Before I Literally Explode

Sorry, guys. This isn’t a very funny post, and there’s not going to be any images or videos, mostly because I’m writing it to get something off my chest before something seriously bad happens.

So my friend Mark Vigorito mentioned a story from Slate on Twitter earlier. Specifically, this story, titled “LGBT Microaggressions: Are We Making Mountains out of Molehills?”

The extent to which that story has sent me into a fury is unimaginable and so I’m going to break this down for you piece by piece, after the break.

Here’s the deal: I don’t want to go into a huge mass comm theory lesson but there’s an important concept here, particularly relevant to journalism and journalism-adjacent industries, that I want to talk about up front, and that’s “framing.”

Framing is about how the ways in which information is presented to us impact our perception of the topics and items the information is about. A good example of this is the work of one of my Ohio PhD colleagues, Melissa Hendricks, who did research on rural poverty in Ohio. She found that despite poverty in Ohio frequently being a white, rural phenomenon, newspapers in the state would often attach photos of poor people of color to the story. This metatextual element frames the issue of poverty for us in racial terms, terms that are not always an explicit, even match with the reality. If you’re interested, Melissa’s dissertation is freely available and discusses this topic (and representation of poverty) in considerably greater depth than this highly abbreviated paraphrasing I’m doing here.

Okay. Got that out of the way.

So here’s the first sentence of that story (emphasis mine):

Social-science researchers and social-media activists are currently obsessed with so-called “microaggressions,” the many small ways in which minorities are reminded of their inferiority by the dominant culture.

Yeah. So already, framing is at work here. “So-called” is shorthand for “I don’t think this is a thing.” Now before the angry letters start: YES, I know that a more denotative read of “so-called” is less rhetorically weighted, but I’m pretty confident in this read of it being used to establish skepticism, especially since the rest of the article makes it perfectly clear that this author doesn’t have a lot of respect for the idea of microaggressions in the first place.

There’s also the use of “obsessed,” a word that implies irrational behavior. Researchers and activists (who are already coded as “out there”) aren’t “interested in” or “examining” or even “enthusiastic about” this topic: they are obsessed. So again, this very first sentence frames the topic in derisive, skeptical terms. Apparently some people care about microaggressions, but probably nobody rational.

Let’s move on.

The author then goes on to talk about this Buzzfeed list of “19 LGBT Microaggressions You Hear on a Daily Basis,” a list about which they have this to say (again, emphases are mine):

The offenses run the gamut from the overtly rude (for example, asking a lesbian “Have you ever had REAL sex?”), to innocent mistakes (like addressing an androgynous-looking person with the “wrong” pronoun), or questions that casually assume heterosexuality (such as, “Where are your wife and kids?”).

That’s where the concept starts to get a little problematic. By placing so many different behaviors into the same category, researchers like Nadal intentionally attempt to blur the lines between overt homophobia, unintentional awkwardness, and even well-meaning but misguided attempts to be supportive. All these behaviors may occasionally make some LGBTQ people feel uncomfortable, and all of them may reinforce the dominant assumption that straightness and gender conformity is “normal” and being queer is “abnormal,” but some come from our enemies and others from our allies or potential allies. (Or perhaps even from curious or closeted LGBTQ people. Both times I’ve been asked “How do lesbians have sex?” the answer has eventually led to a personal demonstration of some of the key concepts.)

Okay. This is where I started to get upset. (Framing!)

So I am generally speaking sympathetic to the idea that the implicit stigmatizing of things on the  list — like the recent indictments of callout culture — might represent taking too-aggressive actions against people who might be making mistakes or acting out of ignorance. But if that was the core idea, I feel like it was really not well conveyed by this paragraph. Instead it reads like this: “Whoa, hold on. Let’s remember that sometimes the people who do these things are our allies!”

Okay. That’s true. Sometimes they are. And if they’re good allies, they’ll understand when we tell them, “This thing you did hurt.” Because the definition of being an ally is someone who is fundamentally concerned about other people. So I’m actually not too worried about making allies uncomfortable, because I know that a moment of discomfort — “Hey, I actually prefer to be referred to as [x]” or “It actually kinda hurts when you say that” — will be the ounce of prevention that forestalls the pound of cure.

