Microaggressions-A Short Primer

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This writing project started as a series of Facebook posts directed towards my friends and family in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the horrific displays of racism, sexism, discrimination and xenophobia that was left in its wake. It began as a way to let bystanders recognize microaggressions so that they could intervene and protect vulnerable populations before it became too late. It turned into commentary on the sliding scale of hateful things that have been said or done or threatened, with chapters addressing the marginalized groups that feel under attack through the candidacy and transition of Donald Trump. At the beginning of each post I repeated the two paragraphs you will read next, then gave that day’s example.

So, here we go…

Microaggressions are things that we say or do almost unconsciously that are discriminatory. Don’t worry, I am about to give you some examples so you understand what I am talking about.

We are all, all of us, 100% guilty of using microaggressions. Quite honestly, most microaggressions are ignored by the person who is hurt by them because it is more trouble to address it than to simply move on, and there is an understanding on the part of the person hurt that they need to save their energy to fight the bigger battles while swallowing down the smaller ones. Is this right? Perhaps not. Does it allow the person who is most vulnerable to get through the day with less trouble and more dignity? Often, yes. A friend of mine wrote in a post that the victim always should get to decide how to respond. So why am I telling you this? If you want to be a bystander, you need to recognize microaggressions-often the microaggression will be the end of the discriminatory action, but sometimes it is a preamble to more hateful speech and actions. Since the aggressor started off sounding reasonable, we often ignore these things to stay polite with friends and neighbors and to get on with our lives. We don’t say anything until the microaggression has escalated, and at that point the situation has become more dangerous. Also I want you to be aware that when you say things like these, the people around you don’t know if you will stop at the microaggression or become worse, and they may feel unsafe.

Microaggressions (we are all, ALL, guilty, I can’t stress that enough) are the sorts of things that slip into everyday speech and allow us to be able to say, sincerely, that we are not racist or ableist or sexist or xenophobic or homophobic…but discriminatory things still have been said. People who point out microaggressions are often colored as people who are overreacting, or are too politically correct, or too sensitive. If you are confronted about a microaggression you may think it is no big deal, why are you being chastised for something so small? Here is why – the hurt person doesn’t know if you are a good person who is a little oblivious, or a bad person who is warming up. So here we go.

I’m going to start with ableism.

 

Ableism

Have you ever said to an expecting couple that it doesn’t matter if the baby turns out to be a boy or a girl, as long as they are healthy?

So have I.

So what if that child turns out to be sick, or disabled?

If health is what is expected, the parent of a sick or disabled child feels like they have perhaps failed. They couldn’t even hit that low-set expectation – that at least my child is healthy. Most people who have said this phrase would be incredibly supportive of your family if your child was sick.

But.

There are people who sincerely believe that disabled and sick people are nothing but a drain on society, that they are lazy and that we shouldn’t have to care for them. There are people who want to cut programs for the elderly and the terminally ill, literally saying that the cost of keeping them alive is not worth it to our society.

Shit, right?

And guess what? In Nazi Germany many sick and disabled people were exterminated because they took more resources than they contributed. Many who weren’t killed outright were sterilized so that when they died whatever illness they had died with them,

Fuck, right?

I’ll give you more examples that apply to other vulnerable groups as the day goes on. Almost every single person on earth who starts with the idea, well as long as the baby is healthy, is a good person who values people and doesn’t know they are being hurtful. If fact they would probably be mortified to know that they hurt you if you explained it to them. So most of us ignore it, move on. But guess what?

There are people in our world today who classify themselves as Neo-Nazis, who believe that disabled and sick people do not deserve to live. And a disabled person who hears a microaggresion does not know who you are until it either escalates or doesn’t.

And Neo-Nazis suddenly think America is going to look the other way as they start shit.

Don’t look the other way. Pay attention.

This one is easy, because it is unlikely that this particular microaggression is going to occur anywhere other than a gender-reveal party or baby shower. It is less likely to escalate into an outright confrontation.

Others won’t be.

Discrimination Against Men

Do you know the song “No Scrubs” by TLC? Have you ever judged a man on how nice his car is, or rejected a man because he didn’t make enough money?

I know this song well enough I could probably sing it for you right now.

