One of the first social emotional lessons most children receive centers on the “I statement.”
The premise is pretty basic: speak from your own experience, beginning with “I.” So instead of beginning your story with “you….,” the suggestion is that we begin our stories with ourselves. Pretty basic, but also pretty deep.
The I statement assumes listening to each other- and speaking from our own experiences, instead of narrating others’ experiences- is a peaceful way to be in the world.
You shouldn’t be so angry. You’re too negative today, try being happier. You can’t expect a roomful of strangers to give your baby “good” compliments. You should lighten up.
These are some of the comments I’ve received for writing about how my baby and I experience an onslaught of comments about her prettiness whenever we go out in public. Some from people I know, some from trolls.
They all begin with you.
Not a single one of these commenters spoke from their own experience.
Instead, they narrated mine, presumably because me sharing how it feels for me and my baby to receive this onslaught of comments about prettiness threatens them or their way of life.
You functions to make me carry the weight of the comment. It functions to release the speaker from responsibility. It functions to neutralize the speaker and cast harsh light on the spoken about.
I suppose my writing threatens a way of life. I guess that suggesting that a patriarchy exists and that we all participate in it really brings out the feels in people. It’s pretty shocking (though not surprising) to recognize the ugly feeling that leaks out just because I suggested language matters, even and especially to baby girls.
I’ve never before considered the “I” statement as a feminist, political intervention.
But it is just that: speaking from our own experiences is risky. Listening to others speak from their own experiences means making ourselves vulnerable because it means we might have to consider our own everyday participation in some of these challenging dynamics.
Can you imagine, if instead of “you are being negative” they said “I’ve never read anything like that. When people tell my baby that they are pretty, I feel good because no one ever told me I was pretty growing up, so I felt ugly. I want to make sure my child hears that she is pretty.” Ah, now the conversation is open. Now we can get to the real stuff: feelings hurt because we never noticed. Now we can heal.
Can you imagine, if instead of “lighten up” they said… “So what would you say? What do you say? What else is there to say?”
Can you imagine, if instead of “you’re too angry,” they reflected “One time, I was really angry about X and so I did Z,” or they asked “Share your fire with me, and I’ll share mine.”
Can you imagine if they put themselves on the line, shared what’s going on in their hearts, offered up their vulnerability?
Things would be so different. We all access knowledge from our different experiences; our different experiences are born of our diverse bodies, lives, languages, experiences, families, and dreams.
Feminist research methodologists have long urged us to be clear about our own positionality: what that means is that when we are trying to know something new, we need to consider how our lives and histories inform what it is possible for us to know at all. Different kinds of people have different fields of knowledge that are possible.
How delightful, to recognize this value that I hold so dear in the very early lessons we (try) to impart to our children: I statements.
Something I’ve learned from all my work with diverse communities is that we humans are desperate for discursive space. Desperate to be heard. Desperate to tell our stories.
You though, you…. Silences. It shuts us down. The only way to make sense of this persistent you is through silencing. You is a silencer. And so, it really is time to go back to basics: I statements. Let’s speak from our experiences, and let’s offer some softness, some protection, some vulnerability to the stories we hear from each other.
Chelsey is a digital storyteller, geek, mama, researcher and yogi. She loves to make things and her favorite food is artichokes.