Of Women and Elephants

chained-elephant-e1395907988420A primer on internalized oppression

How do you hold a woman captive with a kite string? The same way you hold an elephant captive with a kite string.

First you start with a chain. A huge chain with links so big they would crush small children. Then you attach that chain from the elephant’s ankle to a giant iron pole drilled deep into the earth. At first the elephant struggles mightily. She pulls and pulls at the chain until her ankle is bleeding. The pole doesn’t budge. It mocks her pain in silence. Days and days pass. Her ankle heals and she pulls again. It bleeds again. She stops pulling. Each day, she pulls less. For every day that she doesn’t pull on the chain or bellow in sadness, a man brings her water and hay. The days twist from pulling on the chain to waiting for the sweet green hay and fresh clear water. One day the man changes the chain to one with links that would smash a mouse. The elephant likes the new chain. It is lighter. It doesn’t drag on her ankle. She doesn’t notice that if she were pull on this chain very hard, as hard as she was pulling before, it might break. Instead, she waits for the sweet hay and clear water. Decades pass. Each time the chain gets smaller, the elephant is happier. She barely notices that the hay is drier and the water is no longer as clear and fresh. A hundred years go by, the man ties her ankle to the iron pole with a kite string. The hay is moldy. The water is brackish. The elephant barely notices. She waits for the man by the pole. She forgets about walking around free.

I heard this fable about internalized oppression many years ago when I was trying to understand how I allowed my own oppression as a woman to take place on a landscape of seeming equal rights. Being polite. Not speaking up because I didn’t have it all figured out. Silently abandoning myself in my confusion. Not resisting the oh so attractive dinner invitations from rich and powerful men because I was hungry, because it felt good being wanted, because it seemed okay to trade my beauty for dinner. To this day, I don’t eat desserts.

Fables rarely touch on the inner world of their characters. They paint the world in graphic metaphors. This fable doesn’t tell about the shame that seeps into the bloodstream of the elephant every time she eats the hay and drinks the water. It doesn’t say anything about how that shame eats her muscle fibers and stills her powerful heart from trying to get away. It doesn’t speak about that moment when the elephant feels pride that this man loves so much he keeps her all to himself. By the time the kite string is attached to her ankle, she feels like she abandoned herself long, long ago. Where would she go anyway? She no longer belongs to her tribe of strong powerful elephants. She is all alone.

I tell myself this story again a week after we elected a man who pulled on all the kite strings that tether us to beliefs that we aren’t safe, that we don’t have enough, that we aren’t great if we aren’t the greatest.

I tell myself this story to remember my clear-eyed compassion for every one who voted for this man.

I tell myself this story to gather my strength and remember who I am.

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