of recriminations. It was a lesson in consequences. It was an opportunity to prioritize the lives of the vulnerable and marginalized over the dogma of the ignorant and belligerent.Breaking the silence is a step towards positive social change. It is equality and equity in action, and it is gravely underused by the privileged. Uphold your values through your actions: choose to speak up.*names have been changed