Lately I’ve been thinking about the commonalities between developing new friendships as an adult and the experience of dating. For a lot of reasons, “dating” isn’t on my radar these days. But, as my daughters are getting older and much more independent, I’ve found myself venturing out into the world in new ways; that includes noticing people with whom I might find friendship. I’m finding it’s a lot like dating.
A few minutes ago I wrote a quick but sort of long reply to a friend on Facebook. He’s a friend I’ve known online for almost twenty years. He’s quite progressive and was always on the same side as me in the heated debates of Usenet in the 90s. He replied to a link I shared in a way that disappointed me, though. I felt like this wasn’t the guy I knew, so I wanted to know more. I told him how I felt about his reply, and it came up that he dislikes the term “microaggressions” because people jump on him for apparently using them. As I said, I just replied to him. I like my reply a lot, so I’m going to share it here:
I think liberals who feel “woke” or that they’ve got some better and deeper understandings about racism, including their own racism are eager to share their new-found knowledge. I think they do this in different ways and for different reasons. (Gonna stop saying “I think” and assume you know it’s there.) In many cases, they’re so riled up with a passion to fix things that they jump on any situation that they now see as problematic and begin accusing.
Accusing, rather than mindfully discussing, does a couple things. It gives the accuser a feeling of power, like, I CAN DO SOMETHING! and it’s energizing. The accuser also gets to distance themselves from their own remaining racism. THAT person is still racist and I see it because I’m SO not racist!
I also think that microaggressions are so pervasive, insidious, and crazy-making (they are a lot like Gas Lighting, if you know that concept?) that accusing someone of using microaggressions probably isn’t all that helpful. They’re really slippery and hard to pin down.
What I’d do, if I saw someone doing something that felt like a microaggression to me (for me, it’s a feeling or intuition, not a factual thing) I might say something to them about how I felt and how I think the feeling came from those words or actions. I’d definitely not accuse or shame someone.
If the conversation went on and the context made it appropriate, I might talk about what “microaggression” means to me.
So, when your fellow liberals jump on you for doing something that seems extreme or ridiculous, I suspect it’s mostly about their own need to feel better and empowered. But, if you are disturbed by their accusations, I also suspect (as I said about your reaction to the linked article) there’s probably some uglier truth for you in the accusations. I don’t think anyone can make you want to dig into it unless you are curious.
And, finally, it’s an unfortunate problem (among many) that people who are trying so hard to make our communities more equitable are actually just kind of fucking things up even more. Giving a bad name to good information.
A good friend on Facebook is an activist for animal rights. Another spends her time fighting for the rights of trans* people. I also have friends who raise money for good causes, friends who focus their energy on their children, or use all their energy just getting through the day.
There isn’t time in the world to be an activist in every cause. We have to pick and choose where we spend our time.
Black and brown skinned people don’t get to choose whether or not racism affects them, but even they, to some degree, can choose how much time they dedicate to the “cause” of fixing our system.
I care about getting clean water to all the parts of the world where people are dying because they simply don’t have clean water. I care about stopping Apartheid in Palestine. Some issues spark my passion and some issues, like clean water and Palestinian rights, I have to put aside and say, someone else has to do that.
I was thinking this morning about how much #blacklivesmatter, #sayhername, and ending mass incarceration means to me. I wrote about realizing that people fighting global warming are also social justice activists. In that same vein, I want my friends to know that I recognize we choose our battles. I don’t judge you harshly for your apparent lack of interest. When we are watching our children play, or enjoying a potluck, or chit-chatting online, I enjoy you and your life with all of your varied choices.
I won’t be quiet about the issues that matter most to me, but I don’t expect you to make the choices I make. I respect your right to focus your energy in different places.
I believe everyone—and I mean everyone—does what they need to do to make the world a better place. Keeping lines of communication open feels more important to me these days than force feeding my beliefs into other people’s life choices. We are all in this together.
I don’t call it “real life,” I call it my “offline life.” The friendships I have with people I’ve known “only” online are Real.
The first thing I do when I wake up is look at my phone. Yes, yes, it’s not terribly mindful or spiritual, but it’s part of my routine. When I woke up yesterday morning, I had three emails. One from a college friend who I’ve only seen offline twice in the last 25 years. One from a friend and colleague here in Maine. And, one (a Starbucks gift card, no less) from a friend I’ve known “only” online for nearly 20 years.
