Not Nice, Actually

I can’t quite remember the first time I heard the words “Wow, you’re actually a really nice person!” Actually. It has been repeated enough over the years, especially when I reach the point in a friendship with someone where they feel comfortable enough to reveal their surprise. Actually. It appears that being perceived as “nice” is somehow one of the most important things to which I’m expected to aspire. So, I’ve adapted. Biting back sarcasm because it could be misinterpreted as rudeness, exchanging empty pleasantries with classmates because I know that the day’s discussion is going to involve me pointing fingers at people, literally and figuratively. I’ve learnt to affect a self-deprecation I almost never feel inside myself, for fear of being seen as intimidating. I’ve considered changing my middle name to whatever the Ewe translation of “intimidating” is, instead of the name I have at present, Dzifa– “my heart is at peace.”

I’ve learnt that a woman with a “bad attitude,” one who is supposedly mean-spirited for no apparent reason and always has something negative to say, becomes an easy scapegoat in an unpleasant situation, especially when there are men involved. It’s not that a man has behaved badly, but that my reaction is rude and/or over-the-top, uncalled for. So I put another clamp on the parts of my personality that are too abrasive, clipping away at my dry humor to leave in its place a more digestible, less threatening version. An even safer option is to remain quiet. In silence there is no danger of a harsh tone or comment offending another person. There is, however room for more misinterpretation– Why are you mad? Why didn’t you say hi? What’s the problem now?

I remain, dancing on tiptoes through almost every part of my life, shakily balancing  the fragile self that I’m being forced to dash to the ground and sweep into a corner because other people’s sensitivity is more important than me projecting my self, unrestrained and unashamedly. It doesn’t matter if I try to file away the edge in my voice, or if I tease and joke the way I feel most comfortable, with sarcasm, because who I actually am and what I actually intend to say is not up to me to decide. I remain, with not a single desire to be nice, but rather to be fierce and fiercely loving, to rid myself of any stubborn strips of self-doubt that won’t let go– maybe I was a bit too harsh– to just be without the need to always explain and defend, or to use my existence as some insurance policy that whichever white person, or any kind of man, isn’t as bad as they think they are. Actually, I don’t want to be nice if that means contorting my personality, my wants and my frustrations to wind more easily around others’ needs. My mother isn’t “nice,” none of my aunts are “nice,” my grandmother is not “nice” and her mother was definitely not “nice.” They are generous and wise and hilariously funny, they break and they persevere and are many far more interesting and inspiring things than just “nice.” “Nice” is a trap. Fuck that.

(Image: I would like to take credit for capturing such a dramatic shot, but this photo really happened because my cousin –not so little anymore– was fed up and ready to get to the wedding reception. Being a flower girl is hungry work.)

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