Accountability, bridge-building, & seeking a “middle” path (2023)


Royalty-free image is an analog clock with the phrase “Time for Accountability,” on it instead of numbers to designate the time of day.

It’s been a long day and my spoons are nearly depleted, but I want to write this, even if I do a poor job of conveying my intended message due to fatigue, because I fear if I postpone it there’s a possibility that I might not get back to it. So I’m asking for your grace/patience/consideration with what might be a clumsy communication attempt, though I will try to make this make sense. 

Starting this off with a personal anecdote that will hopefully offer helpful context… 

I was, like many awkward kids who are disabled and/or of color, a bit of a “bully magnet” when I was younger. It’s like I emanated some sort of pheromone that intrinsically attracted the attention of every manipulator, narcissist, liar, and abuser within a ten mile radius – except I didn’t recognize any of them them as anything other than another fellow human…and, due to my naivete, likely saw them as a potential friend. I wasn’t great at discerning “red flags” at all, so unfortunately over time I found myself in a number of unpleasant situations. And depending upon the scenario, I was either a bully’s worst nightmare or a bully’s ultimate dream. 

The nightmare part is because although I looked small and harmless, I wasn’t always the pushover people expected me to be. I knew how to defend myself and I did – with vigor. Most bullies learned the hard way never to bother me a second time given that their initial attempts to harass me, steal my lunch money, or whatever they planned earned them a monsoon of well-placed punches, kicks, and, if I felt especially threatened, headbutting, scratches, and/or bites. (I grew up play-fighting with my brothers and had one heck of a “right hook!”)  

The dream part refers to the overall consequences. If someone harmed me, I would defend myself, but I wouldn’t hold a grudge, and I almost never “told” on them. It would have been perfectly justifiable for me to report these incidents to a teacher, a parent, or other authority figure, and as I was never the aggressor, the would-be bully was likely to be disciplined in a much more severe manner than the person who had only lashed out in self-defense. I had every right to disclose what had happened. Yet I never did. I kept silent, and they probably moved on to bother someone else.

I didn’t tell a soul. I kept the toxic secret hidden the same way, as a little girl I hid the horrible abuse I was enduring at the hands of a “caregiver” while my parents worked. The same way as a 14 and 15 year old teen I hid the identities of the grown-@ss men AKA statutory rapists who “dated” me in 9th and 10th grade despite being fully aware of my age. The same way as a young adult I hid the intimate partner violence that I suffered in my dysfunctional, abusive previous long-term relationship. “Loose lips sink ships,” they said. Not mine; they never sank anything. For my lips were sealed as tightly as humanly possible, which once made for an uninterrupted “fantastic voyage” for the hoards of users and soul-suckers that once plagued my life.

But they aren’t any longer. The figurative pendulum has swung far to the other side. The little girl who wouldn’t tell has grown up to become an adult nonbinary woman who has found a voice, and it is a powerful one. My Zodiac sign might be the “water bearer,” but you’ll find no pools of rank, stagnant water near me; only flowing water. Fear once bound my tongue; freedom is a sweet song upon my lips. Though it took significant time and effort for me to be able to speak up and speak out, once I gained that ability, I have been a robust practitioner. It was never my intention to be a human conch shell, but this has never been about me; it’s about the community. Therefore, even though it isn’t a comfortable thing to do, I use my voice for change, including having to “call in” people and/or organizations (even those I like or respect), and at times, having to also call folks out. It isn’t something I do maliciously nor haphazardly; when possible, I’d prefer other methods. But if the situation calls for it, I’m going to say something, comfort level be d@mned. Silence implies consent, and I will not be complicit in wrongdoing. It isn’t easy. It’s exhausting, and it has caused me to lose friends, revenue, and opportunities, but at least I haven’t lost the core of who I am and what I believe.

Another method that I’ve started to try to implement more intentionally in recent months has been bridge building. This used to be something that I engaged in a lot – it was an integral part of my work in HIV advocacy; in racial justice; in my personal ethical and faith journey to be inclusive and try to emulate the radical love of Jesus through the way I live my life. Somehow, somewhere, I became more disillusioned, and I changed. That part of me atrophied and became dormant as I explored and pursued other strategies. However, a pendulum is bidirectional; and I’ve begun to feel, and, gradually, act upon, that familiar urge to build bridges; to try to make connections; to seek “common ground” in hopes of at least a partial cease-fire and peace treaty between the warring ideological “sides.” more and more strongly. 

Maybe it’s foolish, misplaced hope and I will learn the hard way that it isn’t possible. Maybe it will be an arduous journey, but in time will eventually bear fruit. I can’t know yet. But I feel that I have to try. Everyone has their path in this world, and right now I feel that this is mine; I realize that we all have different roles to play, and I respect that people will opt to do things differently than I do. That doesn’t necessarily make me wrong, and it doesn’t necessarily make others wrong; 2+2=4, but so does 1+3 and 1+1+1+1 and 5-1. We don’t all have to use the same math to achieve the correct answer.

Thus, both last year and this year, I’ve taken some “leaps of faith” and some risks. I’ve engaged in dialogue with entities who would be perceived by many in my community as “strange bedfellows” at best and possibly “the enemy” at worst. It’s still early, and it’s impossible to know what will come of these efforts. It’s also not an easy undertaking for me as my ideologies have not changed. I have fears and second thoughts and doubts. But there’s a “method to my madness” as the cliche goes; I hope that though things might appear very odd now, there can be growth; there can be change; there can be accountability, restitution, reparations, restoration. 

All I can do is try, and hope that those who know and trust me will believe in the bigger picture of what I’m hoping to accomplish and will not regard me with suspicion nor lose faith in me. I have not, and will not, “sell out” in pursuit of unity. But I have been, and will continue, compromising some non-essential things in certain areas and/or “agreeing to disagree” in some areas. Now, I don’t expect anyone to necessarily understand nor be enamored with the way that looks. (I’m not fully certain I understand either, TBH.) I hope that you can/will choose to tolerate/respect my intentions even if you philosophically disagree with my choices, but whether you choose to “cancel” me and write me off as a lost cause or you reserve judgment and observe, I’m still going to do what I feel I need to do in my heart. To script/engage in echolalia/quote a movie: “Your approval is not needed, but I will take your acceptance.”

Recommended citation: Giwa Onaiwu, Morénike. (2023). Accountability, bridge-building, & seeking a “middle” path. Just Being Me...Who Needs "Normalcy," Anyway? [Personal essay.]