Little Things Versus Nothing

Little things lead to big things.
This is a really long post, considering the title, so fair warning.
And it’s not about how little things in a relationship are meaningful, even though I think that’s very true, and I’ll probably even write about it here at length sometime. This post has a broader scope (also fair warning). That’s probably why it’s so long.

Little things lead to big things.
Ben Folds, just like my son, started out learning where middle C is on a keyboard, and now he plays piano on stage with symphonies.
Lebron James and Stephen Curry, at some point in the past, played rec league youth basketball.
JK Rowling and Toni Morrison and Amy Tan used to write short stories into spiral notebooks, exactly the way I started writing fiction.
Every great friendship and romance I know of began with something like one person revealing they love the TV show Scrubs, and the other person going, “Me too! You know that one where Turk…”

Little things lead to big things.
But they aren’t always positive, or even neutral and harmless. Sometimes, the little things we do, that we want to believe are ‘no big deal,’ that we want to call people ‘overly sensitive’ or ‘just looking for a reason to be offended’ about, aren’t just little things.
When someone tells you ‘no thanks, I’m not interested,’ and you keep asking, interrupting, badgering them to do it, take it, give you their time, attention, affection, your last box of Girl Scout cookies, whatever…that’s a consent violation.
When someone calls out a racial or cultural microaggression as hurtful…it’s because to them, it’s NOT just a few careless words.
When there is no visibility or representation for people in marginalized groups in media and government, it may seem small to those of us who are awash with visibility and representation.
But those things need to be called out.
Because little things lead to big things.

I wrote a poem a couple of years ago that I was afraid to publish on non-anonymous social media, or even privately share with anyone but J, because I was a coward. I’m still kind of afraid, but I’m posting it here. It’s called Nothing.

Nothing

‘Speak up!’ my friend says.
‘When you are silent in the face of injustice, you’re part of the problem.
Saying nothing is the same as acceptance of what’s wrong.
I wish the people who support me, but don’t belong to ‘my group’
Would speak up on my behalf.
I want to know where my allies are.’

Friend, please know I’m your ally, and I always will be.
Please know I’ve tried to stand up for you before.
But when I speak up, my words are twisted.
If I say I support you, my friend,
I’m accused of using my association with you
To shirk my own responsibility

For the wrongness.
If I say I support you, my friend,
I’m accused of aligning myself with suffering I’ve not experienced
To get attention for my own voice to be heard;
My own agenda met.

If I say I support you, my friend,
I’m accused of only wanting to alleviate guilt and garner acclaim for myself.
But I know I’m responsible for the wrongness, too.
And I don’t know exactly what it’s like to be you, my friend…
I can’t ever know that.
But please know I’ve tried to put myself where you are.
I’ve tried to feel what you feel.
I can imagine your pain, and I’m willing to carry pain with you.
I’d even carry pain FOR you.
And I am not making your pain my pain.
I only want to ease yours.

When I speak up, I’m silenced by others,
Some who want to silence me for supporting you,
And some who say I’m presuming to speak for you,
So now, I say nothing.
And I’m sorry.

‘Do something!’ my friend says.
‘How can you sit around doing nothing when people just like me are dying?!
You know it’s wrong.
I need you on my side. Please help me!’

Friend, please know I want to do something.
I desperately long to do anything I can to help when you need me.
I’m always on your side, but I don’t know what else to do.
Action from me seems empty.
I’m just me. All I have are little things.
If it were up to me, you’d never hurt. You’d never feel afraid.
Of course, if I had the power to stop pain and end your fear,
If I had the power to change a mind, I would.
I’ve tried my best before to stop pain and end fear.
I’ve tried to change minds, and I admit that I’ve failed.
Those who seek to harm you, or defend those who harm you
Have hardened themselves against anything I can do.
Reason and empathy are my only tools,
But there is no reasoning with the unreasonable.
And there is no appealing to the emotions of the unfeeling.
Those who refuse to step outside their box
Won’t step into your shoes,
Or even into mine.

