It Doesn’t Just Happen: On “It Happened To Me” & The Grammar of Injustice
[Note: This piece was originally written in response to “It Happened to Me: There Are No Black People in My Yoga Class and I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable,” a personal essay published on xoJane.com. The issues with that piece have inspired significant outroar and are addressed (seriously and satirically) by Pia Glenn, CeCe Olisa, KazzleDaz, and others. The post below focuses more on broader, structural considerations in the “It Happened to Me” framework. For more detailed considerations of the yoga piece, specifically, I recommend the links above].
Most of us will probably never have strong feelings on passive (versus active) voice. Generally speaking, this is one of those issues we master for a specific English class and then quickly forget. We learn our professor’s preference (or our boss’), and – if we’re lucky – remember to quickly double-check our choices using Rebecca Johnson’s zombie trick. (If you can cleanly add “by zombies” after the verb in a sentence, it’s generally in passive voice. Consider “that terrible blog post was written [by zombies]” versus “zombies wrote
[by zombies?] that terrible blog post.” I know. Life-changing.) But overall, understanding passive voice is little more than a grammarian’s cocktail party trick. It’s the equivalent of curling your tongue or patting your head while rubbing circles on your stomach. Passingly impressive, perhaps, but not game-changing in any grander scheme.
When it comes, however, to the ways we use language to represent ourselves and others, passivity becomes a deeper issue. We’re called to consider more nuanced concepts, such as the degrees of agency (the capacity to act) and interiority (internal thoughts and experiences) granted to the “characters” in a piece. Ultimately, the decision to feature or erase a specific perspective has far more significant ramifications than whether we choose “is” over “flourishes.” (Advance apologies to any English teachers who disagree).
I consider things like this, on occasion, as a direct result of my being a massive nerd. Today, I find myself thinking of it again, as I reflect on the viral uproar over a recent xoJane essay — “It Happened to Me: There Are No Black People in My Yoga Classes and I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable with It.” xoJane dedicates an entire subforum to It Happened to Me (IHTM) pieces. In that subgenre, they exclusively feature personal essays, a decision that effectively reflects the feminist sensibility that the personal is political and uses narrative to address a range of experiences, minor and/ or marginalized, tawdry and/ or taboo.
…Except when it doesn’t.
The rhetorical framework of “It Happened To Me” (at xoJane and elsewhere) is, by nature, a passive one. The experience – infidelity, illness, injustice, etc – is enacted upon the writer. The writer is the recipient or the victim (or – if you want to get grammatical about it – the direct object) upon whom the experience acts. The ability to act, the agency, does not belong to the author. It belongs to the experience.
The essays in the IHTM section all share that heading (and its passive construction). Their subheadings, however, (which effectively title individual pieces), vary widely in their framework. Some reflect the structure of “It Happened to Me” — A Stranger Called Me A Chinese Bitch, A Woman Verbally Attacked Me For Tying Up My Dog, etc. Some actively invert it, returning the author to the subject position: I Was on the FBI Watchlist, I Was Sexually Harassed On-Stage. In some cases, the author even merges zir experience (the “it”) with zir identity (the “me”): I’m A Clothes Hoarder, I’m a Fat Porn Star. In this manner, the authors use “It Happened to Me” in a range of ways. They not only describe experiences that, yes, actually, technically happened to them, but also use IHTM as a template to reframe experiences in which they had little agency (such as the instance of sexual harassment), into narratives of personal power.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well: authors can (and do) use IHTM to describe experiences in which they had agency – even agency at the expense of other people – as experiences that happened to them. And therein lies the rub.
As writers, we can decide to write about an experience that happened to us (“IHTM: Someone Stole My Wallet.”) We can also decide to write about a choice we made – as if it is something that happened to us – (IHTM: I Stole Someone’s Wallet.) The resulting essays may be good, bad, moral, unjust, or a mix thereof. But a third application of the IHTM format does, inherently, harm. That application frames someone else’s identity as something that “happened to” the author. (IHTM: A Black Person Had a Wallet In My Presence.)
We see this every time a cis partner writes an “It Happened To Me” piece about learning their lover is trans. Every time a straight friend writes about their crush coming out. And we see it here, the now-infamous xoJane piece, when a White woman writes about a Black woman’s entry into an all-white space, as an experience that “happened to her.”
In these instances, the author does – in spite of the rhetorical passivity of the title—have greater agency than the person they suggest has “happened to” them. They don’t have it because they take an active hand in what occurs. (After all, the situation still happens to them; they remain its object.) Rather, they have agency because – through the framework of the piece – they have taken the identity of another human being and reduced that person to an object, one that – rather than experiencing life – is experienced, as an event in it.
In this usage, the IHTM template is intensely dehumanizing. The author, centered by the first-person perspective of the piece, is granted interiority and agency at the direct expense of the other human(s) zie’s transformed into an “experience.” In the yoga piece, author Jen Caron goes a step further, presuming to speak for the Black woman and couching her racist (and sizeist) dehumanization of this woman in the language of social justice. (The identity of the unknown woman is degraded into Caron’s personal White-Privilege aha-moment, an ironic structure for a piece that – however accidentally – conceptually relies on that privilege.)
Grammatically speaking, Jen Caron’s title isn’t firmly active; the be-verb is weak and the verb precedes the subject. It’s not, grammatically speaking, clearly passive either: one cannot (ala Johnson) cleanly insert the zombies. But the essay – and the plethora of essays like it – still relies on that spectre, that not-quite human being, (granted minimal brain or speech), who happens (as a plague) upon others. That monster about whom stories are told.
But the monstrous element here is not, ultimately, that inhuman spectre. It’s the (all-too human) act that creates it: the removal of someone else’s personhood to serve our narrative arc. And when we’re looking for a target to eradicate, our anti-apocolyptic weapon of choice should land there.
We should, in other words, consider the question: how does my voice actively “happen to” (or at the expense of) others?