Permission to Speak
The epiphany began with a phone call. Or rather, with the lack of a phone call.
My appointment was with a VP of Marketing. He was also a friend of sorts, which is why I waited so long for him to call, and why I forgave the unanswered texts, the unreturned emails.
The carrot he dangled in front of me was the promise of a job as creative director. “I’m building a team of mavericks and creatives, and I want you to lead them,” he said.
Didn’t hurt that the job was in Vancouver B.C., so it would tick two boxes on my wishlist: level up in my career, and live as an ex-pat. So I kept checking my phone and checking my phone and checking my phone until more than one of my friends said, “ENOUGH!”
“Why,” they asked, “are you letting this guy string you along? This is ridiculous! If anybody else tried ghosting you like this, you’d shut it down right away. So why are you waiting?”
With the answer came the epiphany: I was waiting for permission.
I was waiting because that’s what I had done my entire life, what I had been taught to do since I was small. But until that precise moment, I hadn’t realized it wasn’t a phone call I was waiting for.
Seen but not heard
I grew up in Illinois, in a small farming town where everyone votes Republican, eats bushels of sweet corn, and warms church pews on Sundays, both morning and night. And church had a LOT to say about what I could and couldn’t say. And do. And wear. And think.
In this world of fundamentalists, women were meant to be submissive and pliant. Men ran the entire show—heads of households, preachers in pulpits, leaders of choirs (the women sat off to the side and played the piano). I was told that the only honorable options for my future were: wife and mother, missionary to the heathens, or school teacher. Scratch that. Christian school teacher.
When I was 15 years old, the principal of my own Christian school called me out in front of the class to ask if I was a witch. Apparently I had demonstrated an unacceptable tendency to question him, which he perceived as rebellion. “And the Bible says that rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft,” he lectured.
Decades later, that story is almost funny. Now, I’d gladly embrace the witchcraft. But as a naive and doubt-ridden teenager, that label was frightening and confusing. And so, as I had many times before, I internalized the real message my principal had for me: There is definitely something wrong with you.
I am still learning all the ways in which those lessons of silence and submission are buried within me. When I look back at my career, I now see that I paused at every rung in the ladder, waiting for the nod from someone above me, someone in a position of power. Sometimes they even had to nod twice and give me a push before I would make a move.
While all along, I already had the confidence and skill to climb that ladder on my own.
Descriptors and dude walls
No matter where you grew up, no matter what your religion—or lack thereof—no matter how free-spirited or repressed your childhood might have been, you have been told over and over again, when and where and how much you can express yourself.
Maybe you haven’t been called a witch. (But if you have, let’s get together and call some corners). Maybe you’ve just been told you’re too much. Too loud. Too pushy. Bossy. Emotional. Difficult. Shrill.
After this year’s first round of televised Democratic debates, a man took to Twitter with what he assumed was a helpful critique of Elizabeth Warren’s speaking style. She would benefit, he said, from a voice coach, because when making an impassioned point, her voice cracks and “goes shrill.” (Search Elizabeth Warren + shrill and Google will serve up a library of similar entries.)
In 2018 the Harvard Business Review analyzed 81,000 performance reviews to study the words used to describe men, versus words used to describe women. Men who received negative reviews were penalized with only two adjectives: “arrogant and irresponsible.” Women, however, were “inept, selfish, frivolous, passive, scattered, opportunistic, gossipy, excitable, vain, panicky, temperamental, and indecisive.”
This type of sexist terminology doesn’t just diminish the particular woman on the receiving end—its sends a message to society as a whole, and especially to girls who will someday be women. It says, “Because of your very nature, you do not measure up to the acceptable standard by which everything is judged. There is something wrong with you.”
Is it any wonder, then, that men apply for a job when they meet just 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.
If, on the other hand, you’re taught from birth that you are entitled to power and a platform, just because of the body and skin you were born into, then you will act accordingly. Like Beto O’Rourke on the cover of Vanity Fair, explaining that he’s qualified to be the next President of the United States because: "Man, I'm just born to be in it.”
