Role Model

At every 350PDX meeting I feel a little less than myself. I know why I’m there, they must realize my constant attendance is an indicator of my passion for the subject, but I still worry, while there, and afterwards, people will judge me as a “girl who is here because her boyfriend is.” Last night the group leader asked everyone to say their name and one thing about themselves.

The people ahead of me said things like, “I’m Steve, I’ve been an activist for 20 years, I’m an engineer and a lawyer, I’m a member of multiple local environmental organizations, etc.” Everyone listed out their credentials, essentially explaining, as if we needed to hear it again, why they deserved to be here, what they contributed. I thought it’d be silly to say, “I think climate change is an extremely important issue,” because if I didn’t think that I wouldn’t be there. Should I say, “My name is Lucy and I’m a baker”? Being a baker is a totally irrelevant part of my life in this group. It gives me no sway, no qualifications. Zach, my boyfriend, mentioned his degree in environmental science and internship at a local hip eco-brain trust group. I was the only one there with no activist or environmental background. I was also the only young woman and the only person of color. I felt pressure to prove myself, but was ill-equipped for the task. I had willingly left my comfort zone, wanted to learn something new, but was doing it entirely alone.

Barbara, the new member, who was probably about 70 years old, introduced herself as a nominee for a Pulitzer Prize in history (no pressure), and looked at me through thick lenses when my time came.

“I’m Lucy,” I looked in her face and then out at the group. I shrugged my shoulders and lifted my arms slightly defeated. “Ugh…yep, here I am.”

“She’s taking the minutes now,” the man across the circle from me said.

“Yeah, I love taking minutes,” I said sarcastically and there were a few laughs. “Yep.”

I had nothing to say. But so much to say.

Why didn’t I say, ‘I’m a writer and baker’? Or ‘I’m interested in multiculturalism and want to work on building diversity within 350’? These are all facts, things I want them to know about me, but I worried they would scoff at achievements which weren’t as qualitative as awards and degrees.

A few steps over the threshold of my and Zach’s apartment and I said, “Did I seem really dumb when I didn’t say anything about myself?”

“No,” Zach put his arms around me. “It’s okay.” The classic comfort of someone who wants to continue to have sex with me.

“No, it seemed dumb. I just don’t know what to say.”

“Yeah, those are the smartest people I probably ever hang out with.”

“And…and…we’re so young in comparison to them. I haven’t had time yet to do much of anything!”

Outside the group, I rarely worry about whether I am seen as intelligent or skillful. Growing up I quickly grew to believe, probably because the same was assumed of my older siblings, that I was smarter and a faster learner than my peers. This may have also been the fodder my parents used to legitimize taking us out of school for extended vacations.

“You can catch up, don’t worry,” I remember my mom saying while I protested.

Occasionally I needed extra assistance, but seldom received it.

My diving during swim competitions never improved, despite asking my coach for a little more attention. I quit after the first year, never being able to win a match, a year of being second string. My ego couldn’t take it. I got a B in Calculus, often falling asleep in the middle of tests because it was overwhelming. I visited my scary teacher, rumored to be an ex-spy (he had a purple heart on his license plate and never allowed the yearbook to run his photo or have a student keep his signature in their yearbook), and asked the same questions over and over, catching on only to get stumped when I was alone and be too embarrassed to return with the same problem. I was supposed to be smart, why couldn’t I get it the first time? I don’t know if he gave up on me, never trying new ways of describing the problem set, or if I did, not insisting on going over more of them, unwilling to admit I couldn’t replicate what he made look easy. Instead, I decided this was something I couldn’t get, a kind of intelligence I didn’t have.

There are so many more moments of me giving up after a plateau or rough patch in my education, physical or academic career. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if any teacher or my parents had taken an extra step to make sure I felt comfortable in a subject I was struggling with. I never did. I felt dumb, and worrying I would look dumb I never said anything; hoping silence would make me disappear. I didn’t want to be dumb. Or worse, a dumb girl.

I feel the same way now. I silently go through the motions, helping out in areas I can’t embarrass myself in, hoping this group will realize my potential, pry a little, work at me. I don’t know if they recognize how hard it is for me to sit in a room of people who look nothing like me, who all have more expertise than me. Wondering if they realize how hard it is for me to not languish in my fears of being a female stereotype, or even a Chinese one. I wonder why I can’t just be, existing without reservations, without analysis of my existence and how my actions might reflect my racial or gender group.

And if I can’t hack it, how can I expect anyone who faces more societal discrimination or stereotype threat to keep going? I have to stay here, hoping my presence will draw others like me to the group. I know we have so much untapped potential, skills/perspectives this group needs, but it is hard being one’s own role model.

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