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Confronting Race, Religion and Her Heart | With Zawe Ashton27:59
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(Brian Rea for the New York Times)
(Brian Rea for the New York Times)

In this week’s essay, Lilian Oben writes about how essential it is to be seen in relationships — to be able to take up space, without being asked to change who we are.

Her piece is read by Zawe Ashton. Zawe recently starred in “Betrayal” on Broadway, and was in the film “Velvet Buzzsaw” alongside Jake Gyllenhaal.

Where Are They Now?

Lilian Oben’s essay was published in 2017, but the relationship she writes about happened well before that, in 2003. She says it was a memory that lingered.

"It felt like the messiest ending ever," she says. "I remember dating a woman who knew about the relationship with the man that I wrote about. Once, in the middle of an argument, she flung in my face something to the effect of, how could I date a man who treated me this way."

"I remember that stuck. It kept me thinking, ‘Why did I, how could I, how did I stay?’ I think I was fascinated because it was the one relationship that kept me constantly discomfited and feeling messy, and I was curious to know why."

After the essay was published, Lilian didn’t see or hear from her ex-boyfriend again. But she did hear from a lot of other people, including an old acquaintance she ran into on her way to work.

"He said, ‘Hey, Lilian, I read your piece in the NYT.’ And in my head it sounded like, ‘Hey Lilian, I see you there walking around there naked.’

"I did go through a period of social anxiety thinking, 'Everybody knows my life, what did I do.' But then when I steeled myself to read the comments, I was really overwhelmed by them. So many people wrote about how vindicated they felt and how they’d experienced the same thing. Some people said it hurt to read because it was so truthful and spoke to such a truth that they themselves knew but hadn’t found the courage to articulate."

"Feedback like that ... made me think, for all the nakedness and vulnerability and social anxiety that I feel right now, it’s worth it."

Lilian says that one reason she was so nervous about publishishing the piece, and writing it in the first place, was because of how explicitly she wrote about race.

"Race was an integral part of this relationship. I was aware of that when I was in it, and I was aware that the messiness had to do with that.

"In general, race was one of the topics I never felt comfortable discussing for any number of reasons," she says. "Being a Black woman in a country like America, race is a mountain that we are constantly carrying on our backs almost every day. Sometimes you just don’t want to climb it. But I knew that to get to what I wanted to get to, I needed to climb the mountain. I couldn’t go around it, I couldn’t go through it. If I didn’t confront it, it was going to keep confronting me."

"I needed to confront the ways in which we shrink ourselves, and how that impacts your self worth and ultimately how it impacts how you view yourself, your level of self love and self acceptance."

And we asked Lilian if the moment we are living in changes the way she thinks about this essay.

"I’m glad I wrote the piece when I did, I’m glad it was published when it was. And proud to have leaned into that fear of discussing this huge topic when I did because it’s empowered me to continue to try to act on that fearlessness," she says.

She says, "I [have done an] inventory of, 'Have I, where I can, used my voice in protest.' I think that’s an inventory that every human should be doing, especially every human who claims to be anti-racism. So when I look at that piece, it feels empowering to know that I have.

Lilian is single now. She’s looking forward to dating again after the pandemic. And she told us that, even though the relationship she writes about was difficult, it shaped her approach to love. We asked her what changed.

"Oh my god, everything. My whole self," she says. "I think I was always aware that prior to that relationship I was always kind of giving bits of myself — just bits. As a result of that relationship and the introspection and the writing of this piece, it’s just really emboldened me to keep trying as much as possible to walk in total fearlessness and to lean into vulnerability. And it all came down to just self love. I needed to love myself unapologetically. And know that I was also deserving of that. We all are.

That’s Lilian Oben. She’s a writer and actor living in New York City. To find out more about her and her work, go to lilianoben.com.

Caitlin O'Keefe Twitter Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Caitlin O'Keefe was a producer of podcasts and new programming at WBUR.

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