Jessica Mailander On Speaking Up and Telling Your Truth
On episode #234 of a podcast I enjoy called “The Judge John Hodgman Show,” John Hodgman — a fake internet judge who mediates the disputes of ordinary couples, siblings, and friends — told a guest that he should tell the truth and then tell the next truth on his plate until he had no more truths to tell. He said specifically that someone might need to hear this truth someday, because hearing a truth you were unaware of can change your life.
Well, my truth was that I was pissed. I was sitting in a conference room, heart pounding, staring at the floor with my hands balled into fists.
It was a staff meeting. That might already be enough of an explanation for such a strong physical reaction on my part, but in this case I was reacting to something specific. Senior Management had just announced the winners of a contest to name our new conference rooms. There were six rooms, all of which would be named after technology inventors, and all six of the proposed names were of white men. I looked around the room at the similarly white, male faces of the executives, and they all looked at most vaguely interested; some tuned out completely. Not one of them saw anything worrisome about such a lineup of names. I wondered if I was the only one — including the minorities and the other women in the room — who did. Should I say anything? If I was the only one who cared, wasn’t I just causing a scene for nothing? Would bringing it up publicly help people to understand, or would it make them think I was confrontational and overzealous?
The achievements of women and minorities have a long history of being overwritten or forgotten. I’ve had people tell me there were no female Renaissance painters (there were) because they personally had never heard of any. This is a failure to spread information about such women — both through the education system and by word of mouth — rather than evidence of truth. A small amount of online research will reveal female and minority Renaissance painters, as well as female and minority technology inventors, and females and minorities achieving great things in any field at any point in history. But this presumes people will be willing to look, that it will even occur to them to look. Sometimes people need to be told the truth, loudly and publicly, before they even know they were being lied to.
So I spoke. I said I was very uncomfortable with the naming of the conference rooms, I didn’t think it represented the values of everyone in our organization, and I would like to offer some alternative names of women and people of color.
At first the room was pretty quiet. My suggestion was agreed to — another advantage of making it publicly (and reasonably) is that it’s hard to refuse — but little else was said. It was afterwards, however, that at least a half dozen people came up to me and thanked me for saying something. Most of them said they had wanted to but were too afraid. Several of them said they honestly hadn’t noticed the issue and were thankful I’d pointed it out to them. People talked about it around the office for days. I got emails, and people approached me in the cafeteria — mostly women — to say I wasn’t the only one. They had also felt angry but weren’t going to speak.
I’m often uncomfortable with proselytizing. I think women tend to be this way in general because we’re taught to be quiet. After overcoming my initial discomfort about speaking up, I was ironically asked to do it again in writing for this very blog post. And now I was not only speaking up about something, but I also had to brag a little, and to the whole internet. The horror! But this truth, the truth that a room full of white men ignoring me makes me uncomfortable, was still my truth, a truth that not everybody thinks about or is aware of, and one I believe people need to hear. Women will continue to be erased or ignored if we let ourselves be afraid. And if my tiny little truth can make other people tell other tiny little truths that change other people’s minds, then I need to say it. If my truth can teach someone to see a problem in a lineup of all-white, male faces where they didn’t see a problem before, and maybe cause that person never to create such a lineup again…that’s a big deal.
There’s always more to do. There was even more I could have said. Only one room out of six was renamed after a woman, and one for a black man. It could have been more. I could have insisted on gender parity, or specifically that the larger conference room be named after a woman, or that we have one person of every race, but I didn’t. I fought my little battle. But I did win it, and maybe someone who heard me will fight the next one with me.
So tell your truth, and then tell the next one, and then tell it louder. People might just listen.
Jessica Mailander is a Federal employee living in Washington, DC. She has a Master’s degree in Philosophy and Social Policy and a Bachelor of Science in Economics from American University. Her Master’s coursework focused on the concepts of justice and virtue ethics in Philosophy. Currently, she lives with five housemates and a dog. She enjoys playing the piano, reading comic books, and shooting spaceships. When not at home, she will be holding court in the renamed Hedy Lamarr conference room at her office and gallivanting around town.