The Wit of the Labrys by Xochitl Alvizo


Always wearing my Labrys

Always wearing my Labrys

Sometimes I wish I were wittier. Or more precisely, there are moments when I become acutely aware of my underdeveloped wit – and I long to know how to sharpen it!

I have some pretty witty people in my life – my dad, my feminist mentors, my partner.  They generally fall into two categories, radical lesbian feminists and women-identified men.  The interesting thing about these friends and family members of mine is that they have something very important in common – they all live their lives going against the grain. They are not people content or resigned to the status quo. They are not satisfied with the default ways of the world – the violence, exploitation, hierarchies of valuing various people differently. They understand that all of this is brokenness, and at the same time, they know that all of this is very much part of our reality. I think this is where their wit comes in. For how does one live with a vision for a more beautiful and just world while also daily facing and struggling through the reality of the world as it is? I think their wit is a key factor in sustaining their Wild unstilted spirits.

For Mary Daly, the Labrys is an Elemental feminist symbol; the double-sided tool of Wild wisdom and wit used to cut through the web of patriarchal lies and reversals – the mazes of man-made mystifications. It is a tool of feminist empowerment. The Labrys enables one to cut through patriarchal illusions and Dis-close the deceptive deadly devices used to bind and deceive people, pacify them to the present order. Think of such terms as “legitimate rape” and “weapons of war” – wisdom and wit untangles these and Dis-closes them as reversals designed to stultify the mind and make room for a contradiction (illegitimate rape or weapons of peace), which in reality makes no sense. Nonetheless, as the predominant non-sense, one has to have enough wits about her to be able to untangle these binds and double-binds that block the breakthrough to new imaginations, visions, and forms of being in the world. Wisdom and wit refuses to give in to the status quo or the psychic numbing required to preserving it.

Photo by Gail Bryan copyright 1992

Photo by Gail Bryan copyright 1992

I need more wit!

Sometimes the moments when words fail to show up for me are when I’m caught in an encounter of being ‘othered’. Usually this happens around my ethnicity. Once at a conference of about 70 people, I was one of the four or five people who were not white. This is not an unusual experience for me or a source of much discomfort; for at least a decade now I have gotten quite used to being in predominantly white academic settings. And since I am pretty friendly, I can connect with people quite easily. But at this particular event the discomfort occurred when a white male person came up to me and as he extended his hand to shake mine, staring at my name tag said, “Where do you come to us from?”

At first impression, this might seem like a harmless greeting, another way of saying hello. But there was something about the way he emphasized the ‘you‘ while staring at my name tag with a puzzled face that gave away the undertones. “Where do you come to us from?” You, whose nametag I cannot read. You, who must clearly be from an alien place with that foreign name of yours. You, who clearly are not from here, but have now come here to us.

I never know how to respond in those moments. Sometimes my witty responses come to me days too late, other times the wit doesn’t come at all, but I sure wish it did. The lie in those moments when I am being othered is the lie that I do not belong. That who I am and why I am present needs justification – I need to justify myself to him who counts himself the norm. I have the wisdom to know that the lie is not true, but not yet the wit to know how to Dis-close the embedded assumptions of the interaction in that moment. I welcome your suggestions.

At another conference with about 40 Protestant ministers from across the country, a white male pastor, clearly having taken note of what I was wearing, cheerfully greeted me with, “Oh! Is this your traditional tribal wear?” Mind you, I was dressed in no extraordinary manner – a flowing skirt and an embroidered shirt. Staring at him awkwardly, with not witty response at hand, I say, “Uhm…well…(looking down on my clothes trying to figure out what he sees)…I did get this shirt in Mexico(?).”

Emily Culpepper, passing the   Labrys to the Hedge Hags

Emily Culpepper at Mary Daly’s Memorial service on May 1, 2010, passing the Labrys to the Hedge Hags. I’m standing 4th from the right.

The thing about wit is that it is creative by nature. It invites new thinking without the need to demand recognition. It functions as it does because it already is what it is – the ability to see beyond the foreground, the ability to see the alternative possibilities and live into them. It requires nothing of the other as it already participates in that to which it points and is therefore not threatened or threatening. Wit names change and at the same time elicits it; it is transforming and in that way complete. But in the existential moment of being ‘othered’ I somehow get caught in the bind. I am thrown off balance and my Labrys falters.

My Nag-Gnostic challenge to you is to help me think this through. Wield your Wild wisdom and wit and help me sharpen my own. I have the tools, but could use some Crone-logical wisdom to sharpen my wit.

Xochitl Alvizo is a feminist Christian-identified woman and a Ph.D. candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. She loves all things feminist. Finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters.

