Some Thoughts on Intimidation
Rus Ervin Funk
Feb 12, 2021
In a recent discussion group that I’m a part of, the topic of intimidation came up – specifically, white folx feeling intimated by black and brown men. To be clear, this is a white discussion group addressing racism and white supremacist culture, with the goal of advancing our abilities and confidences in advancing racial justice. I don’t recall the specifics of why this issue arose amongst us, but do recall, viscerally, my responses.
Part of my response is noting my own thoughts/reactions to the experience of intimidation. If I’m being honest (which I aim to be in this blog series), there are times and situations when I feel intimidated when no one is necessarily intimidating.
A part of my experience of intimidation is (like most of us) my personal history. I am the middle child and grew up in what I believe now to be an alcoholic home. One of my lessons from this was to become conflict avoidant. I grew up learning that conflict is inherently intimidating. As I have come to terms with my history, and worked on address my conflict avoidance, I’ve come to realize that there isn’t anything inherently intimidating by conflict, and yet, that is still my knee-jerk emotional response. I’ve learned some strategies to not let my emotional response lead my actions. I can notice that I am feeling intimidating by real, imagined or presumed conflict without reacting to those feelings and acting as if I am actually being intimidated.
Knowing that is a part of my personal make up, my own individualized experience stripped, for a moment, from gender, sexual or racial politics, has been a critical step in my being able to be and stay in relationships, as well as to remain engaged in political activism. You can’t be in a meaningful relationship and not have conflict; we can’t make meaningful social change without conflict.
This is not meant to detract from the fact that there are times when folx are intimidating. People do escalate, they get aggressive, sometimes people ball their hands into fists, hunch their shoulders, take aggressive steps towards others… We all have our wounds in regards to how we handle and respond to conflict — and a lot of us express these wounds by moving quickly from defensive to offensive.
This article is not, however, about how others act, or how I sometimes act in ways that are intimidating; this is about my taking responsibility for when I feel intimidated. Not every time that I feel intimidated is someone acting intimidating.
This seems like a critical but often overlooked distinction!
Not only does it seem important for me to own responsibility for when I feel intimidated, but to own my responsibility in the context of sexism and racism.
In addition to my personal history, I also grew up white and male in white supremacist patriarchy. In addition to being conflict avoidant, and the inherent element of experiencing all conflict as intimidating; I have also internalized the patriarchal messaging that women’s anger is “emotional”, that women shouldn’t be angry, and that, as a result, women’s anger is intimidating. I have also grown up in and internalized the white supremacist messaging that black folx anger is “out of control”, is inherently explosive and violent (the degree of intimidation I feel is associated with just how brown and black they are), and that anger of people with Spanish accents is intimidating (associated with just how thick their accent is).
As a man in patriarchy, I have come to believe that I have a right to feel and express my anger; as a white person in white supremacist culture, I have a right to feel and express my anger. And the ways that I express anger as a white person and a man are the “acceptable” ways to express anger. When women and/or black or brown folx, and/or black or brown women, therefore, express anger, it is always intimidating. And when they express their anger (or frustration, or pain, or dismay…) in ways that are not a whitemale way of expressing anger, I feel intimidated.
As I reflected on the conversation I was having with my white colleagues, I realized just how deeply this all runs in me. My experience of feeling intimidated by conflict/anger is magnified when the other person(s) are women, are black or brown, or are black or brown women.
My sense of being intimidating is, of course, more nuanced than these blanket statements suggest – the reasons I feel intimidated by women’s anger or conflict with women is different than the reasons I feel intimidated by Black or brown men; but the experience of being intimidated is the same – and the way that I express my sense of being intimidated looks the same.
So far, I’ve been exploring my experience primarily on the interpersonal level, stripped of any socio-political context. When I re-examine my feeling intimidated by white women, or black or brown men, or by black or brown women, I have to check mySelf.
When I locate my individualized, personalized experience of feeling intimidated by women in the context of patriarchy, and the current and historical power that I have access to vis-a-vis the women who are “intimidating” me, I seriously have to question my own honesty.
Gender and Race Matter!
When I locate my individualized, personalized experience of feeling intimidated by black or brown men, or by black or brown women against the historical and current backdrop of white supremacy, I have to seriously doubt what it is that I have to be intimidated by in these moments
White supremacist patriarchy grants me a vast degree and amount of political, religious, educational, economic, and social protection from any “intimidation” by black and brown folx, and women; and further positions me as the real threat of any encounter between me and women, and/or me and black and brown folx. When I can be honest, I have to acknowledge it is white supremacist patriarchy that is intimidating, not the behaviors of individual women or black or brown folx.
And if I am further honest, I must wonder out loud the degree to which these experiences of feeling intimidated are not my being intimidated by women or black or brown folx; but rather my feeling intimidated by a (sub-conscious) glimpse into my access to white supremacist patriarchies power and dominance in these moments. Rather than feeling intimidated by women, or black or brown folx, it seems likely that I am actually being intimidated by the threat that I (representing white supremacist patriarchy) pose to the woman/women; and/or black or brown folx in these moments. Rather than honestly reflecting on the real cause of my feelings of intimidation, and my relationship to these dynamics of power and dominance, I transfer them to a much easier focus.
As I have further reflect on my experiences of and responses to being intimidated, it seems worth noting that not all times I feel intimidated is it a bad thing. The first time I met James Baldwin, Andrea Dworkin, or Audre Lorde I felt intimidated. The first time I felt the brunt of black women’s anger – directed squarely at me – I felt intimidated. Being intimidated is (among other things) an indication that I’m challenging a boundary of some kind. Boundaries are important, but boundaries are not (or should not be) walls. We are meant to push past and through our boundaries. We are meant to grow and stretch ourselves. Sometimes, we need a push to stretch past and through boundaries.
White supremacist patriarchy places boundaries (which often feel like walls) around my stretching and growing into my own humanity – and certainly erects walls around my ability to see and celebrate the humanity of others. It can and often does feel intimidating to face these walls; particularly when I am being called to face and challenges these walls/boundaries by the pain that they (or I) have caused others.
Facing Black pain and women’s rage can be intimidating. Intimidation that they are not responsible for. And intimidation that I can learn from and grow into. Grow into someone who allies more often and more effectively, and someone who is more often and more deeply connected to my both my own and their humanity. Grow into a deeper understanding and experience of justice.
© 2021 by Rus Ervin Funk, All Rights Reserved
Gender Matters is produced and distributed by Rus Funk Consulting – offering a range of services, training and TA to work meaningfully with men and boys to promote gender and racial justice. You can see more of these posts, and sign up to Gender Matters by going to http://rusfunk.me/gender-matters/
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Rus Ervin Funk is an activist and consultant based in Louisville, KY. You can learn more about my work at http://rusfunk.me/.