While revisiting my last post, I became aware of what is a common conundrum for people of color, Jews, Natives, those with disabilities, and other marginalized groups. How are we to tell what is a microaggression, and what is simply an eddy in the swirl of social interaction?
My brief conversation with Dr. Spitz took place in the midst of normal, post-lecture, chaos. There were demands for her attention from many directions, and I had interjected a topic about which she had no previous knowledge. It is clear to me that Dr. Spitz meant no harm, and, given the context, had the next person with whom I spoke not abruptly turned away, I would not have thought much about it. Only after the second experience did the first become meaningful.
It is through the accruing of experiences of microaggresion that one begins to feel deeply harmed. Under the force of repeated nicks and scratches, one may easily decide one is not sufficiently human to be taken seriously. I am only now beginning to understand the harm done, to me as a child and teenager, by careless disparagement of disability and Nativehood. I cannot fathom the experience of those who are constantly bombarded with such subtle acts of harm.
I wonder: how are we to distinguish everyday chaos from microaggressions? If most barbs and other acts of erasure are unintentional, what are we to make of them? Under what circumstances does one object? Can we address hurtful moments from a place that allows no tolerance for the harm, yet views the deliverer of blows from a place of compassion? After all, we all inadvertently hurt others.
We must, I believe, ask still another question. Is not one function of microaggression to make individual blows unaccountable, even invisible, in the great tumult of offenses? If so, how are we to hold others, and ourselves, responsible for harmful actions given we all make mistakes? When, to borrow from Freud, is distraction just a distraction? Perhaps the answer lies, at least partially, in whether we listen carefully to the experiences of others, and own the effects, intended or not, of our actions.
This being an election year, there are microaggressions at every turn. Many candidates run platforms filled with hatred and threatened harm, against a wide cast of “others”. We are told these statements are not hurtful, being the normal rhetoric of politics in the U.S.. The truth is, however, these acts of aggression are profoundly hurtful; they also are deeply rooted in the colonial history of our country. To ignore this, as politicians from across the political spectrum routinely do, is to pile harm on harm.
So how are we to navigate these treacherous waters.? (I wanted to add “uncharted,” then realized they are well charted and journeys through them historically do not end well.) I do not know, and I am curious to find out.
Do you have thoughts to share?