Old Man Young Rants

Inside: Old man yells at cloud

I don’t believe in microaggressions.

oldWe live in a time and culture where everyone can have a voice, which is wonderful. Great. We have access to instant information, facts, and each other’s thoughts about them. All of the information. All of it. We live in a time and culture where we select the information and facts we want to hear and believe. We abuse this gift of knowledge and connection by using it to self-affirm and self-radicalize.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve unfollowed people on Facebook for various reasons, some of them ideological. I generally don’t follow anyone on social media that is aggressive with their beliefs. But if we all did that, what are we left with? Cliques and tribes of faux-blissful ignorance. (That’s why I do re-follow every now and then and occasionally attempt to have a level-headed conversation, which is a fruitless endeavor, lemme tell you.)

We’re more vocal and outspoken than ever — brazenly so. Somehow we’re also more sensitive and easily offended than ever. How’s that work? Like, “It’s my right to say whatever the hell I want. Deal with it. Oh, you’re disagreeing or challenging me? How dare you bully me by saying whatever the hell you want.”

So back to my first sentence; I don’t believe in microaggressions. There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed where as soon as someone comes up with a catchy label, term, or nomenclature, it becomes a thing. Words are powerful.

Just about every news and information source is based on scaring or offending you.

Let me clarify. Microaggression, as far as I can tell, is a fancy word for annoyance. It’s obviously very subjective, right. The thing is, in our current cultural climate we choose to be offended. We get a lot of affirmation from being offended. Hell. Just about every news and information source is trying to boost its ratings by scaring you or ginning up a sense of offended outrage. It’s madness.

I’m a black man who grew up in the 70s and 80s. I can tell you about aggressions. No micro about them. Macro and mega aggressions. I’m familiar with the exchanges people are talking about, though.

I went to a summer camp that I loved at St. Paul’s in Maryland. There were very few black kids and staff. Some Summers I may have been the only one. Once, a kid saw my hands — the palms of my hands. He said, “I thought black people were black all over.”

I told my grandfather. I said it was kind of funny. He said it was kind of sad, too.

This kid wasn’t some kind of villain or aggressor. There were things he didn’t know. Literally, he didn’t know. He hadn’t had the life experience yet.

In regular school where the racial climate was sometimes hostile, white kids would make velcro jokes about my hair. That kind of thing is offensive. If I had to parse the distinction, I’d say that jokes aimed at mocking someone’s physical features and characteristics for the purpose of humor at someone else’s expense is sh*tty behavior.

Things said out of ignorance (in the denotative sense, the dictionary definition of ignorance) or inexperience are not sh*tty behavior. It may be the result of a lot of messed up societal things, sure, but you’ve got to deal with people as individuals — as developing, imperfect, impressionable, evolving human beings. We can choose to be offended. We can also choose not to be offended.

Someone pooped in the pool. We can be grossed out, promptly get out of the pool, let others know to avoid it, take a shower, and go home or we can be grossed out, seek out the poop, pick it up, take a picture of it and post it online, put it in our pocket, and carry it around with us for the rest of our lives. “Do you see how disgusting this is! Do you see why I was traumatized lo those forty months hence! Hold it in your hand. I want you to share my pain.”

I microagressed some Asian suitemates in college back in the day. Where I grew up it was pretty much black or white. That’s it. Maybe one or two Asian kids in high school and they identified strongly with the white kids. One or two mixed kids. Not much diversity to speak of. Dundalk. Southeast Baltimore County. Not as progressive or diverse as Columbia, Northern Virginia, Rockville and Montgomery County. So when I was exposed to people from all different cultures, religions, sexual orientations, countries, and so on, it was like a smorgasbord of social interaction. And you know me. I love to learn. I’m a curious dude.

I asked one of them what his ethnicity was. He was reluctant to answer. I didn’t understand. He was annoyed. When I wanted to know what the big deal was. He said, “Damn, I’m American, okay.”

Well excuse me. Noted. From my point of view it was an innocent question. From his point of view it was that question again and why did it matter and it’s so annoying. Obviously, I wasn’t questioning his loyalty, worth, or character in any way. From his point of view it was like I had slapped him or something.

From experience I can tell you how these little things add up over the course of a day, week month, year, career, and life. That makes it even more important to distinguish between one’s own baggage, for lack of a better word, and someone else’s.

Flashback: When I moved into my apartment in Daly City, just south of San Francisco, circa 2001 a cool, friendly Filipino guy was the first person to introduce himself and welcome me. One of the only people, actually. He had a wife and a kid and they were always congenial. One day, many moons later, he asked for a moment of my time to ask me a question. I said okay.

He said, “A week or two ago I was here in the parking structure and you and your friend were getting out of your car–”

“Right. Uh huh.”

“I thought I heard you guys make some kind of noise at me.”

“A noise? At you??”

“Yes. Like you were making fun of me.”

I remember my friend and I did the hey what’s up thing and went about our business that night talking and joking while we walked off. For reasons that had nothing to do with me, this guy had been stewing for over a week about a non-existent insult/diss. He took something imaginary and made it personal. Or maybe one of us did make some kind of sound but it had nothing to do with the nice guy who was the first person to make me feel welcome there (and subsequently the first person to weird me out a little).

Don’t get me wrong. Boundaries are important. If someone crosses into another person’s zone and ignores their boundaries, that’s not cool. Physically, that’s easy enough to gauge, but not culturally or mentally. I’ve done that, truth be told, physically and rhetorically. Sometimes you think you know someone well enough to cross that barrier and you’re dead wrong. That deserves correction and maybe calling out. For sure.

For example, hair is a big one. In my opinion, there’s a big difference in asking someone a question — even a stupid question — about their hair and actually presuming to touch someone’s hair. Or skin. Or headwear. Or tattoos. Or braces. Or whatever.

There was a guy in the news recently who pulled off a Muslim woman’s hijab on an airplane. That’s not a microagression, though. That’s assault. That’d be like someone walking around and yanking pendants of the cross off of people’s necks. That’s what being ignorant and reactionary looks like. That’s what happens when you’re so reactionary that you become what you claim to hate or fear.

Collectively speaking, I think we’re so divided because we’re egomaniacal. Disagreeing is equated with bullying. Disagreeing is equated with violence. It’s gotten ridiculous.

We could stand for a course correction. A course re-correction. We want to discourage and disapprove of bigoted speech and actions, yes. Somehow we’ve “corrected” to the point of wanting to shut other people down entirely and often with our own prejudiced generalizations and sometimes bigotry.

Somehow it just emboldens people to be even more ignorant (in the willfully offensive sense of the word) and aggressive.

So maybe I should say that microaggressions are real but some folks are too quick to label things as such. You know. The precious little snowflake thing, meaning the my views have been challenged and that offends and oppresses me thing.

Let’s give each other some breathing room. Let’s allow each other to make mistakes. We can acknowledge cultural differences without assigning motives and social misdemeanors to the awkward, clumsy foibles of interfacing cultures and experiences. Let’s not judge each other for that.

There’s a lot to be offended by and a lot to be angry about. I can’t say where that line is for each individual. I just hope that we can be more generous and less egocentric. We’re better than this. We have the capacity to be better than this. A small and simple step is to acknowledge that accepting one another means accepting one another’s learning curve.

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