Do you know what it does to reduce a man’s whole worth to a paycheck? We imply that a man is not worthy of love, or even notice if he doesn’t have displays of wealth to assure us that we will be well-taken care of. It ends up seeming like no other redeeming quality is enough to overcome a man being poor, not strength, not intelligence, certainly not kindness (to be more kind than you are wealthy makes a man seem weak or effeminate-which is a whole other shitstorm of sexism and toxic masculinity that I don’t space for here). Some men will do whatever it takes to prove they have wealth as social currency that will give them access to love.

So think about what unemployment does. Not only are you dealing with all the hardships that poverty brings with it, you may feel you are danger of losing your partner’s love.

Think about what the recession did.

We know what it did.

My husband personally knows a man who retired and opened a bed and breakfast as it was his wife’s dream. The venture failed, and that failure was so unbearable he didn’t tell her. He couldn’t face her disappointment. Instead he took his own life.

We all perform microaggressions, and all groups are subject to them.

 

Discrimination Against Immigrants

Have you ever been in front of a sign, or been given instructions that are in both English and Spanish? I am certain you have. Have you said, “Why do we do this? Our country’s language is English. I feel like, if you move here you should learn our language.”

This is one I haven’t done, but you know why? Because even though I took Spanish for four years in high school, even completing an Advanced Placement Spanish course, if you made me rely solely on Spanish instructions I would be absolutely terrified. For a short window of time my husband worked for a company that considered transferring us to China. I have zero, ZERO experience with Mandarin. I would perceive anyone helping out by giving me some instructions in my own language to be a Godsend.

This conversation is one that gets out of hand very, very quickly – especially so if American-born bystanders do not say something. I have seen this escalate quickly into assertions that the immigrant person or population isn’t trying hard enough. That they are lazy.

Next the aggressor will insist that if only the immigrant person would try to assimilate more, or not speak their native language at home, that they could trust that the immigrant was hard-working and deserving of respect.

I want you to imagine my family, for a moment, suddenly moved to China. Imagine my kids being told that they need to abandon every toy or game or book or TV show that they are familiar with to be considered worthy of respect. Not only that, they shouldn’t even be speaking with me in English in our own house. How unsettling and unnerving would that be? How psychologically damaging would that be?

Next, I am told, that it is a matter a jobs being stolen. I’d like you to see post number 2, about discrimination towards men, to remember how dangerous loss of income is to our current gender roles. Now the aggressor is agitated and angry.

You have children chanting “Build a Wall” in school. You have anyone who looks or sounds like they come from another country being actively yelled at in the streets and told to leave the country. This is happening right now.

They are threatening mass deportation.

How is the immigrant sitting near you to know whether or not you will stop after saying “Why can’t everything be in English?” There are already thousands of people who have been actively threatened and told that they are lazy and good for nothing and need to leave the country.

And a president elect who has thrown on top of that that they might also be rapists, drug-dealers and terrorists.

Keep an ear out for this.

This is one where offering a different perspective to the microaggressor may possibly be useful. But only if you catch it early.

 

Sexism

My husband and I are able to run errands together on some weekdays when he is able to work from home. We stopped at the bank one day to get cash, and the male bank teller, seeing us divide the cash between us as we stood there decided to “joke” with me, “Oh so you’re getting your allowance, eh?”

I squinted my eyes and gave him a dangerous smile to hold back my tongue. A friend suggested that she would have said something, I told her I was too tired to argue with a bank clerk, and had just wanted to move on with my day. In case you are not getting why I was angry, and are confused what there was to say about this interaction, let me break it down.

This man made his “joke” based on the assumption that both my husband makes the money in our household (which is not incorrect, but he had zero way of knowing that that was true) and that any money I was allowed to use was granted to me by the charity of my husband. By using the word “allowance” the connotation of that word is clear-it is a word we most often use for children. He had implied that the financial access I am allowed to have in my relationship is that of a subservient child being given money for penny candy and whistles. I sucked my teeth and knew that he knows nothing about me. It’s about the same reaction I have when I see a sign in a shop saying, “Your husband called, he said you could buy whatever you want.”

Historically, and within the last century, women were expected to be subservient to the male head of the household. This is still the case in many conservative Christian households today. One of the ways that control was exerted over women was restricting their access to money. Money, specifically financial independence, was restricted because especially in the male world (see post 2 again) money equals power. This is why there was such a huge backlash against women going to work in the mid-twentieth century. Money gives you the ability to choose for yourself more often.