More to the point, I want to point out one of those examples that’s framed as an “innocent mistake” — misgendering — as really underselling the potential harm that can do to someone who’s trans*, or genderqueer, or non-binary, or any of a really wide range of queer identities where that might be an issue. It seems to assume that misgendering is always a mistake, rather than an oft-used passive-aggressive shaming tactic. It also subtly elides the problematic erasure of trans* people from “LGBT” public narrative. Never mind that androgyny is not carte blanche for people to misgender you.

I don’t feel like I need to strongly critique the “don’t drive away potential allies by stigmatizing demonstrably offensive behavior” position, because that ship just flat-out does not sail.

Moving on.

This follows with the author’s major problem with not necessarily microaggressions, but certainly what “those researchers” are doing with their work on the topic. Again, emphasis mine (and a quote in the middle of these two paragraphs from Kevin Nadal is omitted):

Lumping supporters and detractors together wouldn’t be so bad if it were simply a recognition that homophobia can be transmitted in subtle ways as well as in more obvious ones —but the researchers’ work seems to converge on the same prescription for the problem: educating the privileged majority out of saying anything that calls attention to the differences between sexual minorities and themselves, or to the incontrovertible (but apparently very hurtful) fact of their smaller numbers within the larger culture. In the BuzzFeed listicle, for instance, Nadal says: [quote omitted]

In other words, the remedy here is to tell people that their mistakes, awkwardness, and questions are inappropriate and will cause lasting damage to fragile, easily offended members of sexual- or gender-based minorities. Worse, because the act of policing oneself so strictly is likely to make people feel more self-conscious, and because awkwardness around LGBTQ people can itself be considered a microaggression, it’s hard to see any good way for straight supporters to extract themselves from this bear trap.

Okay. I’ve tried not to be too snarky here because I want to give the article credit, and deconstruct it rationally, but I’ve got to ask: what?

For starters, this section appears to believe that researchers on microaggression are advocating for a turn toward early/mid-90s “political correctness” identity politics, where everyone avoids saying anything at all because they’re terrified of the backlash (oh, and of hurting people, I guess). I don’t know Kevin Nadal, but I am willing to stake my reputation that it’s not what he wants at all. The author starts the article with links to various research on this subject that forms, I presume, the backbone of this “the researchers want us to shut up” argument and frankly, having read what was linked, I think that’s a gross misread of the material, most of which says “This is an empirically demonstrable problem we need to address” although there is one blog that encourages people to stop saying “That’s so gay.” Quel horreur.

As for that second paragraph: uh, no, that’s not it at all. The idea that people being uncomfortable around LGBTQ persons is going to make us uncomfortable and be read as microaggressive has this tiny kernel of sense that I can get behind, somewhat. I do think when non-queer people don’t know how to act around a queer person, it can make things super awkward, because it makes the queer person hyper-conscious that it is them that’s making things weird, instead of refocusing on the straight person not having some education on how to act around queer people. It is a victim-blaming logic (and we’ll get back to this with regards to this article, believe me), however, and not useful for making change happen. Clamming up and never saying anything you think might be harmful isn’t the answer.

More to the point, that pargraph has the problematic implication that you have two options: be your naturally offending self, or never say anything ever. It doesn’t allow for education, for learning about queer lives and identities and developing strategies for dealing with them socially as you would with any other group that’s different from you in some way. Instead it’s “offend by accident or never talk.” That’s hopelessly restrictive, reductive, and not terribly useful at all. I dunno that I’m a sociologist in the way that this author might want, but I do work in the domain of sociology, and I can tell you “shut up so you don’t offend” is not a good social change strategy. If anything, all that does is amplify tension because it makes the people suddenly forced to silence themselves resentful of the people who they perceive have deprived them of their right to speak, c.f. MRAs/misandry types.

It is in fact possible to deploy empathy, to consider how your actions might hurt another, and to — surprise! — tailor your social actions in a given situation so that they maximize sociability and minimize potential harm to others. That is what being a social human being with any amount of empathy at all even means. It doesn’t mean “heavily police yourself and then sulk about it later.”

