A million microaggressions

I’d never heard the word “microaggressions” before I started learning about feminism, and to be honest at first I thought it was, I don’t know, too sensitive? What did it really mean? Wasn’t something either aggressive, or not? Unfortunately, aggression isn’t always as obvious as we think it is. 

~TW for discussions of sexual abuse and assault~

People who call out violent, sexist, racist, or classist behaviours are often labeled as ‘too sensitive’ – like that’s something to be ashamed of. It’s not. Being sensitive means you’re aware of the harm that your and other people’s behaviour can cause. It’s an attribute, not a sin.

  • a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority
  • indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.

The scary thing about becoming more sensitive and more aware, is you start to realise just how much harm is being done around you. And you may also realise how much harm has been done to you in the past.

I don’t know how many times I’ve said something about a thing that’s happened to me to a friend, and she’s gone “Oh, my god. Me too. I thought it was ok, though.”

It wasn’t ok, though.

As women we are absolutely socialised to accept many behaviours that in fact constitute sexual harassment, abuse, or assault. In lots of cases we’re even encouraged to celebrate them. “They yelled at you out of a car? What are you complaining about, it’s a compliment!” “He followed you down the street so you had to pretend to go into a house to get away? He was pretty keen, eh!” “He wouldn’t stop doing x even when you said no? Wow, he really wanted you!”

Often, the behaviours are a lot more subtle than that. And the only real indicator that something is wrong is the fact that it makes you feel creepy, or gross. And because we’re socialised to accept these things, we blame ourselves for that feeling.

As it says in the definition above, we’re talking about things that will easily slip past the radar. For example, several years ago when I was working for a government department, I had a professional review. My boss spent several minutes of that review talking about my appearance and how I “dressed well,” and how that would stand me in good stead for getting a promotion.

At the time, I was flattered. I put effort into my appearance and I was glad to have it noticed.

It wasn’t until much later that I realised that whole thing made me feel really uncomfortable, and I became aware that it was very unlikely that my boss was sitting down with any of my male colleagues to review their work, and instead reviewing their appearance.

In the same vein, I’ve had male friends tell me I get work “because you’re pretty/cute/attractive.”

Again, my first instinct is to feel complimented – until I realise what they’re actually saying is my achievements are not based on my professional merits, but simply because I’m a woman. That’s pretty bloody insulting.

I’ve had men pressure me into going home with them on the basis they bought me a drink – so I owe them. I’ve had them make a similar argument about sex. I’ve lost count of the number of women who have told me they’ve had sex many times when they didn’t want to, because they thought they had to. Because they’d already gone home with the person. Because it was their boyfriend and so it was OK. Because if they’d said no, there would have been an argument or other, more subtle repercussions.

This isn’t necessarily rape – I absolutely don’t want to make a call on that, that’s up to the individual – but it doesn’t exactly sound consensual, either. I’m calling this a microaggression even though it’s beyond that, simply because I think it’s an area where women so often don’t realise something bad is happening until much later. So much media will have us believe that women “don’t really want sex as much as men” and therefore have to be cajoled into it. And so then when that happens, women think, oh, well this is just a normal interaction.

It’s not.

Historic sexual abuse can be a very very difficult thing to get your head around. Especially when you blame yourself for not realising or saying no at the time. At this point all I can do is validate that it was not your fault, and suggest that if you feel like this is something you want to work through, maybe see a counsellor or psychotherapist.

I’ve talked a lot about gender here, but I also want to acknowledge that microaggression plays a huge part in the lives of people of colour, and people with disabilities. I can only speak to the second one.

I don’t feel like I’ve been actively discriminated against because of my disability – but I suspect I’ve missed out on job opportunities because of it. I’ve definitely missed out on social opportunities – and that’s ok, for me. I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt to not get invited to things – it does – but I also acknowledge that my friends would never deliberately do that. In fact, often they’re doing me a favour, because they know I’ll feel guilty if I get an invite and I can’t go.

One of the things I’ll note that happens a lot is the assumption that because I look well, I am well. That because I have a healthy body on the outside, I’ll be able to do everything a healthy 30-year-old does. That plays out into microaggressions like people walking way too fast for me to keep up. Or not helping me with heavy bags, that sort of thing.

These are tiny in comparison to some of the other things I’ve spoken about, and again I don’t think any of my friends do them deliberately. But what it does is make the world feel hostile.

I think that could be another definition of microaggression. An act, no matter how small or subtle or unintentional, that makes the world feel hostile to you.

I think all of us experience those. And the more we’re aware of it – the more ‘sensitive’ we are – the better people we can be. And maybe that can make the world a better place.