Women were not allowed to apply for credit cards without a male co-signer until 1974. 1974.

There was no such thing as even unpaid maternity leave (by federal mandate) until 1978, the year before I was born. By that point my mother had been working full time and was assured that her job would be there when she returned. Our maternity leave policies are still shoddy as hell, but again, that is another post. (As an aside, my mother was finally allowed to wear pants at work right about that time as well.)

If you are financially dependent on a male partner, you are dependent upon his goodness, his fairness and his beneficence for your well-being. And a lot of men are good and kind, even then you may bite your tongue more than you might have to avoid losing that.

A lot of men are not good and kind to the women in their lives. One current estimate states that in the United States of America, twenty people a minute are abused by an intimate partner. That amounts to 10 million women, and one in three women will experience physical violence in their lifetime.

Many women do not have the resources to leave, and one of the factors is that their abusers are controlling all of the finances.

On average more than three women are murdered by their husbands or partners every. single. day.

You many have made jokes like this before. The “joke” about getting my allowance was this man’s attempt to engage customers in friendly banter. I understand that. That’s why I didn’t say anything to him. But that doesn’t mean I would fully trust him if he were in my life on a more regular basis

 

Discrimination Against the LBGTQ Community

Two nights ago an author I admire for her loving and kindness and fierce belief that people deserve love (I’ve even gone to see her speak) just came out on social media as a woman now in a relationship with another woman.

I think what I said to my husband was, “Wow, I had no idea. That is so crazy. I wonder when that happened, when she realized.” I even got a text from a friend about it, seeing if I had heard. Because this author is a memoirist, we thought we knew her almost as if she were a family member and we were surprised.

Because heterosexual relationships are still considered the norm, the default setting. Anything different surprises us.

When Caitlyn Jenner told the world that she had always felt she was a woman and not a man, we thought, “Wow, I had no idea. I wonder when that happened, I mean when she realized.”

Because being cis-gendered (meaning your gender and sex seem to match-i.e. I was born female and consider myself a woman) is considered the norm. Anything different surprises us.

When the LBGTQ people in our life hear our surprise, they hold their breath. It takes enormous courage to present yourself as different from the cultural norm (changing those norms is something we need to work on, too). After getting over my surprise, in both instances, my next response was, “Good for her! It must have been difficult before now, and she seems so happy. That’s great!” The LBGTQ people in my life who have had to register my surprise may be relieved now, and willing to let the pain of me othering them pass.

It can go another way, though.

“Wow, I had no idea. That’s crazy. I wonder when that happened, when she realized.”

And if you find yourself having this conversation out of earshot of anyone in the LBGTQ community you may then hear this-

“Why would she do that?”

Why would she then choose to be in a relationship with another woman, why would she choose to live as a woman? The answer is almost always, because it would make them feel happier. It is my firm belief that people deserve to be happier. Some people stop there.

Some people start there. They say “Why would you choose to be gay?”

So first of all, you do not choose to be gay. You can argue with me all you want about this later, I don’t have time for it here. But you do not. Even if you could, who the hell cares? No one is being hurt. And if you claim they are, it’s almost as if you are telling me, “You chose to lie about your weight on your driver’s license, which is against a commandment. You also requested your husband that he hide your true weight as well, you are complicit in endangering his and your souls.”

Sometimes words like “unnatural” and “abomination” come out. The phrases “Against God’s laws” or “Against nature” come out. You have started to equate a person who is choosing to be happier in their lives by being with the person they love or being the person they were meant to be with either A) criminals (You know who else works against God’s laws? Murderers, rapists, thieves and liars) or B) freaks of nature (which is a goddamn loaded phrase in itself). You are being hateful to another human being who wants to peacefully love someone or be themselves. This is hateful and disgusting behavior.

Our vice-president elect made it legal for “Christians” to discriminate against the LBGTQ community in Indiana. (As an aside, the chapter of the bible that mentions anything about homosexuality also tells Christians that they shouldn’t eat bacon, wear polyester, cheat on their spouses, cut their facial hair or masturbate…so I’d say we’ve got a whole lot of hypocrisy going on here.)  I was baptized in the Catholic Church, attended Catholic school until I was 14, went to mass every Sunday until I was eighteen. The heart of Christianity is supposed to be loving your neighbor. Jesus didn’t say shit about treating them badly so they conform to what you expect them to be so that they can get into heaven.

