I am not your Sisyphus

Today’s post is written by Samara Doyon. Samara has been a Black girl living in Maine for the past 30+ years (read: her entire life). She is a writer, educator, wife, and mother. Despite the roots of her family tree, half of which reach generations deep inside the cool soil of the Pine Tree State, she recognizes that she will most likely remain an outsider for life, as the definition of “Mainer” upheld by the governor and half the state does not include people who look like her.

One of my greatest personal frustrations is the expectation placed on people of color and other marginalized groups to engage in relationship-based social justice work (i.e., having personal, face-to-face conversations with people we know about white supremacy, bigotry, and various forms of oppression) whenever and wherever ignorance or privilege presents itself. I often hear white people say, “I really just want to be told when I’m saying something offensive so that I can know and not make those mistakes anymore,” and this sounds like a reasonable request. But I know from experience that telling someone they have said something hurtful, triggering, or racist is nine times out of 10 more trauma than it’s worth.

The very same people who say, “I just want to know,” are likely to call us hateful and racist when we point out something problematic with their language. Confronting a co-worker, relative, or friend of a friend when we are too overwhelmed with shame and anger to hold our silence any longer, finding ourselves shaking and numb from adrenaline, fists clenched to quell our fight or flight instinct, breathing through the impulse to scream at the top of our lungs, straining to somehow string together a coherent and non-threatening explanation of why we’re upset that they just called BLM protestors “thugs” and said we should be shot, (a statement which should be excruciatingly obvious in its derogatory nature in the first place) only to be cut off with a response like, “Oh, you’re calling me racist, now?! You’re just ignorant and full of hate! You’re the problem!” Or even, “That wasn’t racist! I don’t think you understand what racism is,” which is an experience maddeningly absurd enough to make anyone want to punch the wall.

But to appreciate the full impact of these exchanges, it is crucial to first understand that disclosing the pain being inflicted on you, personally, and giving voice to that anguish is an act of radical vulnerability. It requires presenting your softest spot to the person who is already cutting it wide open, giving them the power to inflict more damage at will. A marginalized person only needs to live through this unbearable masochism a handful of times to realize the price we pay for speaking up–the pain of being emotionally violated in our weakest places by those too caught up in their own self-righteousness to notice or care about how deeply they are devastating us, the isolation/alienation from coworkers or fellow church members who feel more threatened by our pain than concerned for it, being held in distrust by those with social power who are often willing to tolerate bigotry and ignorance but not the acknowledgement of it, a general reputation for being an angry black woman or being just plain crazy–is just too high.

The expectation that we must try so desperately hard, over and over again, carefully, cautiously, patiently, bending over backwards in order to make the privileged understand how their lack of concern for those who don’t share their privilege is hurting us, only to be punished for our effort, has left me feeling damned in the fashion of Sisyphus, a character from Greek mythology who was doomed to repeatedly strain with every fiber against a massive boulder, inching it slowly to the crest of a steep hill, where it would always turn, falling all the to the bottom, steamrolling over every ounce of pain and struggle, so that Sisyphus must start from the beginning on his insanely demanding and irrelevant task.

And I am not here for that. I have said it before: A few trips up that hill of torture is enough. In recent years, I have become less careful, less patient, less concerned with my approach. I don’t try so hard to quell the fight or flight instinct. I don’t always take deep breaths to try to keep my voice even. I don’t worry so much about my approach remaining unthreatening. Sometimes I let all the fight out, leaving people wide-eyed and confused. Sometimes I chose flight, and put as much space (physically and figuratively) between myself and the injuring party as possible. I cut people off. I cut people out. I move on.

Others don’t always understand or support these decisions, but they haven’t understood when I tried so kindly and patiently to be vulnerable with them either, and if the end result is the same, why strain so hard on that boulder? Why strain at all? If an ally or acquaintance wants to create and maintain a meaningful connection, if they mean it when they say, “Just tell me,” it will show. They will make mistakes, we will mutually struggle through misunderstandings, hurt feelings, learning, and growth, but they won’t condemn me for my honesty when I say, “You’re hurting me,” and they won’t try to blame me for the pain. If they don’t mean it, that will show, too. And that’s where I bounce. That’s where I let them know, “I am not your Sisyphus.”
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1 thought on “I am not your Sisyphus”

  1. Awesome article.

    Was it a few years ago that some well-meaning (I assume) knuclehead at or near the top of Starbucks management decided to create a campaign called “Race Together” aimed at encouraging patrons to discuss these issues more openly amoung each other, possibly even while in line waiting for their order or while sitting in the shop enjoying their beverage or snack? I think my initial thought was “Oh Gawd! Just shut up and make my latte already….”

    A couple of “friends of friends” on Facebook, who I assume are white, but who I am know are privileged by their comments, praised the campaign wildly and mused at what a better city and world we would have afterward. I wrote back a relatively short answer explaining that while the stated goals of the Company were admireable, what kind of a boob would expect me to share intimate a conversation on intimate details of my life – some of which I would hesitate to share with a lover – with some random stranger in a coffee shop? My cousin, whose sense of humor is both elegant and sharper than a fresh scalpel said it best when she forwarded the original post, “Why me?” To their credit, the priviledged commentor came back with “Fair enough.” as her response.

    I had another conversation in public with another truly priviledged individual regarding a hurtful and inappropriate joke he had told about the sa.e time several videos of police shootings came out. And no matter how carefully and completely I explained it, he just didn’t get it and kept coming back with justifications and condescending cajoling to “lighten up.”

    I try really hard not to judge people for their privilege. They are often handicapped by limited education and experience or by having parents and grandparents who taught them that tbeir privilege is, in essence, God’s will.” And as you say, everyone makes mistakes. I DO blame people who use condescending dismissive commentary to shut me up or pass off my perspective as imaginary or “over the top,” whatever that means. Those people are, for the lack of a kinder term, assholes who need to be avoided and certainly not worthy of my time. Some people are blessed with the ability to tell right away. I am not. But the thought “Why me?” has been really valuable in helping me to pick my battles.

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