Some weeks ago, author Elizabeth Gilbert hosted Mikki Kendall on Instagram Live to talk about Mikki’s NYT bestselling book Hood Feminism.
Mikki reads this quote from her incredible book that I gobbled in a single day:
“Respectability requires a form of restrained, emotionally neutral politeness that is completely at odds with any concept of normal human emotions.
The emotional labor required to be respectable, to never ruffle anyone’s feathers, to not get angry enough to challenge much less confront those who might have harmed you, is incredibly onerous precisely because it is so dehumanizing. Respectability requires not just a stiff upper lip, but a burying of yourself inside your own flesh in order to be able to maintain the necessary facade. It requires erasing your memory of how it felt to be hungry, cold, scared, and so on until all that is left is a placid surface to mask the raging maelstrom underneath.”
I’m glad to be at a point in my life where those words resonate. But that was not always the case. A few years ago I wasn’t on social media, but I was the manager of a small team that was fairly diverse along lines of race, gender and sexuality. If it wasn’t for the diversity of my team I could have remained completely oblivious to the protests happening against police brutality in Oakland at the time. After all, nobody at work was talking about race back then.
My team was affected by several things that did not affect me due to my various forms of privilege: they were helping a friend who had been sexually harassed at work, they were struggling with anxiety or depression aggravated by the political climate, they were turning to alcohol or sex to cope with the fact that HR wasn’t going to take action against people who had bullied or doxxed them.
I tried to be supportive and kind, but I know that my calm and my own lack of similar vulnerabilities made me seem cold and unempathetic anyway. I did not cry when they cried. I let them exorcise their anger with me (even if it was towards me) so they wouldn’t sabotage themselves in front of more senior people who wouldn’t understand. I thought that was the right response. The leader’s response. I never wanted to police the tone of their anger, because I knew it was justified. But I never expressed any anger myself, at least not in front of them. I kept the mantle of the manager, that professional distance, the mask of the leader. I never thought to question why that mask of respectability was so valued as a leadership trait.
I grew up in the Middle East, where women’s behavior is policed down to the length of hair and inch of skin that may be shown in public, where, as I wrote in my book, Driving by Starlight, “anger puts you in jail; patience lets you prevail.” I learned as a child what most Western women don’t learn until they enter the workforce, that an individual’s rage expressed against a vastly more powerful institution is self-destructive. I had no desire to become a martyr.
Having now been privy to several HR investigations, I’ve occasionally given people who want to come forward with issues my own guidance on coping with the institution. This includes things like:
- Don’t approach HR until you can state your case calmly, as if you’re telling a casual dinner time story. If you become emotional, you’ll lose credibility. They’ll focus on calming you down and refer you to therapy, rather than listening to your case.
- The role of the investigator is to be neutral. They are not your advocate. Their job is to be kind but to sort out facts from feelings, to find out exactly what happened not what you think happened. Yes, I believe you. But if you want them to, stick to the facts, not your interpretation of them or the impact of those facts on you.
- Don’t use words that will escalate the situation. It’s not ‘discrimination’ unless you have xyz sorts of evidence. Don’t say ‘hostile work environment’ — these are legal words, and they trigger a defensive response in your HR rep.
- If you can, learn about the labor laws and the investigations processes. What you call doxxing, the alt-right calls protected concerted activity. What you know as retaliation… isn’t, unless you’ve filed a formal complaint first.
Basically, the guidance always comes down to: don’t get angry at work, and don’t ever fucking cry.
The Black women I work with already know these things. I have never had to tell them. It’s the others, who believe that the system is fair and just, who think they will be believed and respected even if they don’t speak the language of those in power, and who fall apart when they realize that their case is not a bug in a fair system, but rather a feature of a system designed to marginalize them.
To better help those who understand that they need to survive the system long enough to change it, I’ve taken de-escalation training and taught it to people who need to navigate those people in power who lack the self-awareness to manage their own emotions. Again the principle is one of preventing martyrs. Don’t let your career become a casualty of the cause.
In her session on Instagram live, Mikki said:
“We talk about stress and illness but the stress of respectability is unparalleled… No one in the history of humanity has ever responded well to trauma… You’re not supposed to respond to pain calmly. You’re not supposed to be hurt and then make other people feel better. You’re supposed to be able to get hurt and be able to seek help.”
Today, in 2020, the situation is far worse. There is an unfathomable toll on people who have to compartmentalize their grief or loneliness due to COVID-19 and just get back to work because everyone else there is talking about microservices or artisanal bread; who have to smile through the anxiety over whether or not their H1-B will last through the end of the year and instead give a top-notch presentation on test strategies so they can be promoted and be eligible for higher tier visas; who have to endure their communities being brutalized by the police and then pay attention to mistaken theories on the sources of algorithmic bias from defensive industry leaders.
It’s easy to blame toxic masculinity and a several-decades-long cult of pseudo militaristic superheroes for making emotions seem to be a weakness. But today, the expression of negative emotion isn’t just weakness — it’s pathology.
Which takes me to why I’m writing The Night Wolves. When I first pitched the story to a friend, I said it was set at Sequoia, a fictional university where students wear implants that constantly monitor their biometric data… and where they are graded not just academically but on their resilience to change, stress and trauma. Demonstrate disappointment at doing poorly on a test, and you’ll get scored even worse. De-escalate or die.
Before I could explain any further, he laughed and said, “Ah, so a future where HR has software that enables them to do their tone-policing at scale!”
Yes. Exactly. My co-creator and I are both technologists, and we’ve stated before that we’re taking aim at the kinds of things we’ve lived through in Silicon Valley.
As an aside, I do know some excellent people who work in HR, just as many people protesting against police brutality have friends or even family on the force. But we know that these individuals’ choices and actions are often limited by the rules and incentives of a system designed not to provide accountability but to prevent liability, and they are struggling hard to bend the bars of the cage from within.
In The Night Wolves, Alex Wright, the half-Asian son of the founder of this university, is subject to intense media scrutiny at all times. When he witnesses someone die, he doesn’t get to grieve. He must go right back to performing at full capacity, because, as his father tells him, “Pain is contagious… People in pain? They become toxic to everyone else.”
There are many obvious horrors the students of Sequoia must suffer through. The usual stressors — parents, hormones, bullies, and a tough learning curve — are amplified due to the fact that even how they handle these stressors is a public performance. But the deeper, more subtle horror is Alex’s internalized respectability. He truly believes that anger is at best futile and at worst volatile enough to be considered a public threat. He does what a lot of Asian (including brown) people do with their relative proximity to whiteness; uphold standards that they have had to work twice as hard to meet instead of questioning these standards’ legitimacy.
But as Mikki says, “Respectability will not save you… Respectability can’t trump the dehumanizing aspect of bigotry.”
The trauma Alex has suffered is nothing compared to the continued trauma he inflicts on others in legitimizing Sequoia’s inhumane expectations around emotional regulation. He just doesn’t see it yet. But oh, when he does, that maelstrom’s gonna rage.
I was Alex Wright. I’m trying not to be… but when you have so long valued the capacity for compartmentalization and disconnection from extreme emotion in the interest of productivity and collaboration, even beginning to feel is like walking on broken glass.
Oh, and the warmly-welcomed respectable dystopia of The Night Wolves? It’s not far-fetched at all. In fact, it’s already here.