I’m not going to look it up, because it still feels horrible, but the last Groveling Email I wrote was sometime in October-ish of 2019 to the co-director of an ensemble I was repeatedly told I was welcome in until I asked to be treated better. This is not a particularly new experience for me or anyone marginalized; we all learn very early on that the degree to which we are welcome in any particular space is dependent on the tolerance for discomfort present at the top of power dynamics. Many of us, especially our siblings of color, learn to make general determinations at a glance. It’s a risk assessment à la Schrödinger’s rapist, just a little less action-specific.
Every marginalized person you’ve ever met could tell you about the microaggressions (and overt forms of violence) they’ve been expected to tolerate in professional settings. Even if those aren’t the terms they use to describe the actions, folks can point at the specific stares or posturing or subtly exclusive language or nonchalantly threatening behavior they’ve had to take in stride. Sometimes that absorption requires us to self-flagellate, to take the blame for another’s actions and feelings because of the unspoken idea that we caused them. If we hadn’t been there, if we hadn’t brought our marginalized selves into those rooms, these individuals wouldn’t have been upset or acted out in this certain way.
It’s like she was asking for it, dressed like that, except that it might be verbal beatdowns and professional abuse instead of rape. (It might still be rape.)
And so, many of us moving through professional spaces, especially ones we might call white collar, get good at writing Groveling Emails. These are the follow-ups we send after we are punished in some way for standing up for ourselves—they are the messages we send to the people who respond to our asserting our personhood by immediately punching down. Groveling Emails can vary in structure and tone to best suit the needs of a specific situation, but for harms that aren’t physically violent, the key ingredients usually go something like this:
- Apologize for something you needed to say or do to protect yourself or to draw a boundary, especially with a person of power. If there is a small-ish but significant (to them) detail you can latch onto here, focusing on that may better convince them you took their tirade or violence to heart while actually skirting around making bigger apologies that dehumanize you more.
- If they lashed out at you for something caused by situations beyond your control, briefly describe one of these to stir at least a little empathy. It will not get you a full-fledged retraction, but it may lessen the blow of the inevitable reply later on.
- Appeal to their human decency, even if it seems to have gone missing. Use (professionally appropriate) phrasing that endears them to you. Mimicking their own phrasing and sentence structure can be useful, if it’s not too big a departure from your own. Remind them that you’re someone who cares about them, even if they don’t care about you.
- Close with a reiteration of your earlier apology, and if the situation merits, express something along the lines of “I look forward to [next event requiring you to share space].” Only do this if you can craft your sentence so it appears warm and genuine, though.
- Sign off with something slightly different than you normally use, but keep it formal. If you normally use “Sincerely,” use “All my best.” If you use “Best”/“All my best,” use “Sincerely.” You want to convince them you care about their mild-to-moderate discomfort in the hope that they in turn care about your moderate-to-severe trauma.
I’m half-joking here, but these moments of violence truly can be traumatic. Some may be easily forgotten, but others may stick with us for years. I still think about this last occurrence about once a month, and thanks to COVID I haven’t even had to worry about running into this person at a gig in a year!
Even when we send a perfect or near-perfect Groveling Email, the response is usually lackluster at best. When I sent mine, I spent about a paragraph (iirc) addressing the use of a specific word (not a slur) I’d used in an unimportant part of my ask-for-better message that this bandleader had taken specific, vehement issue with. (See Point 1.) In this case, though his abuse of the bandleader/sideman(yuck) power dynamic was inexcusable, I genuinely was sorry my language had hurt him, and because of the professional relationship we’d had in years prior, I expected to get something along the lines of “I also apologize for my language use” in his eventual reply.
Guess what that response didn’t include?
His original five paragraphs of punching down also included several specific digs at my social media presence, which I’ll discuss more directly another time. I had to address all of these things in my Groveling Email, because that’s what you do when you’re on the bottom of a demographic power imbalance and a professional one, but unsurprisingly, the same courtesy was not afforded to me. Multiple bandmates later took me aside privately to share that they also thought the initial punching down was inappropriate (gotta love reply-alls), but I don’t think that bandleader ever took the time to even reread and understand why I was asking for better in the first place.
I genuinely don’t know if I’ll ever be willing to accept a gig from him again, and this man is someone who probably thinks of himself as an ally to at least women, maybe gender-marginalized people as a broader community. My teachers at the time introduced me to him as “one of the good guys.” He probably thinks he’s a pretty good ally, yet when confronted with someone asking for better treatment for her and a more privileged counterpart because the underlying mindset is one she sees all the time as someone gender-marginalized, he responds with rage and condescension.
I deserve better than that kind of treatment, because we all deserve better than that kind of treatment.
I shouldn’t have had to text my drummer that morning, checking to make sure I was correct that our bandleader had blown the issue wildly out of proportion. I shouldn’t have needed his reassurance: “don’t quit today.” I shouldn’t, frankly, have made myself sit through the rest of that rehearsal process and that gig, in which I was unsurprisingly the token gender-marginalized face on the bandstand.
I shouldn’t still be ruminating on the memory a year and four-ish months later, texting another bandmate who’s also stepped away from the group to talk about it. I shouldn’t still need the validation that our bandleader’s actions were fucked up. But those are the kinds of scars this treatment can leave, and we don’t talk about those impacts enough. (Probably because bandleaders like these get to keep running around and booking gigs.)
People should not have to be perfect, performatively warm little angels to be treated respectfully and without condescension, but at least in Phoenix, we don’t seem ready to have that conversation.
After that fall’s performance cycle, I did end up formally stepping away from the ensemble. When I sent in my resignation, I didn’t tell them the real reason I was leaving. It wasn’t safe then, and I’m not completely convinced it’s safe now. Folks who know me can probably guess the ensemble pretty easily. If that particular bandleader reads this post and realizes it’s about him (and he might), I may once more wake up to a small cyclone in my inbox. But it’s been almost a year and a half, and I’ve already promised myself:
no more groveling emails.
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