Thursday, May 24, 2012

I'm not your "Sweetie." What's the Point in Correcting Microaggression in Every Day Life?

I lost count of how many times the car salesperson had called me "sweetie," "honey," or "sweetheart" during our stroll around the lot trying to discover the car I was looking for.  This young man was being just plain rude.  It wasn't just the inappropriate "terms of endearment" he was using to refer to me, his customer, a woman several years older than he, and someone he had never met.  It was the whole experience.  He talked "car stuff" with my husband; the safety ratings, the mechanics, and the operation of the vehicle we were considering.  He did ask me for my input when it came to what color car I wanted and on the size of the car.  The financial discussions were no different.  Instead of what I am, a mother with the job of taking care of two children and attending to her education to benefit her family, I felt painted as an "unemployed housewife" whose husband was buying her a little present.  It was my loan, my trade-in, and both of our funds going to purchase this car but it didn't matter, what I do has no monetary value.  I could watch my husband eyeing me the whole time, waiting for me to say something; he's not going to say something if I don't want him to.  And I didn't.  This was a convenient place to buy the specific car we needed, we were too deep into the paperwork to storm out now, and I didn't know when my husband would be free again.  So I endured the sexist microaggressions and couldn't wait to get out of there.  Oh and can you believe the salesperson was astounded when I refused to go on a test drive with him?

Judging by my own actions at the car dealer, it would appear that there is no point in pointing out discrimination, prejudice, or microaggressions.  Is it more trouble than it's worth to get into the discussion of the language people use and how it makes those they're referring to feel, especially if you think they just won't get it?  What's the point in discussing language then?

My husband has not always been this aware of sexism.  On one occasion, I regaled him with a story where I felt I had been mistreated due to my gender.  He scratched his head, thought of other possibilities of what could have been the reason for my mistreatment, other than sexism.

I said to him:

"You know this crap is cumulative, right?  In a way, it doesn't even matter if I was treated that was because of the person's conscious, sexist intentions.  Perhaps it's subconscious bias and they don't even know they're doing it.  Perhaps it's some other factor altogether.  It doesn't really matter.  I have been treated poorly for being a woman enough times that it just adds up.  You absorb it.  It tries to change how you think and feel about yourself.  You get tired of having to deal with it and deciding whether or not it's sexism."

I challenged him:

"Just watch.  When we go out to a store or a restaurant, notice how you are treated vs. how I am treated.  Imagine if you were me.  Then decide how you would interpret the event and whether or not it's sexism.  Put yourself in my position."

Would he do it?

I found out that he does now do it and makes it a regular practice, on the drive home from a restaurant one evening.

"The server asked me what I needed and if I they could get me anything before they asked you, every time.  They asked me more often than they asked you.  They also refilled my drink more times than they refilled yours, even when your water glass was empty, they brought me my drink and then just walked away.  At the end of the meal, they handed the bill to me."

I nodded.

On another occasion, we were riding in our car after purchasing drinks from a convenience store.  I probed him to see if he had noticed anything.

"The cashier automatically handed me the change because I was standing with you, even though it was you who pulled out the money to pay."

I nodded.

"These things seem like small instances and they are.  It wouldn't be such a big deal if it were just one instance but it's not just one instance.  It's a series of experiences within a lifetime.  It's annoying.  What's even more annoying is, I'm not supposed to notice, I'm not supposed to think it's wrong, and I'm certainly not supposed to say how it feels.  That's my role as a woman; I have to endure being treated like crap while the issuer of the microaggression gets the privilege of not having to hear how it made me feel."

I implored him to think about common adoption themes and the ignorant things people say about adoptees and how, similarly, that might make me feel.  Especially over the course of a lifetime of being adopted.  He's noticed plenty of themes, both about women and adoptees, since I've asked him to think about it, during our relationship.  I thought he was going to fall over at the birthday party we were at when, right in front of me, someone suggested they ought to "buy" an adopted child because their biological children would be ugly, finishing it off with song--an adapted version of "How Much is that Doggy in the Window."

Microaggressions, something I've been interested in learning about since I listened to a student give his doctoral dissertation on them, are the person-to-person (micro level) insults that send stereotype-based messages, often times unintentionally, from one person to another.