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Categories: Feminism, General, Mary Daly

Tags: , , ,

18 replies

  1. Sochi(l) in case anyone is wondering how to pronouce your beautiful name, I call you by the way you told me it is pronounced. For me, the worst is that sometimes you the brown girl or me the tall girl are feeling just “fine,” and that is when someone says to me: how tall are you anyway, or to you what you reported. When the differencing comment comes unexpected, this is when it hurts even more. It sucks, to tell the truth.

    Those of you who think you “fit in,” take heed! It should not be up to those of us who are “different” to be on our guard all the time.

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  2. Yes, you are so right. It is the unexpectedness of the comment that makes it so hard. First it takes me a moment to even realize what’s going on and wrap my mind around it, and then it’s like I don’t even know how to address it. Thanks Carol!

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  3. I’ve developed many tactics for putting people at ease. I find that my brutal honesty is translated as “humor” and thus I have become “witty” by accident. People are always “misgendering” me– in any given day, different people see what they want to see — male or female. So there are times when someone calls me Sir, then catches it, and attempts to backtrack, which is fine. I have always been gender non-conforming, and my face has a bland unsmiling default position—

    Anyway, witty responses “Oh, I am a lesbian feminist bomb thrower not a male!” Men tend to laugh hysterically at this.

    A good way to handle the “Where are YOU from?” question Xochitl might be to say, “The People’s Republic of China” or some country that is so obviously not you. Or even better, put on a fake southern accent, “Aaallla-baamaa, where you from cracker?” That might be too aggressive, so you could put on a fake southern belle accent– whatever is the most jarring.

    I find that just telling the truth makes people laugh, but that is lesbian feminist man-hating bomb throwing me ya all :-)

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    • Turtle Woman, you had me laughing out loud. You are witty indeed! And I like your advice about simply stating the brutal truth – I think you are right about that. I love it!

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  4. Xochitl, A strongly developed response to being “othered” in spaces that by-and-large, should know better, right? Through the years I have witnessed how my two daughters are categorized as different or “exotic” which translates to “where are you from?” One is usually identified as Mexican, the other Middle Eastern, still, for both, the question hides behind a stance of xenophobia.

    Since i do not encounter such comments, I have no creative words of wit in which to respond. However, I do see a lighthearted Socratic book of responses. Another project for you to take on!

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    • Thanks Cynthie. I like you book idea…but I will need help from you though ;-)
      You know, I was also wondering about people’s obsession with knowing where one is ‘from’ – and I wondered if it has something to do with wanting to find a category to put people in so that then they can ‘know’ what to think about them. As if the category then fills the unknown about the other person because somehow having a ‘blank’ about someone is too disconcerting – too out of control?

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  5. Dear Xochitl,
    I love this post. Like you, I struggle with being witty, and often find myself incapable of being so. Smart, yes… Witty, no- with the exception of very few instances.
    I have recently been pushed to develop this skill by a lesbian friend if mine. She described this kind of smart humor as a good tactic for allies to develop– a way to turn things around, like Turtle Woman talks about.
    Your post really makes her suggestion make sense in a different way. I have never really thought about wit as active dis-closure and a strategy for disruption ( as you describe it above). Maybe that’s because (largely), I have not needed this– because of my herterosexual, cisgendered and white privilege.
    I have seen wit used like a weapon; which is why sometimes I have also shied away from it… But I have also seen it used as you describe it here; and I really appreciate this view. You have definitely given me something to think about!
    Thank you for your post!

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    • That’s a good point. I’ve always had a natural knack for wit but for a while I tried to stifle it because I was afraid of hurting people with it. The less afraid I am of hurting people the more witty I get. And as it turns out, I don’t hurt people as much as I thought I would. I was so afraid of falling into using it as a weapon that I tried to avoid it. But now I figure, if I mess up I mess up. I’m pretty good at cleaning up messes.

