The home video is scratchy, rough around the edges. (It’s still on VHS, after all.) And it’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I remember it perfectly.
My cousins run around Great Aunt June’s house, high on fireworks and the long South Carolina summer evening. Aunts and uncles goof around for the camera or turn shyly from its gaze.
And then the camera rounds a corner and you see 8-year-old me sitting quietly in a chair, hands folded in my lap, feet demurely crossed at the ankles under my dress.
“And here’s Rachel!” the narrator exclaims. “What a little lady — she’s always so nice and quiet.”
And in those days, I was. I was nice and quiet when my questions and opinions were silenced. I was nice and quiet when I was told that women couldn’t do certain things, and should focus on being “Godly helpmeets”, whatever that means. I was quiet in conversations where black people were discussed almost universally as being lazy, as welfare queens, and drug addicts, and quiet when I was instructed to love the sinner and hate the “sin” of loving someone who happens to share your particular type of genitalia.
I was good, and I was quiet, subsuming my thoughts and my voice to my “elders and betters” until the rage and love and desperate desire for the survival of my soul meant I couldn’t keep quiet any longer, and haltingly at first through questions and awkward questions and silent noncompliance, then louder and more frequently, I spoke up and spoke out through my writing; through conversations that needed to be had, even though they made people I cared about very unhappy; through a thesis on racism in American journalism.
Finally, I left.
And this was great for me. I reclaimed my voice and left a patriarchal, homophobic, racist, misogynist situation. Believe me, I get how amazing that is.
To have once been voiceless is to become forever grateful for the option to have an opinion, forever vigilant of attempts to silence, and forever enamoured with the responsibility and joy of speaking up.
It’s why I do what I do now. And it’s why I’m going to (gently, though perhaps uncomfortably) call you out on your own discourse in your business.
Because while we’re all on board with the tale of good little girls who get their voices back in the realm of the personal, it’s often a different story when it comes to business.
We’re all cool with the voice/power equation when it’s just those two things. But when you bring money into it, everything changes.
All of the sudden, it’s tempting to play small, to stay “virtuously” silent, because there are a lot of very loud people out there who do seriously shady stuff, and you don’t want to be like them.
And I don’t blame you. But the answer isn’t to become the opposite — to silence yourself, to make yourself small by making it hard to find and read your words, to diminish the perceived value of your voice by downplaying the stated value of your work, or simply to not speak at all because “You’re not good at it” or “Who are you to speak out?” or “Someone else will say it, so I don’t have to” or “Everything has already been said”.
Being virtuously quiet isn’t doing anyone a damn bit of good — not you, not your people, and not the world as a whole.
It’s only by using the tools of the loud assholes that you put yourself in a position to enact change.
Now let me be explicitly clear here. I’m not saying “If you can’t beat them, join them.” I’m saying that if you want to have the option to direct the conversation, the flow of money and power, you can’t do it with good intentions alone.
You have to use the tools — though not the tactics — of those in power.
The tools that the loud assholes use, the money, the power, the voice — all those things are morally neutral. Simply tapping into them won’t make you one of the loud assholes. It’s how you use them that counts.
But ... but ... but ...
I know. It's so, so, so, so, so very easy to sit this one out. To think that because it so very manifestly needs to be said, someone else is going to say it. Or that because someone else has already said it before, you're excused from saying it again.
But here's the thing. This just perpetuates the existing conversation and structure (failures and all). And it means stepping away from the incredible privilege of being able to speak up, even if it's just in a very tiny way. (And, by the way, the tiniest possible way is great. So are the big ones. It's your voice, your choice.)
OK. But what does this look like practically?
While it might break the Internet for me to say this, there is no one-size-fits-all, proven six-step plan. I can't tell you exactly what this is going to look like in your life and your business, because it's your life and your business. What's more, I don't ascribe to systems that require you to do A, B, and C to avoid being tarred with the "bad guy" brush. And I have every faith in the idea that given this concept, you can come up with more ways to execute than I could possibly imagine, so I won't limit you to what's in my brainspace.
But here's what it might look like, sometimes:
The TL;DR version? You have a voice that matters, and though it's intangible, it can be stupefyingly powerful.
Use it. No matter what.
Use it for the things that really matter. Even if it scares you.
Use it now, more than ever.
Need some help with the whole getting your voice out there thing? I do that.
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