I’m now 40. I like to say “in my 40s,” because that suggests I’ve been here a while. And I want to have been this age for a while, because I really, really like being middle aged. One of the best parts of being in my 40s is that I have comfortably settled into being a bitch. It’s satisfying. It accomplishes things. And it’s fun.
I spent much of my early life as the good girl — at least in my presentation to the outside world. I did what I was told. I followed rules from those in positions of authority. I always had a strong sense of right and wrong, but wow, was it hard for me to put it out there.
For instance, my first year in high school, I decided that we needed open auditions for the school play. The speech and drama kids shouldn’t automatically get all the parts. I circulated a petition. I got nearly 100 signatures. And I presented the petition to the speech and drama teacher — who was furious. And called my parents.
Fortunately for me, my parents are activists from way back, so they took my side. But when I was at home, I cried and cried. How could I go back to school with a person in a position of authority angry at me?
This no longer happens to me. I like challenging people in positions of authority. I get to act out of a sense of confidence and justification, not a sense of fear.
Not long ago, one of my friends wanted to stand up to a set of Charleston officials who didn’t believe that kids with intellectual disabilities should be fully included in the classroom, even though all the most recent research says that this is the way to go — it’s better for the kids, for the community, and, in a broader sense, for human rights. My friend had pulled some strings to get an appointment with the most important folks so that she could point out the national best practices that they were simply ignoring. She asked me to come along. She’d done all the research. She could cite studies from memory, easily. She was an expert. “But I’m too nice,” she said. “I need you to be the bad cop.”
I excelled. I was furious. I glared, and when the people in power tried to smooth things over, I wouldn’t let them. “I’m sorry,” I would say with a performed sense of confusion, “but what I hear you saying is that you’re happy to ignore the things that have been proven again and again to be beneficial to children with disabilities. And you’re ignoring them because it’s convenient for you.” Then I’d switch from performed confusing to outrage: “You’re creating a system that is harmful to children like my daughter. Harmful! That is absolutely unacceptable!” And it was unacceptable. It felt so good to be the one whose job it was to call it out.
Recently, I was at a meeting with an outside consultant. She was discussing how to divide up employees for a series of meetings. The white men would get their own and the white woman theirs, but both minority men and women would get one together. At first, I thought I misunderstood her. Was she really proposing to divide employees by race?
When I asked for clarification, and her clarification showed me that, in fact, she was grouping people that way, I stood up around a conference table full of professionals and angrily asked, “Is racism the only issue that matters for women of color? Why do I get to sit in this room and talk about issues like maternity leave and sexual harassment, but women of color don’t have a space to do that? Aren’t they women?” I told her how shocked I was that a reputable organization would think this was acceptable. She looked incredibly surprised, eyes wide and not sure what to do. I got her attention. Because of my bitchiness, she wasn’t going to be able to ignore my criticism.
It’s good to be in my 40s. I didn’t hesitate. I don’t worry about what will they think. I don’t think about finding a nicer way to say something. Other people can be the good girls. It’s not my role anymore. I get to be the bitch.
And then I clear out a space for the calmer activists to step in and get work done.