And there are some people who do not stop there.

Words like “faggot” and “dyke” come out, dripping with disgust and venom and danger. They tell LBGTQ people that they will burn in hell.

Can you call to mind the yellow Star of Davids that Jewish men and women were forced to wear shortly before the Holocaust? Did you know that homosexual people wear forced to wear a pink triangle, identifying them as another population that Adolph Hitler considered “subhuman”?

They were killed.

For trying to be happier.

For being born different than some of the people around them.

 

Anti-Semitism

So right off the bat, I am going to let you know that wishing people a “Merry Christmas” is NOT considered a microaggression with most people of other faiths I have talked to. I am friends with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and I have yet to find anyone who really minds. You are feeling jolly, you are feeling happy, and you have a Christian holiday that has become almost secular that is making you want to address your fellow man. Awesome! You wish people Merry Christmas and Peace on Earth and a Happy New Year, go ahead. You are assuming that everyone celebrates Christmas, which is almost getting into microaggresion territory, but we aren’t quite there yet.

You know what is?

When you complain to whoever will listen, “Why do I have to say ‘Happy Holidays’?”

First of all, you don’t. No one is making you say “Happy Holidays”. It might be what your employer prefers when you greet a customer, rather than “Merry Christmas”, but you don’t have to acknowledge the winter holidays with anyone if you don’t want to. You can greet someone with “How about them Bears?” or “Can you believe this snow?” or just “Hi”. The only case I can even think of where banter is actually scripted out for cashiers is that at Chik-Fil-A, every time a customer says, “Thank you” the employee has to respond “It’s my pleasure.” Go ahead and try it. I’ll wait. At the very least, you have total freedom to say Merry Christmas outside of your 9-5 work hours.

Why does the phrase “Happy Holidays” make you so angry?

The phrase is simply intended to acknowledge that other faiths, including Judaism, are celebrating gift-giving holidays in a similar time-frame as Christmas. (By the way, Hanukkah is not considered the most important holiday in the Jewish faith.) This year Hanukkah begins on December 24th so there will be significant overlap. Many people will be shopping, trying to select the perfect gifts to see surprise and happiness on loved ones faces. We’re a little nicer waiting in department store lines together, bustling through malls. No one in infringing upon your rights to freedom of speech or your freedom of religion.

So why are you so frustrated?

At the happiest time of the year.

Some people begin to claim that there is a war on Christmas. There isn’t. If there is, then those fighting against it are armed only with one lone phrase “Happy Holidays” and are being buried under mountains of tinsel, ornaments and garland and losing. If there is a war, Christmas is aggressively winning, nutcrackers stationed at every corner.

Why you so mad about “Happy Holidays”?

If you answer, “Well, this is a Christian nation.” Ah, we are getting into the heart of it. You are feeling resentful that other religions are taking over your “Christian nation”. I hate to break it to you, but the founding fathers were hella secular. Enlightenment scholars believed in a god that invented the world, wound it up like a clock and then set it down to work all on its own. That isn’t Christianity. And religious freedom was literally built into the constitution, as America would be a haven for people facing religious persecution in other countries. Many of the original colonists came to North America for that reason.

You are scared that other religions are pushing yours out of the way. That there isn’t room for more than one. And you are pointedly upset that Jewish people, in particular, are getting recognition that you feel is undeserved. If that isn’t the case, if I am wrong, your upset at the phrase “Happy Holidays” is at best ludicrously illogical.

I am taking a deep breath here.

Jewish people are right now being targeted by the alt-right. Vocal Jewish writers are targeted on twitter right now, some have parenthesis around their names, as a signal to other alt-right members that these people deserve special harassment. A writer I know was sent death threats through twitter with a caricature of a Jewish person. She was called a filthy Jew for daring to speak up, for daring to show anger that she had been so threatened. Right now, this is happening. People are scrawling swastikas on walls. Jewish people are being threatened, right now in America. The land Albert Einstein fled to because the Holocaust was beginning across Europe.

The Holocaust.

Six million Jewish people were killed.

But, you may protest, that’s not me! I could never be a part of something so horrible, so obviously evil. Probably not. I’m betting my soul right now on the hope and belief that you could never be. Good.

