The girl was rebuked by the man. The girl was sneered at by the woman. The girl was made to feel small by people who are accustomed to using their power against others.
Recently, I wrote a short story entitled “With Regrets,” that revealed three of my most painful regrets. After each one, I wrote how—in hindsight—I should have handled the situation.
My top three regrets, and each one of them was because I didn’t speak up.
A teacher who bad-mouthed my family member.
— I did the polite thing and remained silent.
A man who didn’t understand consent.
— I did the cowardly thing and remained silent.
A psychologist who told me I was over-reacting.
— I did the respectful thing and remained silent.
Each time I struggled to keep my mouth shut, biting my tongue in order to uphold my non-confrontational values or to stay safe.
Yesterday at work, I accidentally took a lady’s plate even though she wasn’t finished. On it was a half-eaten piece of bread and two slices of ham. She had turned away from it and was speaking to her friend.
When I took it, she leered at me as if my very existence was an eyesore, as if my clearing her plate was so disgusting that it had ruined her entire day.
“I wasn’t finished, but fine.”
I apologised profusely, deeply ashamed that I’d made such a mistake. She shooed me away.
“That’s terrible,” said her moustachioed companion across the table. “Excuse me, that’s terrible!”
I apologised again and again, the colour fading from my face.
“Why would you do that?” the man continued. “That’s terrible. That’s terrible.”
After another apology, I scuttled away with my head bowed low.
It was only then that I became angry. I wanted to turn back and challenge the man — what right does he have to call me terrible? Is his class so above mine that I should be silent and apologise like a chastised little girl so that he may be placated? Was my deed so foul as to deserve such censure from a complete stranger?
To keep my job, I remained silent. But now that I am angry, I wonder why my first response was to be passive. Is it my hospitality or retail training which taught me that the customer is always right? Is it my position as a young woman in our society that has taught me that submission in the face of conflict is the only way to survive? Is it my generational position in which I’ve only ever served older generations and never had power?
I want to have a voice. I wish I could scream and cry and prove my eloquency (and thus my education, possibly the only thing he would recognise) to this vile man who presumes to chastise me for an accident. I wish I could shout at everyone who has ever been rude to me, or treated me like I’m inferior. I wish I could fight for myself, my rights, and the rights of others. I wish I could have a voice as active as my rage.