Let Your Little Light Shine

Somedays, or maybe most days, we all lack a little confidence. Maybe it doesn’t go more than skin deep, and we recognize that feeling as if we’re too fat, too skinny, too smart, too dumb, too short, too tall, too whatever, is just us getting caught up in that stupid, social bullsh!t. But, if I’m being honest, many times my lack of confidence goes a lot deeper than acne breakouts and bad hair days.

So in this (relatively) long post, we’re going to explore confidence a bit more. And that’s a pretty big topic so I’m narrowing it down to a specific context: our voices. YOUR voice. MY voice. You know, the thing I’m using to talk to you right now? That thing.

YOUR voice. MY voice. You know, the thing I’m using to talk to you right now? That thing.

A teacher once asked me once what makes a good class participant and student. How does someone get to a place where they are involved in the discussion? Is it intelligence? Determination? Teachability? While these are certainly important, they are not enough. How do teachers get their students to actually learn and contribute to a class? I think back to my middle school and high school classes and ask myself, what drove me to keep writing and keep trying in classes where I wasn’t the smartest or best or, hell, even understood what was going on? It boils down to one, very simple factor.

My teachers convinced me that I had something worth saying.

Let that sink in.

I was convinced that even if I was objectively wrong, my attempts at giving an answer, proposing a solution, or asking a question were good enough to verbalize potentially to complete strangers, or worse, people I knew.

What if we actually believed that our thoughts had value? What if we had enough confidence to say our thoughts and beliefs on a regular basis to people who may not understand or even want to hear us? 

Sure, you can accuse of me of the typical millennial with a load of BS that “everyone’s opinion matters,” but that’s not quite what I mean. What I am saying is, sometimes we get scared to speak out in class and in life’s conversations. We let a lot of those opportunities slip by us. It doesn’t seem important enough, intellectual enough, funny enough, smart enough. These are lies, and a lack of confidence that’s keeping an entire generation silent. Not only is it grossly limiting awesome ideas and our sense of shared community (because I’m pretty sure we’re all thinking what you’re about to say and then we’ll all realize how we’re not alone), but I believe it can negatively impact our own, personal self-confiance. How we feel about ourselves and our “value”. 

The duct tape over the mouth begins innocently enough. Someone gets a couple Bs and Cs on paper or two. The teacher corrects their answers and the other kids in the class laugh. They try to show their new experiment to their parents and are dismissed because the parents are busy. Sure, grades are important, knowing the right answers are important, and parents need a break, too. But that’s just the beginning because there are a million things in our lives that tend to beat us down. Without a whole lot of support to combat these things, the message that comes across is WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY OR DO IS NOT OF VALUE.

Without a whole lot of support to combat these things, the message that comes across is WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY OR DO IS NOT OF VALUE.

Someone tell me I’m not the only one who’s felt like that?

I was a good student in college. Not the smartest, but decent and put in the effort. I was that annoying kid who talked every class and enjoyed chatting with my professors before and after. I had no problem speaking up. But I only was at that place because in some of the formidable years of my life, I had a significant support-network of people (thank you parents and teachers!) telling me that what I said meant something. Was worth something. Wasn’t stupid. Often wrong, but not stupid. Sometimes we just need people to say, hey, what you are thinking and have to say isn’t dumb! Keep trying.

I could easily connect this to the importance of young adult literature, where the characters of the story say and do the things that youths are feeling, thus legitimizing their thoughts and actions, but let’s not go there today. (Maybe Danny will share his writing on that one!) Suffice to say, when voicing and expressing our thoughts and emotions is a roller coaster ride of uncertainty, the best way to set ourselves up in the future to be confident with our voice is to surround ourselves with people who validate our words.

This whole post is a long way of saying that wherever and whoever you are, your voice deserves to be heard. People and life can make us feel really bad about what we have to say, it can get us down, and make us feel like we shouldn’t or can’t express ourselves. But, hey, Danny and I are here so send us a message if you want. Start your own blog (maybe you hate ours anyways), find your own tribe, or just message someone you care about. To quote a well-known nursery rhyme, let your little light shine!

 

Words matter, especially when they’re about FGM/C.

