Microaggressions and making space
MetaFilter is a global community, with members from different cultural and social groups all over the world. It's our goal to make this an inclusive and welcoming place. And while meaning well and avoiding intentionally discriminatory or exclusionary behavior is an important starting point for that, it's often not enough to insure a social space is actually welcoming and inclusive.
In part that's because the social contexts that members of a majority or culturally dominant group experience tend to minimize the visibility of issues that affect the folks outside that group. The things that don't negatively affect you end up not being on your radar in the first place, and so you don't recognize the very real harm being done. So if you are a member of one or more majority/dominant groups, this is a resource for working to improve that situation.
Why members of dominant groups should take extra care.
People from culturally dominant or majority groups can easily fail to see how much effort people from marginalized groups have to invest, just to reach what might seem (to them) like the floor/default comfort level in a social space. For example, it's easy for an American to overlook how much work non-Americans are often putting in to work around American-centric assumptions, just to participate here; white people may not be thinking about the way whiteness as an assumed default perspective creates extra stress or a sense of exclusion for people of color.
For this reason, to really make a space welcoming to everybody, it's important for community members from dominant groups — which in the case of MetaFilter tends to mean Americans, white people, cisgender people, heterosexual people, native English speakers, people who don't have significant disabilities or illnesses, etc. — to make extra effort beyond what feels like the default level, to consciously learn about and avoid behaviors that shut people out.
That means more than just avoiding slurs or similar obviously-unacceptable things. It means making an active effort to be aware of and avoid things like casually exclusionary language, microaggressions, harmful generalizations or assumptions, treating culturally-specific details as global defaults, and so on.
And if someone points out something you've said that's unintentionally racist, US-centric, ableist, etc., take that information on board, in a spirit of learning and trying to be considerate of fellow community members. It's normal to feel uncomfortable when told you've said something hurtful or thoughtless, but we're all likely to make that sort of mistake sometimes. Making the effort to step back and sit with that discomfort and learn from it makes us better community members in the long run.
More about Microaggressions
Microaggressions are seemingly-small slights, which happen a lot to people in a marginalized group, and which add up over time into much bigger cumulative harms.
If it's something you're not used to experiencing, they may seem like no big deal: Sure, it's a little annoying that someone did that or said this, one time, but it's just a blip, right? But if it happens to you again and again, daily and throughout your life, these small things add up to a constant reminder of being perceived as different, or distrusted, or inconvenient, or unwelcome. That's why they're called microaggressions, not minor annoyances: Each thing might seem small by itself, but the sum of them over a lifetime has great weight, and each new instance can be a painful reminder to the person on the receiving end that this keeps being done to you, over and over, by people unaware of or unconcerned with your pain. Notice that it doesn't matter whether someone intends to be hurtful by doing one of these things; it still hurts, and that's what counts.
Part of treating other folks well is working to be aware of these things and making the extra effort to avoid contributing to that cumulative harm.
Here are some common microaggressions to be aware of, learn more about, and avoid:
- Gender/pronouns: Take care to gender people as they ask, even if it's not something that matters for you. People have the right to determine the name they go by and the pronouns they use, and to define their own gender identity; it's not something anyone else gets a vote on. Singular "they" is fine. "Cisgender" isn't an insult. If this stuff is new to you, that's fine, but do some reading about it on your own; don't derail threads to make folks explain or justify it to yet another person.
- Names: Don't make comments or jokes about people's names or call people by the wrong name; especially if you're giving the name of someone from a culture other than your own, take care to get it right. Listen and take it on board if someone corrects your use of a name.
- Exoticism and ascribing stereotypical characteristics to a place or people: Don't assume everybody finds the same things "exotic" that you do; you might be talking to a person who lives in that place or grew up eating that food. Don't reflexively treat unfamiliar things as "weird." Don't treat cultures and nationalities as abstract aesthetic concepts, whether positive or negative. Think about the background assumptions you're making. This goes triple if you have little experience of your own with the place/people; it's easy to repeat lazy or secondhand assumptions and make a fool of yourself and make other people feel bad.
- Jokes: Obviously, don't make offensive, sexist, racist, or similar jokes. But in addition, 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. Think about how the joke would feel to someone who wasn't 100% in on it. Ironic racism and similar forms of "joking" that consist of repeating harmful words to be "funny" are not okay here.
- Abstraction: 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 or being threatened with harm. It's not okay to put other people's health, safety, and identity up for debate.
- Re-centering: Be conscious of whom a discussion is about, and don't hijack discussions to be about your own perspective. Dominant group members should take extra care not to re-center a discussion that's about a marginalized group onto themselves. Common example: In a discussion about something directly affecting people of color, white members should avoid re-centering the conversation on their feelings as white people, and instead let the people who are directly affected do the talking and decide the direction of the conversation. 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:
Beyond nuclear-grade racial slurs and sexist and homophobic epithets, 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 things like 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 or criticism ("I'm so OCD!").
Language changes over time, and once-normalized phrases can fall out of acceptable use. You may find yourself surprised that a phrase you grew up with causes offense today, but if someone lets you know that it's offensive, don't double down; take that revelation at face value and reexamine your use. There's plenty of words to work with, avoiding a few that cause folks harm is doable.
- Believe people:
Don't second-guess people's own life experiences, especially if you're part of a dominant group and they're part of a marginalized group. Don't second-guess whether people are actually upset about something or "just looking to be offended." It's annoying for anybody to do this kind of second-guessing to anybody, but it happens very often to people in marginalized groups and is often largely invisible to folks not experiencing that marginalization. A man who never gets cat-called may assume it's not that big of a problem; 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 unfamiliar or 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 and respect one another's accounts. It's not necessary to discount the other person's experience for yours to be valid.