“Who tells you who you are in ways you cannot walk away from?” ~ Rev. Yvonne Delk
As a friend and I sat chatting on a bench in Copley Square on a summer evening a few years ago, we were distracted by a fight breaking out a short distance from us. Young white men were yelling at each other and had begun making threatening gestures. Soon there would be physical violence. While my friend wanted us to hurry away from there, I asked her to please stay on the bench while I went over to see if I could de-escalate the situation. My friend couldn’t decide if I was being brave or stupid, but I had already done a quick calculation of the risks. I considered my age, race, gender and size relative to the men. A tall, fat, white, white-haired cis-gendered woman would likely be imposing enough to get their attention without registering as a threat.
So I calmly walked over and kept walking until I was between the polarized parties. To my left were three men, one of whom was the obvious leader. He was hurling insults at the solo man to my right. I put up both hands like a traffic cop in an intersection and said, “Stop. Please stop.” I don’t remember what either party had yelled at the other. I only remember the man on my right turning his attention to me and pleading, “But he says I’m nobody. He’s insulting me.” I turned to him and said, “Don’t worry about his opinion. It doesn’t matter. You know who you are. The only power he has over you right now is the power you’re giving him. Walk away. That’s the power you have.”
And suddenly the bubble burst. The parties walked away in opposite directions. And I went back to the bench with my friend.
Our desire for dignity as human beings can make it hard to walk away from people who tell us we are nobody, that we don’t measure up, that we are not enough. We want to prove our worth, to convince others. But our somebodiness is not dependent on the approval of others – bullies or otherwise. Our somebodiness is our birthright. It comes into the world with us.
On reflection, I wish that I had turned to the man on my left and said, “You know who you are, too. You don’t need to pick on other people to be powerful. Just be your best self. It’s enough.”
The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
More than a principle.
It’s a practice of remembering our own somebodiness and reminding others of theirs.
Beloved Community depends on it.