Popular Sayings That Are The Worst Advice In The World For Marginalized People

When will the positive thinkers of the world give up trying to ruin other people’s lives?

When will we stop practicing this faux Zen Buddhism of “let it go“?

Riled up today by this poster in my Facebook news feed:

Every one of these rules is a popular saying in our culture. While individually and in some very specific circumstances they might be worth considering, together they suck. If you’re a victim of discrimination or marginalized person, they are fatal. They represent a veritable festival of victim blaming and self-gaslighting. While our culture swears by them, you should stamp them out wherever you can.

Let me deconstruct.

Rule 1: Let it go. Never ruin a good day by thinking about a bad yesterday.

So let me get this right, you’re never supposed to learn from the past? You’re never supposed to evaluate a situation based on a more-than-one-day set of evidence? Really?

Wow, that is absolutely fantastic for people who are abusing or oppressing you. You can only be upset if in one day they do enough to justify it.

Rule 2: Ignore them. Don’t listen to other people. Live a life that’s empowering to you.

Again, fantastic for the bad folks. They get to rain on your parade, give you shit 24 seven, microaggressions up the ass, and you are to ignore them, stride blithely ahead, head held high, too self-focused to even notice! This hits both the self gaslighting and victim blaming. Nope, you didn’t see what you saw or hear what you heard! This is one of my big beefs with cognitive therapy’s traditional emphasis on “challenging” negative thoughts. If something happens that depresses you (“shit, I made that great point in the meeting, and then my boss praised the guy sitting next to me for the fantastic idea I offered, because, let’s face it, Mr. Big will never acknowledge that a woman could have a good idea”), you’re supposed to reframe that by considering other, less depressing alternatives, to what is the most obvious and likely interpretation: Mr. Big is a honkin’ sexist pig. Or just a typical male boss. Studies have shown that it’s not uncommon that women’s contributions in a group setting are attributed to the nearest male, due to unconscious implicit bias. But you just ignore that and put all of it on yourself! Be the captain of your own ship, yo! Aren’t you strong enough to prevail against all odds? What’s wrong with you?

Rule 3: Give it time. Time heals everything.

Uh, no, sorry, it doesn’t. Unchecked, boundary violations and microaggressions tend to escalate rather than go the other way, as any woman with the handsy date or creepy neighbor could tell you.

Rule 4: Don’t compare. The only person you should try to beat is the one you were yesterday.

This one made me laugh out loud. I’m an employment discrimination lawyer. Literally this is how you prove discrimination, by showing that the discriminator treats individuals in different protected classes differently. You compare.

The boss disciplines black employees for showing up five minutes late, but white employees can mysteriously stroll in at 10:15 and that’s OK?

I’m a female marketing executive and all the men at my company are making 50% more than I am?

I see this building in a nice neighborhood has a bunch of white tenants, but I’m from Nigeria and suddenly my credit score is too low?

Hey, I’m gay. How come hetero people can marry and I can’t?

Why did that couple get seated before me? I was here first.

Again, this “Don’t compare“ rule is super convenient for the white supremacist on the block. Comparative data is the foundation of any successful discrimination case. Barring the statistically unlikely boss, landlord, or business owner who comes right out and says “Sure, I did that thing because I hate blacks/women/gays/Nigerians,” you prove your case by comparative data.

Rule 5: Stay calm. It’s OK not to have everything figured out but know that in time you’ll get there.

So this one instructs you to tamp down your righteous anger at things that happen to you (probably you’re in this fix in the first place because you violated Rule 2, and actually noticed what was happening to you, like a normal sentient being.)

Your anger is a sign that someone has violated your boundaries, and is healthy and natural. (And I’m not talking to privileged people here; for privileged folks, your anger is a sign that you didn’t get today what you’ve gotten in the past. Stand down. I’m talking to marginalized people.)

Fighting injustice is exhausting, whether it’s organizing group action, or looking into your legal rights and starting the long, laborious process of defending them. “Staying calm“ robs you of your fuel.

And the phrase “it’s OK not to have everything figured out, know that in time you’ll get there” is more victim blaming. It’s not them, it’s you, okay? Right? The problem is you haven’t gotten everything figured out.

It also suggests you should wait until you do figure “ everything” out. Fortunately, from your abuser’s point of view, that will delay your seeking assistance. The burden on you is to stay immobile until you’ve got EVERYTHING sorted. What a relief! Evidence disappears, memories fade, and if they get really lucky, you’ll blow the statute of limitations by waiting so long there’s nothing you can do about it. Score!

The better advice: When you get angry, sit and figure out why. Is there something systemic at work? What are your resources for dealing with it, what support can you access from other people, the procedures of your workplace, or the law, to make a change in what’s happening to you? You do have resources from other people and institutions. Start accessing them the moment you feel something is happening that is not right. You absolutely do not have to “stay calm“ until you’ve figured everything out. You can identify a problem without knowing the full contours of what it consists of and/or how to remedy it. You have that right. Use it.

Rule 6: It’s on you. Only you are in charge of your happiness.

Hahahaha. Right, I’m some kind of automaton who is completely impervious to how people treat me or what happens in my life from external sources, like war, or illness, or injury. Random life events. I control everything!

Yay!

The corollary of this completely false belief is that if I’m unhappy, I need to go home and stare at my navel and figure out why. I need to read another 10 self help books, and explore my family of origin issues, and maybe do a vision board to really seal the deal.

Again, crazy convenient for the folks who are oppressing you, for you to think that you are in total control of your life and that happiness is an individual choice. This is designed to immobilize you and keep you from thinking about again, collective action, and your rights under the law. Life is short and energy is limited. If you’re spending all your energy trying to rework your thoughts, you won’t have the pep to organize that union meeting, look online to see what other people in your profession are getting paid, or have a private chat with a coworker to see if they’re experiencing the same thing. (Not to mention how flat out crazy-making it is to ignore the reality that you are not in fact in control of everything).

Happiness is an individual deal and only YOU can change it internally?

You should see how having decent treatment, a fair wage, and a good place to live can increase your happiness.

And you get those things historically from collective action or legal action. Not from sitting at home and blaming yourself.

Finally, Rule 7: Smile. Life is short, enjoy it while you have it.

OK, this one I agree with. 😊

My bad, I retract my statement that all these rules are bad advice, lol.

Life IS short. Smile and enjoy the fact that you’re alive. Take care of yourself and do things that bring you joy while you’re fighting the good fight. And for God’s sake keep a sense of humor, that will do more for you in the long run than anything else.

I think it’s Emma Goldman who said “If I can’t dance at your revolution, I don’t want to go.“ I feel the same way about laughing. Trying to make change doesn’t have to be a grim or humorless slog. Some of my most hilarious moments have come in the stress and creativity (and sense of freedom) of working with others to protest against injustice, or in the middle of a highly pitched legal fight. I wish activism could have more of a “party feel”, and maybe we’ll get there someday. (I think often about how this could be accomplished, and I guess that’s a topic for another post.)

In the meantime, we can encourage each other, uplift each other, and call out bullshit like these “7 Rules” when we see it.

Enjoy your reality-based thinking XOXO, Linda

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