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  6. Xotchil! I love your blog! :) As a witch this is more and more of an issue for me. I have often felt othered for being fat or just for being a woman. But I’m also white and middle class and WAS Protestant so I was more often considered part of the norm. NOW! I’m a fat woman witch! :) And the witch part is an even bigger problem for a lot of people. I had an exchange with a potential romantic interest recently who attends the church I used to attend. As we came to the spirituality question, it became clear that I could not skirt around the issue so I said, “I’m a witch now!” :) To which he replied, after a very long uncomfortable pause, “Aren’t witches evil?” Sigh. The conversation went on for a while and it did require quite a bit of wit on my part. He assumed that I thought that I was literally a goddess (in the way that HE defines “God”), that witchcraft is all about manipulation and an inability to relinquish control and that my relationship with Goddess was impersonal and empty (as oppose to his personal relationship with Jesus). But I was witty! And I left the conversation smiling and rolling my eyes. Another one bites the dust. :) However, a few weeks ago when I found a cinnamon broom in my grandmother’s house and exclaimed with joy “This is a witch thing!” and my mother snapped “Well, it wasn’t to Granny.” I was cut down like a wheat stalk, felt helpless and angry and my wit utterly failed me. Carol is right, it hurts the most when it comes unexpectedly. Generally, I have a fairly sharp wit but sometimes I draw a blank and like you come up with a great response days later or never. I still don’t know how I would have preferred to respond to my mother. But you know Xotch, I do this thing with my friends sometimes when they find themselves unable to be witty. We role play. I did this with my roommate recently. She pretended to be her boyfriend texting me and I pretended to be her texting him. I said all the witty things she wasn’t able to muster. It can be funny and cathartic. I’ve had friends do an informal version of this for me before as well. Yeah, it feels better when you can come up with something in the moment on your own but maybe a good to sharpen your wit would be to practice it like that in a safe space with people you trust. Also, it’s sometimes easier to be witty about situations you aren’t immediately involved in because you aren’t so emotionally affected. As Turtle Woman demonstrated there’s lots of ways to respond a situation, some more biting than others. “I was born right here in this hotel. Where do YOU come to us from, far traveler?” OR “Mars. You?” OR “Umm . . . Mass-uh-choo-settes.” Or the guy who asked you about your “tribal dress”–“Yes! Tell me about YOUR tribal clothing. (pointing to pants) I heard someone call it khaki? Is that correct?” OR maybe “Yes! Have you seen the rest of my tribe? They’re probably dancing around a fire somewhere . . . ” Point being if you wanna do some wit-sharing, I’m game.

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  7. I can’t help but adding a theological statement. Diversity and difference are the great gifts of Mother Earth. Our American fixation on sameness, different = outside, and “norm-alcy” is in fact a theological error of the highest degree!!! At least that is how I see it. I mean does Goddess love lions more than little kittens, hippos more than ants… or vice versa.

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    • Yes! I couldn’t agree with you more. I think too that often people mistake uniformity for unity and in that distortion lose sight of the beauty and goodness of difference and diversity. It is a dangerous error indeed.

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  8. I think wit can be a learned skill. I find I don’t need such verbal self defense very much at all with women, but I do require it when dealing with the dominator class all the time.

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  9. I agree with Sara and Fleurdeleah that wit such as this is best initially developed and practiced privately. I learned the hard way that if I simply reacted in such situations, I would often leave people deeply uncomfortable, or hurt their feelings. Practicing ahead of time allowed me to temper the sharp edge of my tongue.

    Since you asked for suggestions, here are some possibilities — though I’d strongly recommend you re-word for your personal voice, since I’ve been told some of these could be considered too snarky:

    “Where do you come to us from?”
    “What an interesting greeting question! I guess that means you’re not a US citizen, like I am. That’s all right, I’m happy to use your native greeting — I like to make foreigners feel welcome. So, I’m from Boston, Massachussetts, in the US. Where do you come to us from?”

    “Oh! Is this your traditional tribal wear?”
    “This? No, my tribal wear would involve jeans and sneakers — I’m a US citizen. What tribe are you from?”

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  10. Thank you all for your comments! Some of you had me laughing out loud – you all are brilliant! Plus, it was so nice to receive so much practical advice – that is so helpful – thank you!

    Sara and Amanda, I wonder if part of what you all are talking about and the potential of wit to be caustic might be more sarcasm more than wit…no?

    And Sara, all my insight on wit and its dis-closing powers comes from Mary Daly. She thought it so important that women have joy, laughter, and wit in order to Live and Leap in this world – love her!

    Amanda, yes, I can only imagine the things people say to you and how they react to your witchy curvy self. But I am so glad you have wit! I definitely would love to practice with you – text me anytime, I would love it.

    Thank you so much Laughing Collie. I appreciate your wise words and your fun suggestions. Even just reading all the different responses you all have offered me already feels like it’s expanding my thinking in how to be creative in my responses. I see the different strategies underlying them also.

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  11. Or, as I have heard it (not personally, just a joke):

    “Where are you from”. “New York.”
    “I mean where were you born?” “Birmingham.”
    “No, dear, before that.”

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  12. You know what foolia, i had no idea you lacked wit, i guess it’s been a while since we’ve chilled, but i just atoumatically assumed since we’re from the same family you’d have quick wit just like ur lil bro here. hmm… maybe i should form a class, haha, beginners class would be innocent wit for all ages n genders, and an advanced class for razor sharp wit that will chop the other person down in those cases you feel truly othered or offended, i love you, and great piece by the way, at least you have writing skill like your lil bro!! ;)

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    • You just made my day! Thanks for reading and for commenting :) And yes, you would think I would be wittier – but I think you all must have taken my portion – hehe. And yes, I’ll take your class! Love you!

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