How My Father Taught Me To Say “Enough Is Enough” On Twitter

When I was a little girl, my father’s favorite word was respect. He was kind, affectionate and playful. We could talk about anything, laugh for hours and be easy like Sunday morning. But as a tough disciplinarian and proud man, if he felt disrespected in any way — game over. And his lack of tolerance for disrespect — real or perceived — sometimes resulted in me getting in trouble for reasons that I didn’t fully understand.

I knew better than to “talk back”, raise my voice, suck my teeth, roll my eyes or slam a door, actions that were considered unquestionably disrespectful in the black southern tradition that dripped down through the bloodline from my South Carolinian grandparents to my Washington DC raised parents into our suburban home.

But there were other things that I could do to signal disrespect in ways that I couldn’t grasp; ways that weren’t so universally recognized; small, subtle, barely-perceptible-to-anyone-but-him exchanges of energy that could instantly anger him. Of these acts, the slight that frustrated him most was something that he called me “pretending not to hear”.

The exchange would go like this: If he said something that I didn’t like or perhaps if he was in the middle of a pre-punishment lecture or spoke to me in any way that would provoke a petulant attitude, I would respond sweetly with “hmm?” or “excuse me?” as if not to have heard what he said.

It was a trigger. He would stop whatever he was doing, look at me dead in my eye and say slowly in a Voice of God tenor that I’m convinced only 6'4" black men are given, “I…will…not…repeat…myself.”

I, of course, would feign innocence — “Huh? Why not? Why are you mad at meeeeee?” and run to my mother in the next room, the melodramatic victim-child crying “Daddy got mad because I didn’t hear him! Why? He called me disrespectful! I just couldn’t heeeeaaarrr! Whyyyyyyy?”. Nine times out of ten, my compassionate mother believed me and would go chat with him in her Daddy Whisperer way, encouraging him not to be so easily offended.

But my father was a very smart man. And the truth is (and this is the part I am only now admitting because he is securely in heaven, unable to come down and retroactively put me in my place) deep down inside, I had some sense of what I was doing. I didn’t know why it annoyed him, but I knew that it did. “Hmm?” “Huh?” and “Excuse me” became my go-to weapons. My defiant deafness.

And he was right about what it meant. But it wasn’t until this week, over 20 years later, while watching a dear friend on twitter that the full magnitude of his rightness sunk in.

My friend, who shall remain unnamed, is a vocal advocate for justice of all kinds. Much of her time online is spent educating others, calling out and explaining racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and all of the other -isms, -phobias and oppressions that insidiously infect our otherwise polite society.

I recognized that in one 24 hour period, she explained shades of the same principles 19 times. I observed her saying nearly the exact same thing over and over again on twitter, on Facebook and in YouTube comments. I watched her patiently respond to insulting questions that by any standards would be considered just plain rude, all under the guise of “This is new to me! Can you please explain?” Sometimes she would answer questions that one only had to scroll up 2 or 3 tweets to find the answer to. “Isn’t that reverse racism?” “Why don’t feminists like men?” “What’s wrong with guilting fat people into losing weight?” One after one, she would refer them to books and resources and examples. Often her answers about respect and empathy were so simple that I wondered “Did these people never watch Sesame Street?”

I watched this exchange throughout the course of a day and by the end, I didn’t just feel empathy. I felt insulted. I felt disrespected (on her behalf). I felt like my father.

I instantly recognized that me asking him to repeat himself all those years ago, communicated to him one of four realities:

  1. I heard him but was pretending otherwise to avoid having to do what he wanted me to do.
  2. I heard him but was pretending not to in order to play some type of bizarre power game.
  3. I heard him but wanted to dull the impact of his words and disrupt his agenda through distraction.
  4. I really didn’t hear him — because I didn’t think his words were important enough to pay attention to.

What an accurate description of internet “conversation”.

If I had a dollar for every time I saw someone tweet “What she wore or drank does not justify sexual assault.” or “The mantra ‘Black lives matter’ is important and is very different from “all lives matter” and here’s why” or “Immigrants are people too.” or “You know just because someone is gay doesn’t mean that they are trying to sleep with you, right?” or “Just because I vocally support [fill in the blank with whatever cause or community you choose], doesn’t mean that I hate men/Republicans/white people/the police/America/puppies” I would be rich.

I want to scream to them all:

Let’s not pretend that you haven’t heard these themes over and over again. Let’s not pretend that these aren’t the same principles present in your Bible or whatever religious text you hold dear. Let’s not pretend that you don’t hear the echoes of Dr. King and Ghandi, of Jesus and Buddah in our words. Don’t pretend that each day, when you are called out or as young people march in the streets and create their own, that you can’t understand the desire for self-determination, self-definition, community and pride. Let’s not pretend that you are puzzled by the concept of leaving people alone and letting them be whoever they want to be. Let’s not pretend that you haven’t heard this before.

This does not mean that education, dialogue and patience aren’t important. In fact, they are the only way that we can build bridges and begin to heal many of the wounds that exist in our world. I have built my career explaining principles of social change and spiritual development through writing, speaking and digital media. A willingness to teach is just as important as a willingness to learn if we are to live in harmony.

But at some point, beautiful, genuine dialogue morphs into her ugly sister, defiant deafness, where feigning ignorance of the basic principles of equality, fairness, respect, privilege and love becomes just another weapon of power, meant to dull impact, shirk responsibility and denigrate the value of our fight for humanity.

I am reminded of this:

I have learned that online and off, there will always be one more thing, one more “innocent question” begging to be answered, one more adult-child looking at me with wide eyes, pretending not to hear. And it is our prerogative to choose when we want to calmly and compassionately repeat ourselves and when we choose to ignore the Hmms? and Huhs? and simply get back to the work of laboring, loving, and living.

Today I summon up my best Thomas Williams stare and calmly say: I…will…not…repeat… myself. I refuse to be your broken record explaining why every human is valuable and worthy of kindness, care, love and respect. You heard us the first time.

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