I’m powerless to fix anything broken with my little things.
So now, I do nothing.
And I’m sorry.

Little things lead to big things.
Just like every kid with a huge vocabulary started out as a toddler whose parents read to them, and that love of language was either tacitly accepted or encouraged…
Every rapist started out as a person who’s been conditioned to believe what they want is more important than what other people want, and they are entitled to take it; a person who’s lived a life where hearing ‘stop, don’t, no, no thank you,’ didn’t matter; a person who thinks silence means agreement. They began with learning that their ‘little things’…the small ways they violated consent of other people when they were kids…when it didn’t involve sex, only dates, only touching, only calling when he asked them not to call, only buying one more drink when she said she’d had enough…were fine because no one said they weren’t. Some people…maybe even a lot of people…even told them they were right to relentlessly pursue or even TAKE what they want.
Every person who adheres to hateful ideology that ends in -ist or -phobic started out as a person whose basest self-involved instincts were tacitly accepted or encouraged, at the expense of vulnerable people; a person who believes, and has had it reinforced from multiple sources (usually through the ‘silence is tacit agreement’ method) that they are superior to other people and ‘deserve’ more than them.
Every time a ‘little’ rule is made like, ‘No wearing this…no saying this…no reading/watching/looking at/showing this…’ to censor how we look and what we see and hear and eventually think, it’s a baby step toward something big and monstrous like totalitarianism.

Little things lead to big things.
It’s true that a person using ‘gay’ or ‘retarded’ as an insult doesn’t mean they’ll eventually, *without a doubt,* hurt or discriminate against members of the LGBT+ community or someone with a disability or who is just ‘atypical,’ physically, mentally, or socially.
Someone dressing in Native American traditional clothing as a Halloween costume doesn’t mean they intended to mock and disrespect Indigenous People for SURE.
Someone wanting to hold onto ‘Southern Heritage’ with the confederate flag doesn’t necessarily mean they hold the ideal that black Americans are inferior to them.
They’re not at some Nazi rally, after all. They personally never owned slaves or took part in genocide or forced sterilization or mass incarceration or historical erasure. They aren’t really doing anything ‘big’ that’s overtly, obviously wrong. They didn’t choose the society we were born into and have to participate in, any more than I did or you did, and they don’t even always know why what they’re doing is offensive. All they did was say a couple of words…put on a costume to have a little fun…wave a flag they saw on a car on an old TV show they liked as a kid.
I get it. I really do. It’s difficult and exhausting to constantly manage not offending people, and learn new language and learn to undo certain practices and beliefs, and catch ourselves when we slip back into old bad habits because we’ve since learned doing and saying those things hurts people. It’s a lot easier to want to silence and shut out things we don’t want to see and hear instead of to examine it. To just give up on all that effort, and deny our privilege is real, and not care and get defensive and call people ‘too sensitive, etc..’ Or we just sit back on our hands and do and say nothing. It’s easier. It’s more ‘peaceful’ that way.
But when we do that, we ARE only thinking of ourselves, and not how those ‘little’ things make other people feel when we decide to not care.
And little things lead to big things.

Little things lead to big things.
Me (almost certainly imperfectly) writing my support to marginalized groups here on this blog, and writing characters who are part of marginalized groups into my fiction when I think I can do it with a respectful sense of tone and voice are little things. I know they’re small.
Me policing my own language and thoughts to accommodate and be sensitive to members of these groups who don’t share my IMMENSE privilege is a little thing. I know that’s also small.
Me listening to and educating myself about how other people who aren’t ‘like me’ experience the world, and changing my own attitudes and behaviors based on that new knowledge are little things, too.
Frankly, I know what I’m doing is not enough. I should be doing more. I’m not doing anything ‘big’ and heroic like taking a bullet, or pepper spray in the face, or getting arrested, or running for public office and openly debating the status quo and reactionary forces for them. But I’m doing what I can right now. I’m doing what I’m best at. What I’m best at are little things.
And I’m never going to just do nothing again.
Because little things lead to big things.

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