I am standing in someone’s way in the dining hall. “Sorry,” they breath softly, as they slide past me on the way to the panini press. You’re fine!
“Sorry,” I hear, as an elbow gently brushes my backpack while I stand in line. Didn’t even notice!
Someone’s foot inadvertently jiggles mine under the table as they switch the cross of their legs. “I’m so sorry,” they blurt out, eyebrows crinkled beseechingly. Don’t worry about it, friend!
I am walking down the hallway and do that little dance with someone who’s walking on the same side as me. Left, no right, no left, then back again and finally past each other. “Sorry,” they say, with a tinny laugh and downcast eyes. It’s just an oops!
I interrupt someone as they are about to speak. Or they interrupt me, it’s hard to tell. “So sorry!” they say, and their hand quickly covers their mouth. “You go first.” But I’m more interested in what you wanted to say!
Ladies, this is ridiculous!
Stop apologizing for your bodies taking up space in the world. Stop apologizing for the ways your limbs connect with other human limbs. Stop apologizing for your ideas straining to find outlet in the minds of your friends. Stop apologizing for existing.
You do realize that this is what you’re doing, right? You are apologizing for being the gendered ‘other’ in our society. You are apologizing for being non-male, for being, perhaps, non-white, for being non-upper-body-strong, for being non-domineering in [conversational/physical/emotional/psychic] space. You are apologizing for being present and being imperfect.
Apologizing in this way is for those who society has stripped of their space, their self-worth, their feeling of being deeply valued members of society. Apologizing is for the demure lady. But it doesn’t have to be for you. I’m asking you to try and see yourself not as a lady, but as a full person. As someone whose very existence is valuable and good, someone whose friends are grateful for their existence. I value you. I believe you are good. I value your existence.
I’m not asking you to stop seeking forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness is one of the most humble, the most brave, and the most right thing to do if you have done a wrong. We all do things wrong. I’m a racist who’s working on it, someone with class privilege who is trying to confront that, physically space-taking and trying to create space for others, too. When it is appropriate, I ask for forgiveness. When the space is not mine for the taking, I do my best to learn something and try again to do better.
I’m also not asking you to become the oppressive physical/verbal presences that lots of male-bodied people can be. We will not solve this problem by taking on the mannerisms of our oppressors. As Audre Lorde so eloquently puts it, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
But we CAN think about the reasons behind the constant sorries sometimes dripping and sometimes gushing out of our mouths. We can think about what makes us feel that our presence is fundamentally a problem. And instead of “sorry,” we can request pardon or understanding or patience, because after all, nobody’s perfect.
It is also within our power to be similarly gentle with those around us, to see their transgressions not as aggressions, but as earnest attemptings. We can learn to be considerate of others, see them for who they are trying to be, and accept them for who they are right now. ***
I just don’t think that the only answer to either my oppressions or my privilege is to apologize. It is, instead, my prerogative to confront my oppressiveness and oppressions head-on, be willing to make mistakes, be willing to defend my sense of self-worth. And I hope that those around me will find the strength to do the same. It is time to construct ourselves a dazzling, fierce, strapping, forceful and gutsy femininity.
It’s time to repeat after me (in a nod to The Help):
I am smart.
I am kind.
I am important.
*** Important caveat here: I am speaking, primarily, to those in places of privilege confronting others in places of privilege. It is ridiculous to sit back and expect gay people to educate heterosexual people about homophobia, POC to educated white people about racism, poor people to educate rich people about class privilege, even though this is often how it ends up working. It is even more damaging to require those same people to educate their more privileged counterparts without anger, frustration or impatience because anger, frustration and impatience are natural and expected reactions to confronting systemic injustice everywhere you go.