There’s a word coined in the 1970s – maybe earlier – around race that perfectly describes what a minority group experiences most of the time for prejudice among a supposedly enlightened society: microagression. This is, for many people, the thing that makes their life hell. What is this prejudice?
Hint: it isn’t violence or threats of violence.
It can also be the little stuff, the stuff that day-in and day-out someone faces. It’s the stuff that if it happened one time would truly be no big deal – but because it happens all the frickin time – these little things become an avalanche. And, of course, when the person experiencing this crap day and night dares to say something about it, they are blowing things out of proportion. After all, “it wasn’t that bad.” No, in isolation it wasn’t. And “they meant no harm.” Maybe, maybe not, but prejudice still hurts and action must be taken to stop it. And this action isn’t “get the victim to do the educating.” You see, that’s yet more microagression.
Probably the best way to explain microagression is to give examples:
- A hispanic person is asked, in the US, “do you speak English?”
- A child who experiences seizures finds himself having to explain what causes seizures and what to do about them to every new teacher.
- A trans person is greeted with the wrong pronouns by a store clerk.
- An autistic person is asked, “Why does my autistic child do X?”
- The non-disabled adult sitting with the disabled adult is handed the check automatically by the waiter.
- A woman joins a motorcycle repair forum, only to find surprise and disbelief that a woman can understand how engines work.
- A Sikh is asked his opinion on Osama Bin Laden by a new acquaintance.
Notice the above? Any of the above may occur without any conscious awareness by the person doing them that what they are doing is likely offensive or hurtful. The person isn’t trying to hurt the victim, but the effect is just the same.
Being asked once a year or two if you speak English is hardly offensive to most people. But if you get asked this question every time you interact with the government, while others are not asked this question, you probably start to get annoyed and upset, especially if you don’t know any other language and have lived in an English speaking country your entire life (which the person can’t tell just by looking at you, regardless of your skin color). Why shouldn’t you know English? And who says that whites all speak English?
Being asked as an autistic adult, “Why does my autistic child do X?” is not an intent at offense most of the time, but rather sincere curiosity and concern for their child. But we’re not experts on your child, at least most of us aren’t.
Plenty of women don’t understand engines. But plenty of men don’t either (go read some of the motorcycle repair forums – and see the incredibly bad advice given). Yet people often make the mistake – often unintentionally – of seeing someone’s gender and assuming that they can now tell if that person knows engines or not.
Of course all of the above can also occur for sinister reasons. Someone might intentionally use the wrong pronouns for a trans person to show their moral disapproval. Others might not believe the child really has seizures so thinks they need to “test” the kid to see how knowledgable he is about them, so you can catch them in a lie. Another person might show their dislike for non-Christians by prodding a Sikh with questions about Bin Laden.
The key is all these things allow someone to still say, “Oh, I didn’t know!” You get the benefit of being nasty and hurtful without having to take responsibility for your actions. And of course the people doing it intentionally say they weren’t, as do the people that weren’t.
Add to that, most people, when confronted about a microagression, whether intentional or not, will respond poorly. They will turn the conversation around and see themselves as a victim of political correctness, of a slight etiquette misstep that the other person is taking way out of context. After all, they didn’t attack the person!
At the end of the day, it is this refusal to take responsibility that is most insulting. Someone truly acting in ignorance will take responsibility if they are a decent person. If they aren’t, if their ego is more important than the other person, if being right is more important than the other person, then they will not take responsibility. They’ll get upset at the person for “blowing it out of proportion” because, after all, they “didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Yet, often in life we face consequences for acts we don’t mean to do. I might forget to put a stamp on a job application I’m mailing and fail to get the job. I might leave dinner going too long in the stove and find it burnt. I might drive faster than I should in a moment of inattention and get a ticket (if I’m lucky to not cause an accident).
In addition, all of these behaviors, even when unintentional, are still hurtful. They all point out that we’re weird and don’t really belong. Being an outcast is not enjoyable. Sure, you don’t mean to “other” us by asking me about your autistic kid – but when that’s the only type of thing you want to know about my life, you don’t see me as a full person.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s bad to recognize differences. It’s not. Sometimes we need you to recognize our differences. Sometimes we want to share about our culture or life experience. Sometimes we do want to educate you. Sometimes we want to be treated in an appropriate way that is different from how you treat others.
