Friday, January 17, 2014

Power Well Spent

November 2013 will be remembered in the context of three relationships. Each represents a place in time and a particular aspect of my life. The business relationship represents the past and ended in disappointment. One social relationship represents the present and continued, for a while, with inspiration. Finally, a personal relationship representing the future brought encouragement. Responding to society’s gender-based restrictions was the thread that connected the three relationships. Choices about the manner in which we treat one another were the framework for understanding how power can be used to either isolate or encourage.

My disappointing and inspirational relationships developed while I was having ongoing conversations with an insightful young person about gender. For several months, we shared our thoughts about what it meant to be female, a girl, a woman, male, a boy, a man. I was impressed by the young person’s courage in challenging society’s gender based restrictions. In time, I grew to admire this young person’s clear understanding of the differences between a biological fact, male/female, and a social category, girl/boy.

Long after each of our talks, my thoughts would wander. I remembered times when, as a young female, I found the social categories of ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ stifling. I thought about how isolated I felt during those years.Then, I recalled times when I first decided to reject some of society’s gender based restrictions. I thought about how powerful acting on my decision felt. While we were talking and I was remembering, two other relationships of mine continued separately along their paths.

For about a year, I had been frequenting a particular barbershop that was owned and run by siblings who happened to be female. Supporting female owned businesses was, and is, important to me, so I felt good about using their service. Through the months, one sister cut my hair--a simple barbershop cut--each time. Since they both operated on a walk-in schedule, I assumed that timing and place in line were the reasons why I always had the same barber. I was wrong and when I decided to get a cut on a day when my usual barber was off, I learned how wrong I had been.

This particular day, I noticed that there were not many customers in the shop, which was why I decided to go in. I also noticed that only one barber was working. Just as I said hello and started to remove my coat, the barber told me something I already knew--the woman who usually cut my hair was off.

I said in response, ''That’s okay. I’ve seen your work and don’t mind if you cut my hair.''

This is when the barber said something that my brain simply could not process at first, ''I don’t cut women’s hair.''

I stood in the middle of their little old-school barbershop speechless. I felt as though I had been thrown back to the 1950’s or earlier. Several seconds passed before I could finally ask, ''What does that mean?''

She responded by saying, ''I don’t do all that stuff that women want. I don’t cut women’s hair. My sister does all that stuff. I only cut men and children.'' Then, as an afterthought she added, ''Boys.''

At this point, I thought that maybe she did not remember me. I reminded her that I had been coming there for months and I always got a simple cut. No shampoo. No blow-dry.

She just shook her head and continued her mantra, ''I don’t cut women’s hair.''

She said this all while focusing on her customer at the time who looked like a man and had shoulder length hair. 

Once I finally realized that this barber was not going to cut my hair for the sole reason that I was female, I walked out. I left there feeling disappointed with myself and the barber. I was disappointed with myself for not realizing that, while my goal was to empower female owned businesses in my small way, I was actually supporting a business that discriminated against us, against me.

While processing this failed business relationship, I found inspiration in one of my social relationships. For about a year, I was a member of a small community chorus. This chorus was made up of all female singers. They had an annual cabaret fundraiser and this year I decided to audition. I was auditioning for what would be my first solo performance. 

My audition was not completely embarrassing, I did not run screaming from the room, but it was pretty bad. I forgot the lyrics, could not find the right key, and was obviously nervous. I was nervous because standing alone on a stage and singing in front of an audience was something that I had always wished I could do. I was nervous because singing a solo was something that I believed I would never do.

My first audition for the cabaret was not good but I was given feedback and a second audition. The second time was better. However, the feedback this time was, “still rough around the edges.” This is when another chorus member offered a few hours of coaching. The result was that I did something I thought was beyond my reach. My performance was not perfect but the support that I experienced helped me find my singing voice and use my power to share with others how a song made me feel.

Making decisions and responding to society’s gender based restrictions are what these two relationships had in common. The barber empowered herself by providing a service that people were willing to buy. At the same time though, she used her personal power to make decisions that upheld society’s gender based restrictions. Her decisions were revealed by the way she responded to females when they came to buy her service. 

The chorus members empowered themselves by creating an exclusively female group of singers. At the same time, individual chorus members used their power to make decisions that challenged gender based restrictions. When examined together, we can begin to understand the barber and the chorus as contrasting examples for the fact that we constantly make choices about how to use our power and those choices affect others.

The barber had the power to either treat everyone equally or not. She chose to discriminate. She had the power to provide a service to everyone with respect and courtesy. She chose to withhold this from females. In so doing, the barber supported misogyny. With her actions, she illustrated that she encountered the world through fear. Fear of being judged. Fear of being rejected. Fear of being caught stepping outside one of society’s boxes. She is an example of what can happen when we blindly conform to what society portrays as normal. Oppressive communities are the legacy of people this barber represents.

The chorus is an example for one way to challenge society’s gender expectations through their decision to be exclusively female. In addition, the members had the power to either dismiss or inspire a fellow female and each chose to inspire. Each chose to hear my auditions and to give the support that resulted in my success. In doing this, misogyny was disallowed. The chorus is an example of what can happen when we question the validity of social categories and reject those generated from misogyny or bigotry. 

Indeed, like the young person representing our future, the chorus illustrated how to use power to engender change. Because of the support I received, I was inspired to attempt something I believed was beyond my reach; in the process, I was changed. Communities built on acceptance, empowerment, and inclusion are the legacy of people the chorus and this young person represent.

We all have power in every circumstance and with each interaction. We can choose to use our power to either answer the global call for equality or we can continue to support oppression. We can choose to disallow bigotry at every opportunity or to uphold the establishments that were built on the hierarchy of dominance. We can use our power to become living examples for our children and teach what can happen in communities where personal freedom is respected. We can become communities where individuals work together in equality, empathy, and empowerment. 

In other words, we have the power to demonstrate how to either play nicely or kick sand. We can see each other as colleagues who build beautiful castles for all to enjoy, or we can be rivals who kick sand in each other’s eyes on the way to being crowned king of a hill.

May you have a healthy, peaceful, loving and powerful 2014.

From My PowerLife to Yours,