But please examine why you are getting so mad over a simple greeting.

 

Discrimination Against Black People

You know how I said that microaggressions make other people feel unsafe in your presence? This is hard for me to write about, because to this day I still don’t know exactly what I did. It works in reverse as well – if people around you seem to be extra cautious, not letting their guard down around you, you have done something that made them feel unsafe. If you sense that happening, you need to figure out what you can do to demonstrate that the other person is safe with you and figure out what you did to lose their trust in the first place.

When I taught high school, one of my speech classes was ridiculously quiet. I had quite a few black students in this class, and they (and the entire class) were impeccably studious, hard-working, and eerily quiet. We didn’t joke around, we didn’t have great conversations. Assignments were accepted and completed with little interaction. Can I remind you that this was a Speech/Communications class? Silent diligence is not what is needed when you are trying to lead a class on effective ways of speaking. I wracked my brain knowing something was off, knowing that this class was not as effective, but unable to figure out what was wrong.

Midway through this one-semester class, a new black student joined us. Unfamiliar with whatever microaggression I had said or done early on, this student joked around with me. He would tease me, tell me about a TV character I reminded him of. I could practically hear the rest of the class holding their breath. And then I laughed. I joked back. I was so relieved to be able to be goofy with this class; him coming in gave us a breath of fresh air. He didn’t finish every assignment, sometimes he took us off-topic, but I genuinely liked him. And my classroom transformed. My other black students relaxed and began to joke around. They still did every assignment flawlessly, but they seemed to finally be able to enjoy themselves. They finally spoke up.

I had done something to make my students feel that they were not safe with me. That every misstep would be counted against them, that I would treat them severely.

I still don’t know what I did. But I know it had to have been something. People put their guards up to protect themselves, and their guards were up.

America is itself not a safe place for African-Americans.

Emmett Till was a black teenager from Chicago who had gone to visit his family in Mississippi. He was fourteen. He directly addressed a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, who was twenty-one. Some accounts say he flirted with her. Three days later her husband, and his half-brother abducted Till from his family’s home, beat him, mutilated him. They then shot him and sank his body in a river. It was recovered three days later.

This was in 1955. Only 61 years ago. Emmett’s other held an open-casket, public funeral to show the world what had happened to her son, which helped propel the Civil Rights Movement.

James Byrd Jr. was a black man born in Beaumont, TX who at the age of 49 was attacked by three men (two of whom were white supremacists) and dragged behind a truck for three miles, conscious for most of it, until his head and right arm were severed.

This was in 1998. Only 18 years ago.

Philando Castile was a black man from Minnesota, a well-liked cafeteria manager for the school district. He was pulled over with a broken taillight. As Castile had a licensed and registered firearm in the glove compartment in the car, he told the officer about it so that he was clear and transparent so that the officer would not become nervous. Officer Yanez immediately put his hand to his gun in its holster and told him not to pull it out. Castile said he wasn’t. His girlfriend and daughter were in the car. His girlfriend also told the officer that the gun was not coming out. Seconds later Yanez had pulled out his gun and shot Castile seven times. He was just convicted of manslaughter this week.

This was in 2016. This year.

And these are just a few of the deaths that have occurred in the last century and a half, since slavery was abolished. Which I feel insane having to reiterate, black people were owned, and sold and beaten and raped and considered property and not fully human.

Between 1868-1871 the KKK was involved in 400 lynchings. The Tuskegee Institute recorded 3,446 lynchings of blacks between 1882-1968. 840 people have been killed by police officers this year alone.

I had done something that made my students worry about me. They kept their heads down, kept their work above reproach, and stayed as submissive and compliant as they possibly could because they did not trust me, not fully. I am so grateful that that situation changed, that I did enough to make them feel safe and welcome that that changed. I am grateful that a twist of fate in the form of a teenaged boy who was not afraid to joke around with a white female authority figure happened to come along.

And now the Fraternal Order of Police has endorsed Donald Trump. And Donald Trump has just named a white supremacist as a chief strategist.

Jesus Christ.

 

Discrimination Against Asian-Americans

So today’s example is a microaggression that is heard across many different groups. It begins easily enough, as the question, “Where are you from?”