And sometimes we want to be believed when we say, “Hey, this wasn’t accidental on this person’s part.” Sure, what they did might sound like it could be accidental, but the person relating the story likely has a lot more life experience dealing with how people interact with them. Yep, they might be wrong. So this shouldn’t replace, for instance, the court system’s process of examining evidence! But at the same time, part of stopping bullying involves stopping the intentional microagressions, while also educating others on the harm of microagressions.
And, just for reference, here’s some ways people could have responded in the situations I mentioned above:
hispanic person is asked, in the US, “How can I help you?” If the person doesn’t seem to understand, then you should figure out what language they speak or use (in the case of a deaf person). Even better, you have obvious and clear ways for people to indicate their preferences (a government office with multiple windows might have a sign indicating what languages the clerk speaks, and invites people who don’t speak English to use that line).
- A school makes it standard practice to share key student information with new teachers, while also providing an opportunity for students and parents to refresh and review the information that is given. Then, specific, relevant, questions are asked as needed, but the person who experiences seizures isn’t expected to answer the same question 10 times because there are 10 staff members.
trans person is greeted by name by a store clerk, and if a mistake is made and the person says, “It’s not Ms, it’s Mr,” the clerk immediately corrects themself and says, “I’m so sorry sir” and then moves on using the right pronouns.
- An autistic person is asked if they know of any good references for parents about parenting autistic kids, or other ways of getting that information.
- When two or more adults are sitting at a restaurant table sharing a check, the waiter asks how they want to handle the check.
womanperson on a motorcycle repair forum has a chance to show her intelligence or ignorance when it comes to motorcycles before any judgement is made.
- Someone seeing someone wear religious garb asks if there is any symbolism in the person’s clothing
Maybe those aren’t all the best ways of responding, but they are likely better than the first attempt. Sure, you might not know that some of these ways of interacting are tiresome and hurtful, so you’re going to make mistakes. Again, the mistake isn’t the horrible part – but being stubborn if confronted is. And doing it intentionally certainly is.
There’s also some ways people observing can help – and these can be the most valuable and useful, as it shows the person, “No, you are one of us! You are part of our group, not an ‘other’.” Here’s some examples, from the above:
- A hispanic person is asked, in the US, “do you speak English?”. A friend observing this might respond by saying that it might be quicker to just ask something in English and see if he gets a puzzled response or not. Or “what would you do if he said he spoke Russian?”
- A child who experiences seizures finds himself having to explain what causes seizures and what to do about them to every new teacher. Another teacher could preempt this if she knew the kid was going to transfer to another teacher, by making sure the teacher gets this information ahead of time. But I admit this is a harder one.
- A trans person is greeted with the wrong pronouns by a store clerk. A friend corrects the clerk so the trans person doesn’t have to (hopefully the clerk takes the hint).
- An autistic person is asked, “Why does my autistic child do X?” Again, this is a hard one – I’d love to hear how a friend should respond. Probably should work it out with each other as part of the things you learn about each other during friendship.
- The non-disabled adult sitting with the disabled adult is handed the check automatically by the waitress. Depending on your snarkiness, you can either make a great show of handing the check to your friend or simply say, “Don’t you want to know if we want to split it or who should take the check?”
- A woman joins a motorcycle repair forum, only to find surprise and disbelief that a woman can understand how engines work. Other men could talk about how plenty of men do dumb things or plenty of women know mechanics. Or could simply point out that it might be better to listen and evaluate what the person has to say without being a jerk.
- A Sikh is asked his opinion on Osama Bin Laden by a new acquaintance. I think here a “Why are you asking this?” would probably be appropriate.
Again, I’m not sure this is always the right or best way to handle things. But a lot of times, someone in support who shows that they recognize you as a friend or part of the group can do a lot to combat the feelings of otherness that is created. One of the worst things a friend or someone observing this can do is to stay silent, even if they don’t know how to react. It’s frightening, and sometimes you’ll respond wrong. But at least you tried rather than silently allowed the hurt to be inflicted.
I’m curious on other people’s thoughts on the microagressions. How can they be handled? What can people do about them?