By Andrea Dawn

The title of this article might be a bit misleading. No, it’s not a tutorial on how to achieve a wavy natural hair style. It’s about finding the courage to speak up in the face of ignorance, discrimination and disrespect.

You may have read my recent article about the bad treatment I received at a retail store in my community. Some of you shared similar personal experiences, and I have to admit, they brought tears to my eyes.

After some reflection, I found some lessons in my experience that I’d like to share with you. If and when you find yourself being treated in a discriminatory or disrespectful manner, you might find some of these thoughts helpful.

Make waves. In other words, stand up for yourself. When I was being mistreated, I had a split-second decision to make: accept the bad treatment and walk away in silence, or stand up for myself. I chose to stand up for myself, and that has made all the difference in how I remember the encounter. Instead of looking back at the incident with a feeling of powerlessness and embarrassment, I look back with a sense of pride and dignity. It takes courage to speak up. And it’s not always easy, especially if you’re shy by nature. There’s a quote that says “the only courage you need is the courage to get from one moment to the next.” It only takes a moment to speak up, but the positive benefits can be long-lasting.

Take action: Consider pursuing all available avenues of recourse. It really does help with the healing process. If you’re mistreated in a store, speak directly to the person who has mistreated you. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, speak to the store manager. If the store is in a mall, go to the mall administration office and speak to someone there. Send a customer complaint to the store’s head office. If you’re at work, speak to your supervisor, or your union rep. There are also consumer protection agencies, human rights agencies, the media, and depending on the seriousness of the situation, the police. You may even decide to seek legal advice. Even if no resolution is reached after pursuing these options, you’ll still feel empowered knowing that you took steps to resolve the matter.

Talk about it: I actually considered not telling anyone about my experience because the embarrassment and humiliation were so overwhelming. It felt like a shameful secret that I wanted to forget ever happened. But I’ve learned that speaking about an incident like this reduces its power. It also empowers others to come forward and share their stories, so they can have their voices heard too.

Be careful about making allowances for bad behavior: Sometimes we make allowances for the bad behavior of others. “They’re just ignorant.” “They aren’t worth my time or energy.” “They’re just crazy.” “They must be having a bad day.” “I can spend my money somewhere else.” Although these things may be true, they still don’t excuse bad behavior. In some cases there may be good reason to make an allowance for someone’s bad behavior. Each individual must personally decide how they want to handle such a situation. At the same time, we need to be sure we’re not using these “allowances” as an excuse to not stand up for ourselves, just because we’re afraid to.

Don’t expect others to defend you: At first I was upset that the other customers didn’t speak up. In retrospect, I’m glad they didn’t. If I had allowed them to speak for me, it wouldn’t have been as empowering an experience as it turned out to be. Standing up for one’s self is a personal responsibility, and it can’t be delegated. Yes, it would have been nice to have some support at the time. And in a perfect world we would all have each other’s backs, all the time. But I realize now that we can’t expect others to defend us, especially strangers.

Be aware of the example you can set. Standing up for yourself makes a bold statement to anyone who may be listening to and observing the incident. I feel very good knowing that, if and when the customers who witnessed the encounter relate it to their family or friends, they will talk about a confident Black woman who stood up for herself in a calm, dignified manner, not a crazy woman who had a meltdown and screamed obscenities. “Making waves” doesn’t have to involve being rude or offensive; it can be firm, direct and respectful.

One commenter to the previous article shared a powerful quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

 I believe this is true. I also believe that, when confronted with ignorance, discrimination and disrespect, we will mostly remember the silence from ourselves.

When you are being treated unfairly or unkindly, do you usually “make waves” and stand up for yourself?