This question makes its way into small talk all the time. Whenever new people meet each other it seems to come up, and is seen as an entry point to having a discussion. On a tour of Denali National Park a family asked us where we were from and when we answered we found out their daughter lived near us. When we asked them, we found out that our husbands had worked in the exact same chemical plant in Tennessee and not only that the wife’s best friend had lived two doors down from us. Small world, we ended up having a lot to talk about. I’ve asked this question (after I got over my nervousness that maybe I was being rude) of new friends who had accented English to get to know them better.

The implication of the question, “Where are you from?” is that for whatever reason you are not from “here”. It is easy for tourists in Alaska to ask this question of each other, because we are on a tour bus through millions of acres of land that have only a few permanent residents all year. No one except the tour guide, is from “here”. When someone has accented English it is probably okay to guess that they were not born in a place where English was their first language, but I would still make sure that by tone of voice and politeness you make it clear that you are just interested in knowing another person better.

What happens in an interaction if you ask “Where are you from?” because in your eyes the other person looks “different enough” that they couldn’t possibly be from “here”. As I have been some scouring of the internet for articles written by POC (people of color) about microaggressions they face, for minority populations who are not first generation immigrants the question “Where are you from?” seems to disproportionately be addressed to Asian-Americans. By assuming that because of skin color or facial features that a person couldn’t possibly from “here” you are displaying that you have a very limited idea of who belongs “here”.

Sometimes the person being asked will respond, “Chicago”, “LA”, “Iowa”, “Houston” and then the two might discuss something specific to that town. The microaggression is over, and has turned into pleasant small talk. Sometimes, though, the next question is “No, really, where are you from?”

You have just negated the fact that they have identified as American, steam-rolled over the idea that their nationality matches yours and have determined that their answer was not good enough for you. You need to really know exactly what country their ancestors are from, for what reason? What will that information mean to you versus the indignity you forced on another person by not accepting the answer they gave you in the first place. You want to other them. I will tell you, I have never, not once in my life been pushed after answering “Chicago” to find out where my family was “really from” even though I come from Irish and Italian immigrants.

Three months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Executive Order 9066 was signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. This order directed the Secretary of War to create internment camps to essentially imprison Japanese-Americans indefinitely while World War Two was being fought, as a “security measure”. There was panic that Japanese-Americans (who identified as American and were questioned over and over again who they swore their allegiance to) were acting as spies and could enact acts of war on the mainland of the United States. 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry were evicted from their homes, losing everything they had worked their entire lives for, and imprisoned in internment camps across the country. The United States fought three world powers in World War 2 – Germany, Japan and Italy. German-Americans were not interred. And though Executive Order 9066 included provisions for Italian-Americans to be brought o internment camps, to my knowledge they were not. No one in my family ever explained how worried they were that they would lose everything and be sent away. None of them were.

And when asked about a Muslim registry, an advisor to the President-Elect told the world that there is legal precedent for doing these things when it comes to the security of the country-Executive Order 9066. Decent human beings understand how goddamn unacceptable it was that we imprisoned Japanese-Americans because of their ethnicity. This administration is looking backwards saying, “Hey, we did it before. No reason why we shouldn’t do it again.”

I am so angry it is hard to even explain.

 

Rape Culture

Have you ever tickled your kid, so that he or she is breathless and giggling and goofy? Probably, it’s one of the awesome parts of being a parent. Did you ever keep tickling them after they yelled out “Stop!” because they didn’t really want you to stop but the resistance became part of the game? Us, too, up until about six months ago.

This isn’t one I thought about too much until I remembered that once I was tickled (as an adult mind you) way past the point I felt comfortable with. If you haven’t been tickled in a while you may forget that at a certain point it kind of hurts, and even though you are laughing it is almost totally involuntary. When I said “Ok, I’ve had enough” it was taken as a challenge and I got scared, for real, because the other person was bigger and stronger than me and I was at that person’s mercy. Oh shit. We were making our kid feel unsafe, because we weren’t respecting his boundaries around who may do something to his body, and we were bigger and more powerful than him.

The other turning point in understand this microaggression came when this same kid would jokingly get in our face, or poke us, or what have you and when we said stop he refused to stop until we said it with such anger his feelings would become hurt.

