by Michal “MJ” Jones
I have always been the mumbling, awkward, hide behind mama’s leg, lock myself in my room type of shy guy. Part of this typecast was and is depression, and the other parts are just classic introversion. In Philadelphia, I witnessed mental illness and social phobia in the form of cousins who – literally – never left the house and became overwhelmed at large family gatherings. The other side of my extended family was practically the opposite – a group of outgoing and successful doctors and lawyers, popular and talented athletes, performers, and mostly well-educated and economically privileged Black folks who remain active in their communities. As far as the social side of things go, I inherited mostly the shyness and social anxiety.
As a child, the adults around me responded to my shyness by directing further attention to it, which, of course, caused me to withdraw further. In school and in the workplace, I quickly learned that being Black or Brown and quiet meant being perceived as intimidating, sulky, or having an attitude problem; where the same attribute for my white peers was simply a shyness, a “mysterious side,” or a sign of trouble at home. I internalized early on that this core part of myself was problematic, and something for me to solve so that others may know me better.
I have given much thought lately to the ways in which activist and queer communities perpetuate this same messaging, rewarding those with the loudest voices and often overlooking the observant, less vocal supporters. Non-profit, social justice organizations and workplaces value the go-getters, the energetic and enthusiastic types that can engage audiences while suggesting “speaking up more” as an area of improvement on performance evaluations for quieter types. Each of these provide the same message: “Your silence makes me uncomfortable, and is something to be cured.” The conversation about how to make spaces safer for quieter folks or those who experience social anxiety is practically absent.
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I recall being freshly “out” as a freshman in college and excited to attend my first San Francisco Pride. This was the way to be gay – I was young, queer, Black, and excited to have found what I thought to be my voice and community. But as Saturday night’s Pink Party exploded into tens of thousands people grooving to Michael Jackson, as I was openly groped by a drunk white gay man, and as my breathing room became condensed into next to nothing, I reached near panic and desperately clung to the somewhat less-crowded sidewalks. Far from being enjoyable, these functions always left me feeling irritated and exhausted.
As a result of my tendency to shy away from party and club culture in my early twenties, I often missed out on opportunities to go out with friends or connect with new folks. And eventually the invites trickled. The rare decision to inch out of my social comfort zone almost always came with expectations of some sort – to drink, to be at ease dancing in crowds of strangers, to stay for as long as my friends wanted to stay, to “hook up with so & so,” etc.
For spaces that are meant to welcome the freaks that society has pushed to the margins, this pressure to socialize has the potential to make folks – socially anxious or not – feel as though the gift of our presence is something that is owed rather than offered; something that should be freely given without the struggle and nervousness that many of us feel. As marginalized people, we’re so excited to get one another into the same spaces that we can overlook the fact that these gatherings can be intimidating and downright inaccessible. This has the potential to create the very sense of isolation these events are intended to prevent.
It should be noted that there is an enormous amount of privilege in my decision to attend such events or not, with the knowledge that I can physically access spaces and move freely. And, there is also shaming around my common decision not to – after all, I am young, queer, able-bodied, and perceived as “attractive,” and should therefore be an automatic participant in queer social culture. I should hit up the clubs on the weekends, meet up for “drinks and groping” with OkCupid randoms, etc. My intention here is not to malign folks who genuinely enjoy these types of connections – get ya freak on. My ask is that solitude and other forms of connection are held with similar value, or at least not used as a point of ridicule.
Rather than viewing young people – or any people – who don’t socialize in your same ways as “lame” or “buzzkills,” consider asking them if and how they’d prefer to connect. Thank them for coming to your organizing meeting, even if they didn’t say a single word. Instead of inviting folks out to drinks (which is problematic on multiple levels), ask for their suggestions. Consider the ways in which depression, social anxiety, and other realities impact someone’s record of “showing up.” Practice understanding rather than writing someone off as a flake – maybe there is a reason they couldn’t make it.
Silence, shyness, and introversion each remain complicated and intersecting aspects of my identity. As I have slowly grown into and out of my shyness, I still seek balance between my desire to build relationships and contribute to activist causes with my tendency and preference to keep to myself. And clearly, there is a balance to be had – on one hand, others may not get the chance to know me if I keep my distance; but on the other, many of the opportunities to connect are built for those who already naturally at ease in social settings.
I do believe that there is power in sharing our stories, but we should not be controlling how others express themselves. Many of us are not far enough along in our unpacking the centuries of shit that’s been fed to us about our voices being meaningless, and others of us are just quiet. That does not decrease our value to movements and to our communities. The way to get folks to “show up” is not by making them feel ashamed of who they are – it is by affirming that their presence and voices are of value if and when they are ready to share it.
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MJ is an awkward Black queerdo masculine of center writer, educator, and musician based in Oakland, CA. They believe in the power of vulnerability, creativity, artistic expression, and music to radically transform individuals and connect community.