Someone says "you should adopt" and the person replies with disgust "oh no, I could never love a child that wasn't my own."  I'm in the room.

What she meant to say: I don't understand how adoptive relationships work and an intimated by the concept.
The messsage she sent: I can't believe that your parents could really love you.
The stereotype: adopted children are inferior to biologically-raised children.

When I reunited, my grandmother, who is an adult adoptee for crying out loud, called me to inquire and said "so, I see you found your real family" (mind you, we don't talk about our adoptions together, so we lack that prior history in that regard for this to have been an "inside joke" so to speak).

What she meant to say: you found your family of origin.
The message she sent: we're not your "real" family.
The stereotype: adoptees don't belong anywhere.

When I was using the Confidential Intermediary, I had to sign a paper, basically giving up my right to freely associate with whomever I please, agreeing that I would not contact anyone in my original family without the state's approval.  On the paper I signed, it said I was specifically agreeing to "cause no harm."  The non-adopted do not have to do this.

What the law intends: to try to reconnect adoptees with first families and trying to over-control how citizens separated by adoption can or can't reconnect.
What message the law sends: adoptees and their first families are incapable of working out relationships and agreements on their own.
The stereotype: something is wrong with surrendering parents and adoptees.

I have heard time and time again, "who cares about adoption issues--would you rather have been aborted?! Adoptees need to remember to be grateful!"

What they meant to say: I am not aware of adoption issues and I am having trouble understanding the magnitude at which a given adoptee identifies with difficulty being adopted especially because of my feelings on abortion and the idea I have of how abortion and adoption intersect.
The message that gets sent: adoptees have more to be grateful for than other human beings.
The stereotype: Adoptees are less human.  Adoptees are less worthy of demanding respect because of the perception they automatically have more to be grateful for than anyone else, as a population.

When I expressed to the CI how uncomfortable signing that paper was, and really, how constitutionally unfair it is to everyone involved, she replied very dryly "not everything can favor the adoptee here" and then proceed to remind me of all of the various penalties for breaking the agreement I had been made to sign to get my information.

What she meant to say: I believe I am balancing everyone's best interests here.
The message she sent: your concerns are invalid (microinvalidation).  You've been given more than you deserve already.
The stereotype: adoptees are flawed, disruptive, and untrustworthy.

When I was searching, an adoptive aunt said to me in rebuke "think about your parents, they adopted you because they couldn't have kids."

What she meant to say: be mindful that your parents may feel that they are losing you; you are their only daughter.
The message she sent: you are neglecting your reason for being in this family to begin with.  You are failing at your given "job."
The stereotype: adoptees with interest in their roots are "disloyal" and seeking to harm their adoptive families.

I could go on forever.

So, I didn't yell at the car dealer or refuse to buy a car from him.  In fact, I endured his crap and gave him a sale.  What message did I send?  That pointing out ignorance and how other people's words and actions make me feel, especially in the context of broader society, is useless--that we shouldn't do it?  I think that's a choice every marginalized person has to make when they encounter instances of prejudice.  Not every moment is a teachable moment (nor is it the job of a marginalized person to teach).  But again, what's the point?  Deep down inside, I think most people, if not most but a good number, truly want to understand other human beings and not use words that are offensive.  If given the opportunity to know how they can help end prejudiced themes about marginalized communities, how they can better refer to other human beings, and how their words can effect others--I think a great number of people would choose to know.  They would choose to become allies.  I wouldn't trade the support of my husband nor his willingness to learn about the experiences of his wife for anything.

Here's the thing about prejudice and microaggressions: they exist but not everyone experiences the same ones or even in the same way.  To my husband, covert sexism and microaggressions against women and also against adoptees don't exist because he didn't experience them.  He might have been under the impression that the car dealer wasn't being microaggressive or sexist because he wasn't experiencing it and because I wasn't saying anything about it.  Isn't that what happens for adoptees, women, and many other marginalized groups?  "Oh, well I have a friend who is [insert group here] and they never say anything about prejudice."  Have you asked why?  Have you bothered to try to see things through their eyes?  Has anyone thought that pointing out microagressions just brings on more microaggression?  It's the willingness to see things through the eyes of another person, to learn something, that will make this world a better place.