There has been plenty written about microaggressions and how they can add up. Most of us have at least heard of code-switching and what a toll it can take on a person. When I was in college, i got asked all the time where I was from. Since I was a bitch, I would say with a straight face, Minnesota and wait for the following question. “No, I mean where are you really from?” Normally I would say something along the lines of, “My ancestors are from Taiwan” and that was usually enough to get people to shut the fuck up. Once in a while, someone would continue with something even more insensitive such as, “My adopted daughter is Korean.” Ok. Well. What am I supposed to do with that? There are so many levels wrong with that. First of all, I’m not Korean. Secondly, even if I were, it wouldn’t mean I’d have an instant connection to all Korean people. I’ve had people ask if I knew this other Taiwanese person they know, which is also grating. It shows that I’m a category, not a person to them.
I’ve had well-meaning white people ask me why that’s so frustrating. Or saying that people are just being curious. I hate that because it’ll take too long to explain the whole background of being a minority in an overwhelmingly white state and it’s why so many minorities don’t want to do Racism 101. (Or women and Sexism 101, etc.). It really does boil down to trust me after a lifetime of living as me, I know the intent of people doing this kind of shit. I don’t think they’re being malicious, but it’s ignorance and it’s intrusive. Also, when you have it happen over and over again, it’s a not-so-subtle hint that I’m viewed as an outsider.
That, by the way, is another microagression–people constantly questioning what you experienced as real. That’s the cultural gaslighting I mentioned in the title and it’s exhausting. “Are you sure that’s what happened? Maybe that person you thought mistreated you because you’re Asian was actually just having a bad day!” It’s as if the person who actually has the experience is considered biased BECAUSE they’ve had the experiences so often. You see it all over the place, such as in trials. If you’re black (as a potential jurist), it’s assumed that you can’t possibly be neutral if it’s a case involving a black victim. Same with women and sex crimes. Or, in a more common phenomenon, a man is described as being creepy and so many people, mostly men, fall over themselves to explain why he’s just misunderstood.
Here’s the thing. Most female-presenting people have had a lifetime of experiences with creeps. Most of us know when someone is being a creep and when he (and it’s usually a he) is simply clueless. One major clue is does he act that way to all people or just people he wants to bonk? If it’s the former, then it’s cluelessness/social awkwardness. If it’s the latter, he’s a creep. And since it’s sanctioned by society in general as ‘boys will be boys’, ‘he only teases you because he likes you’, and other such bullshit, so most women are highly adept at how to circumvent the creeper or to minimize the damage he does. Example. When Jian Ghomeshi posted that really weird Facebook post about how something was going to be said by his ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ and blah, blah, blah, but didn’t actually say anything, I immediately said to Ian, “He did it. I don’t know what it is, but he did it.”
Ian asked me how I knew and I explained how the careful language about misunderstanding and ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ set me off. Men rarely invoke the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ unless they were trying to discredit the woman–which meant there was a legit complaint from said woman. In addition, the fact that he got out ahead of it and went on the offensive was another red flag in my mind, especially as he was so careful not to actually say anything. But, really, that was what I came with upon reflection. I was so attuned to this bullshit that it was automatic at that point. When it had turned out that he had, indeed, done the thing (and so much more), it was also revealed that this was a known fact about him. When he was in college, the RAs told the women to stay away from him. CBC knew about it and covered it up because he was their big star, which is sadly too common.
This is also part of the cultural gaslighting that I mentioned in the title–everyone around him knew he was a predator, but those who were in power, ignored it or covered it up. They enabled him to continue his appalling behavior, which is yet another common refrain in situations like this. The women who experience the assault are made to feel as if they’re crazy because no one will believe what happened. Look at Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Roger Ailes. Or Matt Lauer. Or the last president. Decades of terrible behavior that was actively enabled by those around them. Let me toss Charlie Rose onto that list. Kevin Spacey, too. I’ll stop because I’m going to enrage myself even more with each additional name.
But, my main point is not about the big weighty stuff like sexual assault. It’s about the smaller shit that adds up to a big pile of exhaustion. When you’re in the minority as it pertains to social norms, you have a choice whether to engage as your true self or put on a front of varying degrees. We all have to tidy ourselves up to interact with other people, but it’s a question of how much you have to do in order to be presentable. This comes up often on Ask A Manager and the answers are wildly divergent. It’s an interesting microcosm of society in general. The commenters are vastly white women who are highly-educated, well-paid, and left-leaning. Whenever this kind of question comes up (how much you should conform to your workplace norms), there are always those who will say that everyone has to give up parts of their ‘whole selves’ in order to work. They’re not wrong, but it’s not the point.
When I used to work in an office, there were so many landmines I had to navigate. Again, I’m not talking about the big issues, though those were there, too (gender, race, sexuality, procreation status), but the smaller stuff. Here’s a silly example. I hate the heat. Anything over 70 is too hot for me. You’d think in Minnesota, this would be just fine and it wsa when I was a kid, but in the last decade or so, finding people who will admit to liking the cold is increasingly rare. And, since it’s Minnesota, the weather is always the first topic of conversation. Griping about the winter. Wishing it weren’t winter. Being excited during the first days of spring. Dreading the last days of autumn. I used to say that I wasn’t looking forward to spring or that I liked winter, which I thought was pretty mild. But, it made things awkward and because it’s just a social lubricant, I stopped. “Spring’s coming soon! Isn’t that great?” now gets, “Yup, spring definitely will be here soon.”
Again, that’s a very silly example, but it’s an important part of my health. But, it’s not something I can bust out without making it seem like I’m being negative or precious. That’s what happens when you go against the grain. You have to assess the situation and see if you want to rock the boat or just go along to get along. Other examples, I don’t like most television or movies. You can imagine how well that goes over with most people. I really don’t like superhero movies or sit-coms in particular. I hated the one episode of Game of Thrones I saw–which, to be fair, was the Red Wedding. That’s a hard episode as the first one to watch of a TV series. The same thing happened with Breaking Bad— I saw the penultimate episode and was immediately turned off. I don’t think it would have been different if I saw tamer episodes first, though. I just had no interest in those shows.
The results of me constantly hiding who I really am is that I feel like I’m allowed to exist on sufferance. If I let the mask (not that one) slip at all, I could get kicked out of society. I’m fortunate in that I have friends who accept me as I am, but I know that finding such people is exceedingly rare.