For the past couple of months, one particular topic has been following me around. I wrote a final paper on it last semester. A paper on the same topic crossed my desk for editing about a month later. And finally, this past week as part of another course I had to comment and peer review yet another paper on the issue. What is it, and what do I feel so compelled to blog about it?

So let’s talk about FGM/C, also know as Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision. If you have issues with this topic, and need to “applesauce” it, which we say in our friend group as a safe word, then please, scroll down and read another one of our lovely posts on a less violent and uncomfortable subject. But if your curiosity is piqued and you want to know more, read on.

I won’t go into the details of FGM/C here, if you’re unfamiliar feel free to consult the UNHCR or other organizations for info.

Also, this is going to be a long one, folks.

When I wrote my paper on FGM/C, I spent a decent amount of time reading the writings, statements, interviews, POVs, etc. of women who had been through the process. I particularly liked Empathy and Rage: Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature because it opened my eyes to why so many people (including both writers of the other papers) get FGM/C wrong, and how the current views in our millennial culture grossly misrepresent it and the people that the practice impacts.

Let me be clear. I do believe that FGM/C is a human rights violation and that we, as an international community, should support the women and communities who are trying to provide those alternatives to the practice. However, I vehemently disagree with the way FGM/C is represented, how the women and communities in regions where FGM/C is practiced are not given voice or agency, and how judgmental, paternalistic attitudes attempting to “address” or “end” the practice are used to discuss the issue.

The broad, sweeping stereotypes regarding “cultures” that practice FGM/C, or as the papers I read described “Africa” are usually the first issue that comes up. “Africa” is a region of the globe, not a homogenous collection of similar or like-minded states. In fact, there is arguably no place on earth that has as numerous and disparate groups as in Africa. So while it may be convenient for writers to broadly generalize, such stereotypes are perpetuating the white man’s burden and sentiments of a backward Africa, and are completely unhelpful at promoting effective, locally contextualized programs or projects.

Addressing locality of an issue is a logistical necessity, but rather than alienating particular groups or regions, I believe it is best to approach the topic more broadly. Rather than saying, “African cultures practice this horrible practice and we must work to end it,” why not first acknowledge that there are terrible human rights violations occurring in all nations? If we must point fingers, then at least we will not fall into age-old trap of “a spec in another’s eye, a log in our own.” If outside involvement must happen, at least take up the fight not from a single perspective, but only while acknowledging others’. And perhaps the best way to assist is to simply stop perpetuating stigmas about the cultures in which FGM/C takes place.

Maybe now is a good time to pause and recognize all the amazing work that women across disparate groups practicing FGM/C are already doing to make great strides in replacing this practice with other coming of age traditions, with education, and alternatives that provide a similar function within the society while not perpetuating violence against women or supporting any patriarchal structures. This seems to be underappreciated (read: not mentioned) in the peer papers that I’ve read.

It is also important to note that some women feel empowered by this practice, and no matter what myself or any other western millennial believes personally about its status as a human rights violation, the voices of those women should be recognized and validated. I can understand and respect taking proud ownership of one’s body and what it has gone through, especially when the process is an historical and cultural tradition. All the more power to you.

Moving right along with my other concerns.

Words have immense power. Words such as “barbaric,” “horrifying,”and “atrocious” when used to describe FGM/C are not limited only to the practice itself, but are implicitly thrust upon the societies and people who practice it. It is not appropriate to use caustic words to rile up people and make a call to action at the expense of degrading other people and societies. When will we stop self-righteously picking pet projects and waving around our white savior flag? Because that’s what I feel like many of my peers, and even myself, are often tempted to do.

My plan is not to throw my hands up in surrender and say, well, I can’t do anything because my actions will be degrading other cultures. Not at all. I am not saying that we be culturally relativistic. Although, because people from those cultures are standing up and calling to end the practice of FGM/C themselves (and these are the people we should be supporting, either verbally or perhaps with financial assistance), there is an argument to be made that we could in fact, support the end of FGM/C and still be culturally relativistic (if excluding the option that they are only doing this having been influenced by Western notions, and I doubt this).

I believe that this is the best place for me to stand. Behind the women and communities from societies practicing FGM/C and support them in their efforts to change the status quo for the better of all humankind. I will stand in solidarity as much as possible. My hope is that this post will help remove the stigmas and social constructs that are making their work more difficult.

 

‘Till next time,

Natalie