Microaggressions: Making space for everybody
MetaFilter has Community Guidelines and a Content Policy to help our community be an inclusive and welcoming space for its members. And while meaning well and avoiding discriminatory or exclusionary behavior is an important starting point, it is not enough.
This section covers a bit more in detail something we think we all need to be aware of: Microaggressions.
What are Microaggressions?
Microaggressions are seemingly-small slights, which happen to members of marginalized groups. To some, they won’t seem like a big deal but, in truth, these are insensitive behaviors that work as a constant reminder of being perceived as less, different, or unwelcome, and add up to a larger cumulative harm.
It doesn't matter whether someone intends to be hurtful or not; it still hurts, and that's what counts.
Why is this important?
When something doesn’t negatively affect us directly, we often fail to see how much effort people have to invest, just to reach what might seem like the default comfort level in a social space, especially where systemic power is involved.
For example, it's easy for an American to overlook how much work and effort others have to put to overcome American-centric assumptions, just to participate here. White people may not notice how whiteness as an assumed default creates extra stress and a sense of exclusion for people of color.
So, in order to foster a really inclusive community, we all need to actively work towards making space for people to participate without being subjected to ongoing friction and harm, however small we perceive it to be.
What can I do?
Making space means more than just avoiding obviously-inappropriate behavior. It means avoiding casually exclusionary language, harmful generalizations, treating culturally-specific details as global defaults, and, more importantly, it means making an active effort to take a step back, listen, and make space for others to talk.
If someone points out something that is new to you, you can make the effort to inform yourself and learn instead of asking others to explain or justify it.
If someone points out that you said something racist, US-centric, ableist, misogynist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise problematic, even if unintentionally, take that information on board without being defensive.
We're all likely to make mistakes and it's okay to feel uncomfortable when called out. Make the effort to step back, consider what the affected people are saying, and be willing to apologize without centering yourself in the conversation. It's okay to sit with that discomfort and learn from it while you let others lead the conversation.
Here are some common microaggressions to be aware of, and avoid:
People have the right to determine the name they go by, the pronouns they use, and to define their own gender identity. It's not an open discussion. Singular "they" is fine. "Cisgender" isn't an insult.
Don't make comments or jokes about people's names. Don't call people by the wrong name, for example, talking about a trans person who has changed their name. Take care to get their name right.
- Exoticism and ascribing stereotypical characteristics to a place or people:
Don't assume everybody finds the same things "exotic". Don't reflexively treat unfamiliar things as "weird." Don't treat cultures and people as abstract aesthetic or academic concepts. Avoid making background or secondhand assumptions.
Don’t make light jokes in a serious discussion, remember this is a broad audience that doesn't know you personally, so be cautious about jokes that require some personal familiarity to be taken in the intended spirit. Ironic racism, sarcastically speaking in the voices of other people, and similar forms of "joking" that consist of repeating harmful words to be "funny" are not okay.
On issues touching people's identities, take care not to treat harms that affect other people as if they're mere abstract thought exercises. It's not abstract to the people experiencing it.
Be conscious of whom a discussion is about, and don't hijack discussions to be about your own perspective. Take extra care not to re-center a discussion that's about a marginalized group. E.g.: In a conversation about an issue affecting people of color, white members should avoid re-centering the conversation on their feelings as white people. Let the people directly affected do the talking and decide the direction of the conversation instead. Or, if a thread is about a non-US country, Americans shouldn't jump in and shift the conversation to be about the US or comparisons to the US.
- Dated/offensive/x-ist language:
Language changes over time, and once-normalized phrases can fall out of acceptable use. A phrase you grew up with may cause offense today. If someone lets you know that it's offensive, take that revelation at face value and reexamine your use. There's a lot of terms that in recent memory and/or elsewhere on the internet have been used fairly freely, but aren't acceptable in use here. That includes terms mocking developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, and mental illnesses; terms with regional differences in use (e.g., "spaz," which is far more charged in historical UK use than in the US); problematic older descriptors like "gypsy" or "oriental"; appropriating vocabulary or concepts from other cultures to use out of context or figuratively (e.g., claiming something is your "spirit animal," pejoratively describing things as "ghetto," mimicking AAVE as a joke or as eye dialect); using actual conditions as a joke ("I'm so OCD!").
- Believe people:
Don't second-guess people's own life experiences, especially if you're part of a dominant group. It's annoying for anybody, but it happens very often to people in marginalized groups and is often largely invisible to people outside of those groups. A white person who doesn't experience daily systemic racism may not understand the pervasiveness of it in the life of a person of color. If someone is talking about the experiences in their life and it seems implausible to you, remind yourself that you haven't been living their life and of course your experiences differ.
It's fine to talk about your own experiences, when they're relevant and put into context, but don't let that lapse into dismissing someone else's. Even two people with otherwise similar life circumstances can have different individual experiences, and that's okay: Both people can just stick to describing how it is for them, and listen to one another's accounts. It's not necessary to discount the other person's experience for yours to be valid.
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