Micro-agressions are being discussed a lot more these days. With the work of prominent national movements like #BlackLivesMatter, media outlets like Everyday Feminism, and many local anti-violence organizations, we are beginning to challenge oppression at every level.
One set of micro-aggressions that I encounter frequently is what I call dismissive micro-aggressions. This set of behaviors is rooted in the idea of respectability politics – a belief that we must act and react the way the oppressive class deems appropriate in order to be taken seriously. It doesn’t happen only from people with privilege though. People who have internalized their oppression perpetuate these ideas and participate in this behavior as well. It is one of the ways in which they adhere to respectability politics in an effort to be accepted by a society which ultimately benefits from their oppression.
Dismissive micro-aggressions include, but are not limited to, the following:
- “It’s just a joke.”
- “Lighten up. Don’t take everything so seriously.”
- “Why do you let things get to you so much?” or “You get offended too easily.”
- “There should be a straight pride parade.” or “I don’t get why there isn’t a white history month.” or “[Insert affirming event/policy/behavior/etc.] is really just reverse racism/sexism/[other form of oppression].”
- “Why can’t you just be normal? Isn’t that what you’re fighting for?” or anything else that reduces you to the only accepted stereotype of one of your identities.
- “I did [insert thing they should have done anyway to respect your basic dignity as a human being] when you [came out, didn’t have a support system, were being threatened for your identity, etc]. You shouldn’t be attacking me like this.”
- “You need to behave/speak/dress like [some arbitrary standard of the oppressive class] if you want to be taken seriously.”
- “Why are you acting like this? My other [insert oppressed social group] friend doesn’t care when I say/do that.” or “My [insert oppressed social group] friend gave me permission to say/do that. You’re just too sensitive/defensive/[other invalidating adjective].”
These statements say a number of things about the person on the receiving end: that our feelings and reactions to oppressive behaviors are invalid; that our lived experiences have less value than their ideas about our lived experiences; that we exaggerate or make-up our oppression; that we don’t have the right to call out oppression unless the perpetrator recognizes it as oppression; and that we are not to be taken seriously and/or valued unless we accept oppressive behaviors, among other things.
While understanding that this is an extremely complex issue, I hope this less abstract, hypothetical example will help to put things into perspective a little better:
You were born with a nervous system that registers physical pain more intensely than other people. Throughout your life, you have tried to play many sports because that’s what you were “supposed to do.” Now that you’re older, you avoid them because they cause you pain in ways that other people do not, and cannot, experience.
Now, your sibling is punching you in the leg. Understandably, you tell them to stop and that they are hurting you, to which they reply: “I was just playing, and I wasn’t even hitting you that hard. Don’t get so upset. I wouldn’t get hurt if you did that to me.” Meanwhile, not only does your sibling not experience pain in the same way you do, they have never even been punched in the leg.
With that example, albeit reductive and hypothetical, in mind, there are two important points I feel need to be made about dismissive micro-aggressions.
We Must be Confident and Celebrate Ourselves for Ourselves
One of the many ways that people justify dismissing us is by telling us that we are not confident in ourselves. If we were, they reason, we wouldn’t get offended so easily or take everything so seriously. Not only is this offensive in itself, it is completely invalidating. It reinforces the idea that we must behave according to their standards, and that our voices are not valid when we do not conform.
As complex human beings who often experience multiple systems of oppression simultaneously, we must come to a place where we are confident in our identities, bodies, and experiences – not for other people, but for ourselves. Despite the lies that are told about this, it is not an “on/off” switch – it is a lifelong task that we stumble through. It is a daily, and sometimes hourly, choice to love ourselves when we are told to hate ourselves. It takes many years to unlearn the oppression we have internalized, and even longer to heal from the trauma it has caused us.
This lie also reduces us to stereotypes, and does not take into account the incredible lives we have lived. No one has the same experiences, relates to their various identities the same way, has the same health care needs (including mental health, of course), has the same relationships with other people, or has the same support system. Every person is completely unique, and we should be treated that way.
As people who experience oppression(s), we must accept those experiences and parts of ourselves that are arbitrarily denigrated by society. More importantly, those parts of us are cause for celebration. We are unique, and we are forging our lives in spite of the hatred of individuals, communities, systems and ideologies. We exist against the will of the “normal,” and we deserve to feel secure the way people who fit (or rather, attempt to fit) society’s ever-changing definition of “normal” do.
Mocking the idea that we should celebrate ourselves is another way to dismiss the victory that oppressed people gain when we become and remain true to ourselves. This is something that people with privilege, and those who have internalized their oppression, do not understand. Their identities and experiences have been normalized and made the standard – a standard by which we are punished.
We are worthy of dignity and respect for the simple fact that we are human beings. There is no other qualifier for human rights. While many use violent ideologies to support contrary views, these rights and worth cannot be forfeited or stripped for any reason, especially not on the basis of identity. Doing so would be to claim that some human beings are inherently superior to others, while others are inherently inferior based on arbitrary factors; this sentiment has been used to commit the most abhorrent atrocities in the history of humankind.
The Problem and Its Effects
Dismissive micro-aggressions are not the most important form of oppression to fight against. I am in no way arguing that they are somehow more important than hate crimes, sexual assault, murder, or any other abhorrent crime. However, they are the form of oppression we most often experience. They are a problem because they come from a place of ignorance about our realities, whether that is willful or not. They are the symptoms of an underlying problem: an ignorance about the realities that oppressed people live, a lack of empathy for those experiences, and a belief that our experiences are unworthy of being considered as true.
The effects of this problem are manifold. They are the gateway to the extreme violence mentioned above, serving as a starting point for people to enforce norms on our voices, minds, and bodies. Despite what we are told, we cannot choose to simply “not engage” in offensive materials. These ever-present behaviors are the verbal, and at times physical, manifestation of our constant struggle to live our lives with dignity and respect. To ignore or disengage from these behaviors would be to disengage from reality, and to passively accept the hatred by which we are constantly confronted. This places us in a constant state of distress. Rather than disengaging from reality, we must constantly weigh the benefits of calling out oppression against the detriments it may cause us. We deserve better.
With that being said, it is important to recognize that none of us have the same combination of identities, bodies or experiences. Because we are complex beings, we have privilege in places where others are oppressed. This happens because of race, age, gender identity, ability, sexual orientation, religion, and a number of other factors that comprise our identities.
Being both oppressed people and allies, we cannot give in to the norm of dismissing micro-aggressions. This would compromise our dedication to living a live with dignity and respect because it compromises the ability for others to do the same. That is not to say that we are obligated to engage in every form of hatred that confronts us; that would leave us no time to live our lives. In the cases where safety, stability, or (mental) health are at risk when standing up to this behavior, it is imperative that we perform self-care – whatever that may look like.
This is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. It is so crucial to expose hatred when we can, build support networks, and create positive change. We cannot help ourselves if we do not confront these problems or attempt to understand the underlying factors that are creating these micro-aggressive symptoms. This is the burden and the benefit of being oppressed – we understand the harsh reality of power and privilege in the most personal sense.
Those who don’t live under multiple systems of oppression cannot understand the ways in which people have to navigate a discourse that was developed to benefit the privileged at the expense of the oppressed. The next time someone uses a dismissive micro-aggression, remember this: Your identities, body, and experiences are valid. You are worthy of dignity and respect. No one can take that away from you. You deserve better, and there are people just like you working to make sure that happens. I think that is worth celebrating.