A few years ago, Rachel Maddow visited Rockefeller University to hand out a prize that's given each year to a female scientist. When she walked into the auditorium, she saw a wall graced with large portraits of scientists from the university who have won either a Nobel Prize or the Lasker Award, a major medical prize. The subject of every single last one of those portraits was a man.
“What’s up with the dude wall?” she said.
There are dude walls in so many conference rooms, waiting rooms, hallways, lobbies, and lecture halls. So many still life shots of imposing white men, sending such a loud message.
Of course, we women aren’t the only ones who get this message. If you’ve ever been shut down, sidelined, spoken over, silenced simply because you don’t look, sound, or act like the people in power—you know exactly what it means to be told that your voice is not welcome.
But you can refuse to go quietly.
Safety isn’t salvation
Silence can be an incredibly comfortable place. It feels safer to stay there, where nobody knows who you are or what you hold dear. You don’t have to worry about how you might be received.
For some, the risk of using their voice is not only real, but physical. Author and activist Ijeoma Oluo has been harassed, doxxed, and sent “fairly regular death threats” ever since she started writing about race in 2012. After a recent threat, law enforcement told her it would be in her best interest to stay quiet for awhile. But Ijeoma said, “Nah.”
In a Medium post titled “The Thing About Safety,” she said: “I started writing because every single day I was living a half-life. I started writing because I was tired of taking in every racist joke, every insult, every assumption. I was tired of hearing the locks on people’s cars click down as I walked past theirs in a grocery store parking lot. …I was tired of worrying that I might die at each traffic stop. I was tired of seeing Black body after Black body lying in the street like so much garbage after an encounter with police. And I was so very tired of being silent through it all. Silence was not helping me. It was killing me. …These last years, since I started writing—I’ve been as free as I can imagine a Black woman to be in this country. I have been able to speak openly, without reservation, about my lived experience and the experiences of my community. …I am not going anywhere. I’m not going to disappear. No matter what comes my way.”
It takes bravery to own your voice. But with it comes a sense of freedom, a sense of rightness and purpose and pride. THIS, you can say to the world. This is who I am. This is what I’ve seen. And this is what I know to be true.
Your voice belongs to you, and you alone.
You don’t need permission from anybody to use it.
So what do you have to say?
I just finished reading Casey Gerald’s memoir, There Will Be No Miracles Here. (It’s a mesmerizing book and you should definitely read it.) He chronicles all the ways he remodeled himself to become the kind of person he thought other people wanted him to be. And the man he built was truly impressive. Accomplished. Prominent, even. But that man was, he writes, a dead man.
I hadn’t heard of Casey prior to finding his book, so when I finished it, I googled the hell out of him and came across a TED talk in which he dropped this eloquent gem:
“Repression is a bitter pill that’s offered to us all. We’re taught to hide so many parts of who we are and what we’ve been through: our love, our pain, and for some, our faith. So while coming out to the world can be hard, coming in to the raw, strange magic of ourselves can be much harder.”
We have all learned to package ourselves appropriately, to gloss on a smile, and curate a pleasant facade. We waste an inordinate amount of time and sanity trying to crush ourselves into some shape of “normal.” As if anyone actually knows what “normal” is.
But often it is the very imperfections we try to hide—our flaws, our obsessions, our struggles, our mistakes, our fears—that connect us to other real human people. Think about it and you might realize that those are the very reasons you love some of your favorite music or art or books. Not because they are shrink-wrapped and mass-produced, but because they make you feel less alone. Like you are not the only oddity in the universe.
So peel away all those cultural expectations and polite party tricks. Embrace the wreckage of your heart. Revel in your own special brand of weird.
We are defined by the stories we tell each other. How lovely, how amazing, if we allow ourselves to tell the truth.
No more waiting
That phone call I waited for so anxiously did materialize, eventually. But I didn’t answer it. By then I’d realized I didn’t even want that job. (Although I’m still cool with moving to Vancouver.)
No, this is what I want to do. To raise my voice, tell my story, and help others unlock their own. So I’ve created a workshop, I’ve written a keynote, and I’m bringing them soon to a city near you.