Throughout the day, as Facebook told more people it was my birthday, there were notifications that Facebook friends had posted happy birthday wishes. In other online communities, I received birthday messages both light and heartfelt. My virtual mailboxes were overflowing with notes. It felt like I was receiving birthday cards like we might’ve received in the snail mail so many years ago. But back then, how many cards did we ever really receive? Certainly not more than 100, as I got in Facebook posts.
It’s easy to dismiss the “click and post” birthday wishes as shallow. They aren’t, though. For some they may be automatic, for some they may be deep, but in every case, as my 12 year old pointed out, “They don’t *have to* do it.” It felt like lovely attention sparkling across my electronic devices throughout the day.
Yesterday was perfect. My daughters started out the day right by letting me sleep in a bit (until my alarm). I got a pedicure (thanks, Mom and Dad!). I did a lot of modern day capitalist celebrating by spending money at “discounts.” I got a free drink at Starbucks, 20% off at Goodwill, and a free small cheese pizza (with a $5 purchase) at Portland House of Pizza. An offline friend took me out to lunch. My parents sang me happy birthday. I watched a movie with my daughters in the air conditioned room of our apartment. The three of us crammed into my (king sized) bed (we “crammed” because they don’t seem to know how to sleep with space between us) for an early bedtime.
The deeper friendships I have with online “only” people are just as real as those I have with people who I only know offline. There are still people, I know, who don’t understand the “virtual” relationships. I have to keep using “quotes” because the relationships are not virtual. They are Real, and I’m so grateful for them. Because of the online relationships I have, in all their forms, my offline day yesterday was richer.
Anyone who knows me well knows I’d be more likely than most to boldly, brazenly, even “rudely” object if I witnessed injustice. I don’t worry much about how I’m perceived, relatively speaking, when it comes to social justice. I act.
That said, reflecting on this powerful video, I’ve considered a few reasons why I haven’t spoken up in the past and why I might not in the future.
If you haven’t seen it, check out the video. The woman describes her experience being implicitly accused of trying to pass a bad check simply because she is Black. Her friend (sister-in-law? I forget), a woman who looks white, intercedes and appropriately shames the clerk into better behavior. There’s more to the story, and it’s worth watching.
As I said, on reflection, I’m not sure I will usually say something when I witness racism (or any other -ism). Here’s why:
The woman who stepped up and did the right thing was familiar (family, even) with the woman being mistreated. She knew her so the context was all the more absurd and wrong. This relates to #2.
While I consider fighting racism my business and our fight, the pride people take in “fighting their own battles” is quite strong. I’d be concerned that I’d seem condescending or patronizing if I said something to the clerk. I’d worry the other person might think I didn’t think they could handle things on their own.
If the situation were as “Black and white” as the experience shared in the video, I can tell you without a doubt that I would say something. In fact, that’s a big part of who I am. I risk rudeness when I see injustice. I don’t stay quiet. But, the truth is, the racism I witness (and I witness it a lot) boils down to a gut feeling. The nervous laughter and fumbling of a clerk who doesn’t know how to just be a person with another person and makes everyone involved uncomfortable. A receptionist who is mildly cold to a fellow patient. Or a dirty look that just screams bigotry but no words are exchanged.
That’s it. The racism I witness is almost exclusively of the “plausibly deniable” variety. It’s subtle, insidious, and evil. Standing up and doing the right thing is more complicated than the video above implies. I am not, in any way, condoning staying silent. In fact, if it weren’t for my concern that I might make the object of the racism uncomfortable by stepping in, I might very well get direct with a clerk for the shitty eye glares they give. Can you imagine it, thought? If it were my friend who was getting that cold awkward ugliness, and I knew they’d understand I was using my privilege for good, you can be sure I’d call the bigot out on their bullshit. But, a stranger? a subtle interaction? It’s not so simple.
I’ll be thinking about how to fight those plausibly deniable offenses for a long time. I’ll also be thinking with empathy about the people who don’t have the luxury of just thinking about the offenses, but have to live them every day of their lives.