However, all of this — while frustrating — pales in comparison to the last paragraph, the discussion of which will involve me shedding all of my calm rationality. Emphasis mine, obviously:

Luckily, the research itself provides hints of a second way. Recent work by Michael Woodford suggests that self-esteem can act as a protective mechanism from the harm usually experienced by being subjected to microaggressions. This makes intuitive sense. A confident, comfortably out LGBTQ individual is unlikely to experience much stress from being the object of honest curiosity or innocent mistakes. Such a person, backed by a robust, queer-friendly social network and having a secure sense of themselves both within the queer community and the culture at large, could perhaps even be expected to gently correct misapprehensions and answer genuine curiosity without being crippled by the recognition that they are somewhat different from the norm. By contrast, a person who is keenly aware of every potential slight or inadvertent error, one who is insecure in their identity and has internalized the idea that there is something wrong with them, will be much more damaged by day-to-day interactions with a dominant culture that regularly displays its ignorance about sexual- and gender-based minorities.

NOPE. Nope nope nope. Not buying it. This “said from a position of security,” shaming, victim-blaming bullshit is wrong on so many levels I can’t even begin to count them. But what the hell, let’s try:

  1. Of course confidence and good self-esteem can soften the impact of being a queer person in a straight world. Here’s the problem: microaggressive behavior is a constant, unseen, battering assault on our self-esteem. How do you propose queer people get to being this “confident, comfortably out LGBTQ individual” in the face of a constant, constant, and I mean constant barrage on your feelings of self-worth? What the actual fuck!
  2. Never mind the fact that this conflation of “confident” and “out” seems not just specious, but shaming. Being out is hard, and for the record, being “out” is a thing we do as much for straight people as it is for ourselves. It’s so they know how to react to us. Think about that for a minute. Also: yeah, we’ve made great strides on making the United States safer for queer people, even in my 35 years (19 of which I’ve spent out). That’s awesome. But let’s flash back to my teenage years, circa 1994-ish. I wonder how hard it is for someone to be “confident” and “comfortably out” when they’re surrounded by people driving home the message that queer = bad/undesirable/worthy of violence every goddamned day of their livesIt is not just unbelievable but UNFORGIVABLE to not consider that. Being out has costs. Some people have the resources to pay them. Some people don’t.
  3. Nobody, and I mean nobody, should be expected to be the newsletter. I am pretty sure every queer person has, at some point, been the newsletter, and by this I mean, the single queer person their straight friends know who is then subject to all their uncomfortable, probing, sometimes well-meaning questions about being queer. I have answered more questions about male/male oral/anal sex in my lifetime to sniggering bros than I care to count and you know, I probably should have told those people to go fuck themselves. Like, if you are comfortable being the newsletter — if you’re fine answering questions, being a touchstone, educating others — that’s fine. But it should never, ever be an expectation. When we expect it of others based on their ethnicity or their gender or their disability, it’s icky then too.

And here, I think, we get to the heart of it: this article was clearly written by someone in a position of relative privilege, someone who is (and I am inferring only from the writing of the article and might be wrong) “a confident, comfortably out” individual. And that’s great! I’m happy that this author is in a place of happiness and security.
Here’s the deal, though: conceptually microaggressions and privilege go hand in hand because they are generally speaking invisible to the people who have or perpetuate them. This article — especially that final paragraph, which I’m not even going to quote — strikes a very loud “Stop being so sensitive!” chord.

If you know me at all, you know that “stop being so sensitive” is towards the top of my list of offenses, because it is a statement that totally and utterly invalidates the listener/victim’s experience. It is a sentence that says “this is all in your head” or “this isn’t really a thing” or perhaps worst, “you don’t have the right to be hurt by this.” That is nonsense and I refuse, refuse, to accept it.

I’m pretty lucky in many ways. For all the personal hurt that being gay has brought me over the years — from queer and non-queer people alike — it hasn’t ever really stood in my way professionally. I live in Massachusetts where, if I had a man I wanted to marry, I could. That’s pretty great. I’m really fortunate, really privileged. But that means it behooves me all the more to consider people who don’t have those advantages and how what I say, do, or espouse could hurt them.