By engaging in this activity we both made him feel helpless to establish boundaries about what may happen to his body, and demonstrated that he didn’t need to listen when other people told him to stop, because resistance was part of the game. Really, really horrible lessons to learn. We have since changed the game, so that every single party understands that as soon as another person says “stop” the game must stop. There is no discussion, no trying to get the other person to change their mind, no badgering, no pushing past the point of the other person saying “no”. Those words, “stop” and “no”, are inviolable.

We are now teaching our boys about consent in a covert way. That participation in an activity must be agreed upon by both parties, that the boundaries each participant sets up must be respected and that either person is fully within their rights to change their mind about participation at any time.

Our president-elect has been caught in audio describing how he violates the first rule of consent-he doesn’t bother finding out if the other person has any interest in participating in sexual activity-he just gropes or kisses. The woman who he might accost has exactly zero say in setting up boundaries, because she has been violated before she has any chance to. He sees the pleasure he may get out of violating a woman as far more important than her feelings of safety or well-being. That is fucking dangerous. Girls as young as ten have been grabbed by their genitals in school this last week. Our president-elect has made it clear that men’s sexual appetite takes precedent over any woman’s autonomy over her own body.

This is going to be incredibly hard to hear. One in four women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime. One in six men will be. We are not only raising children who have a high likelihood of being a victim of sexual abuse, but we are raising children who have a high likelihood of sexually abusing someone else. We would like to believe that just a few sick individuals are responsible for all of the rapes and molestations that occur in our country, sex offenders we can register and steer clear of. But that gives us a false sense of comfort. 90% of rape cases go unreported, meaning that at the most we are totally aware of only 10% of people who have assaulted someone.

We have a responsibility to protect our children from abuse. We also have an intense responsibility to make sure our children do not become abusers. The way sexual assault has been normalized, that the highest office in the land just went to a man who thinks he is entitled to grab whoever the hell he wants any time he wants, is disgusting. We are going to have to work extra hard to counter the rape culture that is now more prevalent and virulent than ever.

 

Islamophobia

This last post was the most difficult for me to write. With every other post I have had microaggressions at my fingertips, either because I have been guilty of using them or have had much first-hand experience of hearing them. I struggled with this one because, since 9/11, what I had heard directed towards people who are either culturally or religiously Muslim was either full respect or outright aggression. There did not seem to be any of the “soft” racism that comes with microaggression-there was nothing (I could see) that seemed almost undetectable at first but then escalated. Either the racism against Muslims was absent or fully formed. The day after 9/11 I was passed on the street (in Bloomington-Normal) by a pick-up truck full of white men yelling at me “Kill all the towelheads.” It was one of the most surprising and terrifying moments in my life. I had never been quite as afraid of another human being before then, at the age of twenty-two, and I wasn’t being targeted. They were attempting to recruit me to their hate. I was terrified that they may find more people to join them, and that someone with brown skin would be beaten beyond recognition within the hour.

I have heard the racist claims that Islam itself promotes terrorism over and over again. There is just aggression there, and fear, nothing small and almost ignorable. Based on this racist lie, the president-elect has drummed up more fear and panic and now has an advisor recommending that all Muslims be registered. Which was done in apartheid South Africa. Which was done in the United States with Japanese-Americans in WW2. Which was done to Jewish and gay and disabled people and other minorities in Hilter’s Germany before the Holocaust. This is aggression against another group of people on the largest scale possible.

Our local mosque had an open house just this last Saturday, and my neighbor and I attended with our children. I had never been in a mosque before last week. Meeting with so many of my Muslim neighbors was such an overwhelmingly positive experience I am hopeful that they will have more open houses in the future. Every person I met there was kind and welcoming. We watched a presentation where we were able to crack jokes together and learn. And as I type this, I am realizing that my description of this day is tailored towards the white people I know who would be surprised – surprised that my experience was positive and…normal. There are people I know who would be surprised that my experience was a good one. I’m repeating that so that I really understand what I am saying. That might be enough right there to show you how messed up this all is.

Because I had trouble figuring out how to find microaggressions against Muslims (although I just found my own example in that last paragraph) I asked Muslim friends of mine. My husband asked his Muslim friends. Some of our friends are religiously Muslim, perhaps wearing a hijab or regularly attending their mosque, some of our friends are culturally Muslim in the way that I am culturally Catholic, who don’t identify religiously as Muslim but it is woven into their background. One friend wished to focus on the good that people do and not focus on the negative things people are capable of, and I could very much understand that.

