“You are very articulate” the little old white lady said…

Steven Barnes
6 min readMay 24, 2024

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Yesterday I spoke at the Octavia Butler conference at the Huntington Library. Was on a panel discussion on “Creativity as Praxis” (roughly, the discipline of creativity) . And after I spoke, a nice little old white lady came up to me and congratulated me on “how articulate” I was.

I laughed and thanked her. Some people I mentioned this to expressed astonishment that I didn’t cuss her out or dress her down. I could have. I can understand those who would.

But…that’s not me.

As to WHY I was amused rather than offended, there are several things that come together:

1) I am committed to winning at life. That means moving away from pain, embracing joy, and giving service.

2) To that end, it is smart to make it HARD to feel bad, and EASY to feel good. Unhappy, unsuccessful people find it EASY to feel bad, and HARD to feel good.

3) Anger is a mask over fear. Were I insecure about my intelligence or capacity, then her comment “you are very articulate” might make me wonder if she was grading me on a curve. I KNOW that ain’t true. Or, I might think of my brothers and sisters, who have dealt with crushing brainwashing and oppression for centuries, and still stand tall. I could have thought about how she might be saying “you’re not like the rest of them. Wow! A talking monkey!”

Or as one unwitting racist said to me about having known a particularly intelligent black gentleman: “once you see a talking dog, you’ll never look at any dog the same way again.”

My my my. This is the water in which I’ve swum my entire life. I am heading toward a particular goal of happiness, health, and love and success. I want to bring as many people along with me as possible, and race is a clear delineator of one of the “tribes” I support.

And I know, for a fact, that they deal with such micro-aggressions and unconscious insult every damned day. I cannot choose films at random that sound good without encountering this shit, one way or another. My blood pressure would go through the roof if I had an automatic negative reaction to such things.

And what is REALLY true is that I would not be able to reach my goals. Nor would I live a happy life. Nor would I be able to be a role model and guide for my brothers and sisters of all kinds. Nor would I be worthy of respect by the men I respect, or worthy of desire by the women I desire (or, at this point in my life THE WOMAN I desire).

The only reason to have a negative reaction is ego. Fear that she might be right, that I’ve only had a career because of Affirmative Action or some such nonsense.

Let me tell you a little story….

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When I was about 19 years old, I was working downtown L.A. at Desmond’s department store, and while I was waiting for my bus, another bus pulled up. A white kid leaned out of the window, smiled in a friendly way, and beckoned me over. I approached him, and he spit in my face and called me the N-word. The other kids, male and female, HOWLED with laughter.

I felt a flash of homicidal anger, and saw the next few seconds very clearly: I could storm onto the bus and kick his ass. Then, I could flee the bus and escape…

Or, I could jump onto the bus and kick his ass, then get caught, or dragged down by his friends and stomped.

Or, I could jump onto the bus and FAIL to kick his ass, and get stomped…

All of that ran through my mind in a moment, branching reality paths, and there was no path that led to anything actually positive. The BEST case scenario was that I beat his ass (and maybe taught him a lesson?) but would have to worry for weeks that witnesses might spot me as I left work and call the cops. THERE WAS NOTHING THAT LED TO A POSITIVE RESULT FOR ME.

And…I saw that racism, as a force, has an unconscious agenda: trigger reactions, then punish or kill you for the reaction. The “warrior” energy will die before it is dishonored, yes. I was on that path, and MISHANDLED, it can be dangerous. Musashi’s principle rose up in my mind: DO NOTHING THAT IS OF NO USE.

There it is. I wasn’t thinking of the Three Gates, but I could have. And if “success” is “the progressive realization of a worthy goal” then Big R had just invited me to an ass-kicking party. Accepting the invitation would probably end with me caught in the gears of the very justice system that I knew for a fact would love to get me in its claws, where it could begin the process of controlling my life. A conviction for assault would be a good start. And his friends on that bus would likely swear up and down that he had done nothing to deserve the beat-down.

There was simply nothing direct I could do. So I wiped the spit off my face, adjusted my breathing, and went on with my life.

Why? BECAUSE I PLAY TO WIN. Not to THINK I’m winning. Not for you, or him, or anyone else to AGREE that I am winning. And I am totally confident that were we to meet again, there would be nothing at all about his life I would covet. I won at the moment I wiped my face.

Why? Because THE OBSTACLE WAS THE OFFERING. I took his insult, and used it to gain clarity on who I am, and where I am going. That I KNOW that racists would love for me to over-react so they could kill me, jail me, cripple me, mark me. Yes indeedy.

There is nothing anyone can do from the outside to make me think I am not worthy of love. And intelligent, and a loving, caring person. You cannot do it. He couldn’t do it, and I had a fraction of the tools I have today. Didn’t know myself a fraction as well as I do today.

So the nice little white lady at the Huntington, probably trying to give me a compliment but accidentally saying something ugly in implication…

WHY EXACTLY SHOULD I BE AFRAID OF HER OPINIONS? Because if I’m not, not at all, there is nothing to be angry about. And if I can be that guy (or, as we say in Firedance: “I AM that bitch!”) I can help others through their anger and fear, so that they can move away from pain, embrace joy, and be of service to their tribe, however they define it.

As my brother Patric Young says when challenged: “Thank you God, for giving me another chance to find out who I am.”

(Note: my defense was not a shield, it was a center. I know I am loved and worthy of love. I trust my quality of mind and heart and body. And that I will defend myself with considerable skill if the occasion demands, prepared to die with honor if necessary.) To the degree that someone’s words can hurt you, you lack these things. The negative emotions are a signal pointing to the work you need to do.)

The little old lady at the Octavia event, and that kid on the bus, were allies on my path of evolution. Why?

Make no mistake. I smile, and love, and am as kind as possible. But at the very core of it, in the back of my mind down in my belly brain, there is a grinning wolf that would LOVE an opportunity to rise up and feast. Oh yes. But it will never happen for anything trivial.

Because Big R would LOVE that shit. And under no circumstances will I give my enemy a sword with which to slay me, my family, or my dreams.

Because…I AM that bitch.

Namaste

Steve

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Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts. www.lifewritingpodcast.com.