The Slow Crazy-Making Of Microaggressions

Have you ever thought you smelled gas or a burning smell but couldn’t find the source no matter how much you tore apart your home to find it? And because it’s something that could be life threatening, you keep smelling it – long after you’re mostly certain that you were imagining it? Only to later find out that there really was something wrong?

Last year, I was visiting a friend’s new home and I kept smelling gas in their kitchen and occasionally, outside their house. It got so bad that I finally mentioned something to them. I felt a little embarrassed, but hey, it’s gas. You don’t want there to be some type of explosion and you could’ve done something about it. I prefaced with the caveat that I could totally be making things up, but since it’s free to ask the gas company to come and check it out, no harm, no foul.

Turns out, there WAS a gas leak in their kitchen. I wasn’t crazy.

Or a few weeks ago, I kept smelling something burning in the house and after checking my stove and oven, and walking around my house sniffing, I couldn’t figure it out. A few hours later, my mother came by and called me downstairs. She said, “Your fireplace is on.”

Now, for those of you who haven’t been to my house, that seems super obvious – why didn’t I notice before? Well, the simple answer is this: I have a giant plastic kitchen that takes up the entire front of the fireplace. (I mean, when would I need to use the fireplace in CA? Also, easy baby-proofing!) It’s a gas-lit fireplace with a light-switch on/off and I have it taped down to “OFF.”

It turns out, Gamera had been randomly hitting light switches that morning and she had hit that switch so hard, it broke the tape and the fireplace was turned on, slowly melting my plastic kitchen. Hence, the burning smell.

TERRIFYING. And also, more importantly, I wasn’t crazy.

Or, have you ever forgotten your phone and although no one ever calls you, now that your phone isn’t in your possession, all of a sudden, every ringing phone is yours. Or worse than that, you constantly hear a phantom ringing phone?

Now, imagine this happens every day of your life. Randomly. Sometimes, it’s the smell of gas. Or you think you have tinnitus. Or you hear a constant drip of water. Or random whistling. Whatever drives you nuts because you can’t find the source and do anything about it.

And now, you think you’re crazy because you even hear or smell or see signs of the smell or leak or phone everywhere – even when there is legitimately nothing to worry about.

That, my friends, is a tiny example of what it is like for minorities (be it women, race, etc. – anything that is outside of the “norm”) as we experience microaggressions (unintentional discrimination). (A ridiculous term, but I get why there is a term. It just sounds so vapid.)

In many ways, I almost prefer blatant racism because that’s easy to point to. I mean, sure, I Hulk out, (confer that time I got “Ching Chang Chonged”), but ultimately, it’s almost comforting to experience something so tangible. Like, finally, I can point to something to illustrate what I’ve been feeling! (Although technically, people could categorize it as a microaggression as well. I didn’t find anything micro about it!)

But the problem with obvious racism is that it obscures the more mundane things that get to you. Plus, it allows people (including myself) to justify and feel better about themselves. After all, “I’m not burning crosses or calling people the N word! I can’t be racist!”

The problem with microaggressions is that they are hard to prove. The comments seem innocuous and are usually meant that way. But over time, they build up and pretty soon, it’s not just the comment itself that sets off a negative reaction. It’s ALL the comments you’ve ever received.

Like smelling the gas everywhere, after a time, you begin to imagine offenses and become overly sensitive. (Which is a horrible way to live because who wants to be offended all the time? Or to be known as an easily offended person?)

And then when some real shit happens, people think you’re overreacting again.

Trust me. No one wants to be the boy who cried wolf.

And the super annoying thing is that really, the microaggressions come out at random. There is no preparing for it.

Like you could be talking to someone totally fine and seems super cool and then, they come out with, “Where are you from? No, I mean, originally. No, before that. No, I mean, where are your parents from? No, before that.” And you’re like, “Do I fucking know you? Am I renting a house from you? Am I applying for a job and this is an interview that I was unaware of? WHY THE FUCK DO YOU NEED MY CREDIT HISTORY OR WHATEVER?”

Or perhaps you’re riding your bike on a trail and a woman coming from the opposite direction takes up the whole trail by herself and her dog and she doesn’t move out of your way even despite multiple warnings and when it causes you to brake suddenly or run over her fucking stupid dog and causes your bike chain to fall off and you to fall off your bike, she yells, “Go back to where you came from!”

What, Jersey? (True story that happened to my friend.)

After my post last week came out, I had my usual Mandarin playgroup at my house and pretty much every single woman there had a similar story. If you go to any gathering where there are minorities and someone brings this topic up, you will be overwhelmed with stories.

We are not imagining it. This shit happens. All. The. Time.

Here’s the thing, I’m pretty sure we all think or inadvertently say or do racist/sexist/whatever-ist things. That’s the danger of being human and living in a world that requires us to make snap judgments and sweeping generalizations on a daily basis. I get that. It doesn’t make us bad people.

However, how we choose to respond when other people who have been hurt by our comments or behavior inform us (sometimes, un-gently) that they have indeed been hurt or offended might.

Of course, we feel defensive and embarrassed and terribly gauche and misrepresented, but in the end, it doesn’t matter because it’s not about us. It is about the person we have hurt.

And what do we do when we hurt someone? We apologize sincerely for our actions. (Note: We do NOT apologize for them being offended. That is a non-apology and possibly even more infuriating than the original offense.)

I have more to say on this matter, but I’ll save it for another post. Suffice to say, it’s been something I’ve been thinking about for awhile (on Reality and how stating Reality is not a judgment on anyone but just a statement of facts) and I just haven’t had the time yet to give form to my inchoate thoughts.

May all your aggressions today be macro instead of micro. Oh wait, that was NOT the point of this post. At all.

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