This article, instead, demands that everyone act as if success has already been achieved and privilege evenly distributed; it asks us all to just shut up about these constant, harmful, invisible-to-the-speaker acts of violence against us in the name of not hurting “potential allies” who might be doing them. I don’t accept that, at all. It’s hurtful, it’s wrong-headed, and it is literally moving us backwards from the progress we’ve fought so hard for all these years.

That’s not just ignoble: it’s a damn crime.

(Poster image by Rick Hobson used under Creative Commons 2.0)


4 Comments

  1. Daniel Hadley March 11, 2014 9:48 pm  Reply

    Great piece. As an out, gay, cisgender white male I fall into that privileged category more so than many of our queer counterparts, and I had never really stepped back to consider that what I found comfortable as an activist, explaining gay sex or how a gay relationship works (i.e. the “who’s the woman” question), could be very, very awkward to someone with a different history.

    I have a blue collar job, and many of the people I work around will at times slip over a “that’s so gay” phrase or worse. Once, a woman who I’d been working with closely for several weeks and was on good terms with let slip the word “faggot” in reference to another person. I was shocked and called her out on it, to which she apologized but that she was “used” to saying it. This was a beautiful black woman of color, and to hear her use that excuse shocked me more than the slip itself for reasons that I thought would be more evident to her.

    I feel that that is what the author of the article you’re critiquing is trying to justify, to excuse the general populous from being held accountable when microaggressions occur simply because the general culture is “used” to a certain norm. It is the excuse coworkers have used around me when a “that’s gay” phrase is used, a phrase I advocated strongly against since high school. I don’t scream Bloody Mary, but I’m inclined to say something because I have that experience in advocacy. To flip the script though and put a closeted or shyer queer individual in that position… I understand how that barrage becomes degrading.

    So what should happen when a microaggression occurs, is there anything that can be done when something slips around someone who isn’t inclined to speak out? It’s not their responsibility, I understand. So is it ours, the more privileged, to say something when a microaggression slips so that the (assumably) heteronormative person has the chance to adjust their behavior before they slip again around someone who has not yet reached that level of support or confidence to speak out? I feel like that can cause other problems, like a gay person assuming they can comment on a trans* person’s experience, so situations like that have frequently been a miasma of political correctness and cultural sensitivity that have never clearly sorted themselves out in my mind.

    Anyways, thanks again for the read, happy to have finally found your blog!

  2. Gregory Scott Sanders March 12, 2014 9:59 am  Reply

    An excellent and well deserved shredding.

    Showing my political science biases, I also think this author completely misses the boat.

    I understand the appeal of self-confidence, it is something that is notionally under individual control. But by and large, that isn’t the path to privilege. Getting microaggressions reclassified from against political correctness to being against manners or common sense tends to be a result of successful organization by people with similar concerns.

    This suggests that the microaggressions to focus on are those of most concern to those you’re trying to organize. (There’s also coalition management issues, but one topic at a time). Sometimes this will be trifling things that are easy to fix, sometimes it will be bigger things that will result in real push back. Either way, the job of organizers is to figure out what people are going to fight for, not to develop some criteria of importance and intention and rank microaggressions on that scale. The author doesn’t make the case in the slightest that the choices being made are not ones of importance to the relevant communities.

  3. James DiGioia March 12, 2014 3:12 pm  Reply

    As someone who started the article in a fury, this is actually a very well articulated and written article. Well done.

  4. prune March 13, 2014 6:04 am  Reply

    This is a really important, well-written piece, and it makes me so happy that you managed to deconstruct all of the awfulness of Vanessa’s arguments. Thank you!

    On your paragraph about empathy. For some folks who don’t have strong emotional reactions to anything, or just find it hard to empathize in general because of how their brains are wired, I think rationality also offers a path to the same conclusions and commitment to personal change. For example: “this thing I do is hurting people unnecessarily and unfairly”, “hurting people unnecessarily and unfairly is immoral”, “it wouldn’t take me much effort to change this thing I’m doing” “therefore I’ll work to change this thing”.

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