Today I had a conversation with a woman who was Jewish about using Nazi propaganda to teach about bias. Maybe you should show more real and positive images of Jewish people, before and after these lessons, she said. Although I pretended to take her suggestions in stride, I was secretly squeaking with fear that she found me either unclever (didn’t think that through!) or unnice (show some sensitivity, goyim!). Later that day, we had a discussion where I contributed a story about racial tensions at my school, and I felt a little fretting in the back of my mind the rest of the day. Did anyone (especially the teachers who are black!) find my story unclever or unnice?
There’s a fine line between wanting to maintain good relations with people, so that you can continue a dialogue, and wanting them to think you’re nice. Being a safe conversation partner is not the same as being nice, though. Nice has distant admiration to it that actually inhibits conversation.
I’m really very concerned about what you think of me. My biggest worry is: do you think I am clever? I don’t mind being thought standoffish or weird, as long as people think I am clever. Standoffish and weird is easily interpreted as “artistic.” I want people to think me well educated, self-educated, and clever. Here’s how you can tell I am clever: I read books with covers that look serious, written by writers you were forced to read in school, my home is adorable and my rent is cheap, and although most of my clothes are used, I look fabulous. Don’t I?
It helps to seek out places where I know I will be dumb. My nagging ego can be shushed. A construction site has worked well, until I had done a little construction work. A football game is good, except that my knowledge of and interest in football are equally weak. Sometimes my ego even outwits me, and assembles the cleverest question to ask, or the question that show the most related knowledge or intellectual sensitivity or some crazy bullshit like that.
I want to be clever, and I want to be “nice.” It is especially important for women to be nice. While I have no problem being disliked by my students, I want everyone else to think I’m a nice girl. Luckily, since I would prefer to be clever, I can get past this by being such a clever feminist that I am much beyond needing people to think I’m nice… these are the diabolical machinations of the ego.
Part of me is working so hard to assemble my life into a narrative with a static main character. That part will assemble data and issue reports that have meaning to no one—not even me. Am I clever? Sometimes. Who isn’t? And am I nice? Sort of. More empathetic than nice. More polite than warm. Being introverted, I have to work at noticing people and where they are. Do I enjoy cleverness? Do I reject the slow? Sometimes. Am I intrigued by aggression and cruelty? Certainly.
I used to think freedom was not caring what people thought of you. It is. Even greater freedom, though, is not limiting yourself. Not spending your time on earth sorting yourself and gluing yourself together. There’s no moment to work toward. There’s no one grading you for effort or consistency. Trapped in your own self-image is no better than trapped in someone else’s.