I’m going to break with journalistic norms and write in the first person for this article. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to volunteer for Pride Charlotte as a peace keeper. My oldest daughter signed us up to volunteer for a three hour shift. Our job was to try to ensure that everyone attending the event had a good time and to redirect their attention to having fun when the protesters spewed anti-gay sentiments their way.
It’s hard to believe that it’s 2011 and so many people still direct so much hate toward people who are different than they are. Very early into our shift, a trio of young men arrived shouting bible verses and warning that people embracing or supporting any sexual lifestyle other than heterosexual were going to hell. Their comments became more inflammatory as the afternoon progressed. A group of us had been cordoning them off from the festival attendees for about an hour when a very large church group arrived, parading up and down the length of the festival streets and handing out anti-gay literature. One man invaded my personal space and became quite aggressive with me. On one street corner in the heart of the festival, this same church group, who claimed to be spreading the love of Jesus, erected two very inflammatory signs. I took photos of those signs, and one of them is shown in the photo at the left.
It was a windy day, so the photo is blurry, but if you click on the photo, you will be able to see a larger image of it in which you will be able to make out some extremely hateful sentiments written on the sign. The sign spews hate-filled language stating that homosexuals, Muslims, Hindus, sports nuts, Mormons and other groups are going to hell. Such strong language does not exactly fall into the category of “micro-aggression,” so why am I bringing it up in an article about the impact of micro-aggression? I’ll get to that.
Micro-aggressions are those little things we do and say to one another everyday without thinking, which we perceive as inconsequential, but can have devastating effects on the recipients of our words and actions, especially when they occur repeatedly over time. They wear away at a person’s spirit and self-worth, like a trickle of water wearing a deep groove in a rock. Most people that engage in micro-aggressions – which is virtually all of us – do it unconsciously or don’t intend to cause harm. Many are simply naïve or ignorant in the areas of social grace and empathy. A classic micro-aggression is a back-handed compliment in which the speaker truly believes he or she is being kind, such as one my grandmother said of the actor Will Smith: “He’s a nice looking young man for a colored man.” Blond jokes fall into the category of micro-aggression, as do jokes about “trailer trash” or comments like “I’m not racist but…,” or “you people,” and thousands more. For a better understanding of what micro-aggression is, you can visit the Microaggressions Project website.
An example of a micro-aggression I engaged in that I’m very ashamed of now had to do with sexual orientation. Years ago, I had bought tickets to a Melissa Etheridge concert, my birthday treat to myself. I was going to go to the concert with the man I was dating around that time, but we split up before the concert date and it would have been awkward to go together after that. What I should have done was invite one of my two best girlfriends, who was a huge Melissa Etheridge fan, but I didn’t. Why? Because even though I had no problem with anyone else’s sexual orientation, I knew Melissa Etheridge had a huge lesbian following and the concert would be attended by many lesbian couples, and I didn’t want to be seen at the concert with a female friend and have people think we were a couple, so I invited a male friend to go with me who had never even heard of Melissa Etheridge. That, my friends, is micro-aggression. A classic example of how we often claim to be accepting and supportive of others, but do and say little subtle things that belie those claims and chip away at someone else’s personhood.
Imagine how difficult it is to live in a world where you face these micro-aggressions everyday simply because you are dark skinned or gay or Muslim or overweight or fall into any number of other categories into which we group people. Since the tragedy of September 11, 2001 I have received many emails from friends and family that were meant to be funny and portray Muslims in a negative light or wish them harm or belittle them in some way. Muslim jokes seem to have surpassed ones like blond or “retard” jokes in popularity in our current society. But it’s all cruel. Close your eyes and think for a moment about a group or type of person about whom you have made numerous off-hand remarks or jokes, or was the subject of “funny” emails you forwarded. Which group do you seem to “joke” about the most or make back-handed compliments about? Blacks? Muslims? Gays? “Retards?” Men with “man boobs?” Immigrants? Now pretend you fall into one of those categories and think about how it would feel to go through life everyday hearing comments like, “You sound like a white person,” or “She’s overweight but she has a pretty face,” or “This is America and I shouldn’t have to press 1 for English,” or “His boobs are bigger than mine.” Pretty rough, huh?
So now that you have an idea of what micro-aggression is and how terribly damaging it can be, I want to re-direct your attention to the photo at the beginning of this article. Imagine not only dealing with a continuous onslaught of micro-aggression every day of your life, but having venomous hate-filled words vomited at you on a regular basis as well. Now take that a step further and imagine you are a fifteen year old boy who comes out as being gay and is bullied everyday with cruel words, maybe some physical aggression too, and is isolated and alone. Imagine that your friends will only talk to you outside of school so they won’t get bullied for associating with you. Imagine that your parents don’t accept your sexual orientation, and maybe even kick you out of your home, and you have no one in your corner.
We need to stand up for others when we see both overt and micro-aggression and start being more aware of how we show micro-aggression in our own speech and actions. I struggle with it every day, like anyone else, but I will keep trying to do better. In two days, I’m giving a presentation to my colleagues at the school in which I work about suicide prevention in schools. You can be sure that I will bring up this topic, given that LGBTQ is one of the most targeted groups of aggression and malicious words, especially in high school and middle school, and they have a significantly higher suicide rate than their non-LGBTQ peers, which is statistically related to the higher rates of bullying they receive. You can literally save lives by not participating in thoughtless micro-aggressions and speaking up and stepping up when you see it happen.