Another friend gave me more emphasis on a microaggression that I ended up using when speaking about discrimination against Asian-Americans, and a lead on microaggressions where the oblivious speaker assumes that the Muslim person is too “pious” to want to be included in seeing a movie with curse words, or to be invited to a party with drinking, or to be part of a feminist discussion about sex positivity because they dress modestly. I think all of these are excellent examples of othering, the person who has made assumptions about a Muslim person’s preferences and piety are preemptively excluding them from gatherings that are very “American” in nature. Muslim people are excluded from participating or even expressing whether they would want to or not. The more people are separated, the easier it becomes to believe that two groups do not have much in common, when they absolutely do.

A third friend sent my husband three examples of discrimination that he had experienced that had shaped him, that he thought about often. I would like to include his third example in its entirety, as it gives a thorough explanation of a microaggression he encountered recently, and that it is entirely likely that you may hear yourself:

“Another experience I had within the last year was with someone from work. A senior person who I was having the politics/religion/foreign policy conversation with at lunch. My views are fairly progressive, but I like to think that I really am fair and balanced. So, the topic of religion delved into where I saw the state of Islam today and what I identified as. I told him I was “culturally” Muslim, but was not practicing. My parents are inspired by their faith, but the values they taught me are the most important things to me. I would not be who I am, for better or worse, without the perfect blend of Eastern values at home and Western values outside of it. I talked a lot about the blame that Muslims carry for the current state of the religion around the world and in many cases not doing enough to stop the radicalization of their peers, while also recognizing the flip side of that where you have to acknowledge that it’s as easy to radicalize a person in rural Pakistan as it is to radicalize someone in rural West Virginia. So, my point was, this is a complex problem and there isn’t an easy answer. He selectively heard what he wanted to in the picture that I was painting and kept commending me for in his eyes for being “different” and “realizing that Islam isn’t compatible” with our lives in America in 2016. While I believe that literal interpretations of a book [The Quran] that’s more than a thousand years old does not directly translate to life in America, my views were not progressive because I was rejecting my faith. They were progressive because I was acknowledging that you have to break with status quo and think independently about faith. I had made a comment that in historical context, the Quran was actually the most progressive book to date. This is widely acknowledged by objective historians and scholars because of its views on women’s rights, rules of war, equality, slavery, etc. My position was that the problem with Islam and Muslims that prescribe to the strictest of interpretations was that they had taken something that was progressive 1400 years ago has not been brought along in the same spirit of progressivism in today’s world. THAT onus is on the practitioners, but is admittedly difficult when so many are influenced by state sponsored brain washing where dictators and monarchs want to keep their power and citizens don’t have the same benefits of free speech and media that we enjoy. What he took from all of that was that I was a “right kind of Muslim” in America and very subtly alluded to how big of a risk practicing Muslims were. This really irks me because it puts me in this category of being “okay” since I am not a practicing Muslim. Would he be sitting at lunch with me if I were a practicing Muslim or would he think differently of me as a whole if I was? My dad and I vehemently disagree with whether you have to pray five times a day and whether fasting during Ramadan really makes you closer to God. But, I am not better citizen than my dad. I am not less a “threat” than my dad. I am no better a man than my dad (obviously). I am no more entitled to a chance at anything than my dad.”

He experienced the microaggression that he was the “right” kind of Muslim. That there is a “wrong” kind, and that the “wrong” kind were those who practice the Islamic faith.

I would like to finish with a quote from this same piece of writing:

“While this subtle difference in the way I am treated doesn’t change my views, it makes me want to protect people’s freedom more than I would otherwise because I am aware of it.”

This is the heart of everything I have wanted to say. Being more aware of the subtle ways that different people are brought down, the subtle way microaggressions insinuate into our lives and can develop into more and more divisiveness and discrimination, I hope will make all of us more driven to help protect other people’s freedom.

This project began as a sort of very rudimentary primer for bystander intervention, and has had to shift and morph as more dangerous things have happened and have been suggested.

Please, keep your ears and eyes open. Question the mildly shitty things people say and do every day, including the things you say and do yourself. Recognize how deeply dangerous ideas run in our culture, and do your best to stem the tide of bigotry and hate. Say something whenever you can. Change how you yourself operate whenever you can. We can do this.

Thank you.

 

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