The Many Faces of Vulnerability

We had a guest speaker in one of my classes today: Timothy Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics. He gave a heartfelt speech about the work he does and the importance of changing how we approach service, but there was one thing that stood out, both in his presentation and in the discussion we had as a class afterward. He spoke about the importance of being vulnerable, of opening yourself up to the world instead of walling yourself off.

With all due respect to Shriver, that just doesn’t make sense.

Our society doesn’t treat everyone the same where vulnerability is concerned, not by a long shot. White men, like Shriver, are expected to be strong. To steel themselves against emotion, to hide any sign of doubt or pain. For Shriver, then, vulnerability is a significant act. It’s a rejection of social norms and an embrace of a culture of love.

Society doesn’t place that same expectation on me as a white woman. Vulnerability is assumed of me. It is expected that I will be emotional, that I will be caring, and that I will take on a traditionally-feminine role that makes use of these qualities. If I desire a different role, I must carefully adjust my levels of vulnerability: I must be hard enough to avoid being stepped on, but not so assertive and aggressive that I’m deemed “a bitch.” If I want to make my way in a man’s world, I must, in professional situations, hide my touchy-feely emotions or risk being taken less seriously. While I’m strongly in favor of a world in which that’s not necessary, we don’t live in that world just yet.

Only white Americans (and, debatably, Asian-Americans) are allowed the opportunity to be vulnerable in the public eye. For black men and women, invulnerability is both assumed and, in many cases, enforced. This has been used to devalue the accomplishments and feelings of black women and to paint black men as savages who must be tamed. That’s part of why the photo of Mike Brown, Sr. at his son’s funeral (below) is so powerful: Not just because it is an image of raw, uncontained grief, but because it comes from someone whose grief is typically denied recognition.

Similarly, Latinos are painted as macho in mainstream American media, Latinas as fierce and melodramatic. There’s little room for nuance, particularly where fictional depictions are concerned.

There’s also the matter of political power. Last night, a grand jury decided not to indict a white cop who shot an unarmed black teenager. People who have been marginalized by society, whether because of their race, their gender, their sexuality, or—as in Shriver’s own organization—their disability status (among many other factors) have been taken advantage in the political system time and time again. Change doesn’t happen when marginalized people just open their hearts a little more and ask nicely.

Earlier this week, a 12-year-old black boy was killed for carrying a toy gun. You don’t get much more vulnerable than a kid with a toy.

It’s important to note here that Shriver is the son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister to John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy. He comes from one of the largest and most well-known political families in the country. And yes, he has known hardship—his family is almost as well-known for their tragedies as for their successes—but that doesn’t negate his privileges. Perhaps in his case, vulnerability is important. Maybe change doesn’t happen when the marginalized open their hearts, but rather when the privileged do so.

Maybe context is important for everyone. I, as a middle-class white woman, may need to be more vulnerable where issues of race and class are concerned. But to ask people to be vulnerable when, even at their strongest moments, they’ve been pushed down time and time again? That’s both insensitive and ineffective.

One thing is clear, I think: It’s a lot easier to be vulnerable when your uncle’s face is on the dime.

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