Last year, during a particularly vitriolic class discussion about Canadian social welfare policy, a classmate told me that Canada should sever P.E.I. from the rest of the country because we are “too poor” to make any meaningful contributions. He said it in a joking manner and probably didn’t realize that I grew up in a low-income household, but that was the day I began to realize how profoundly class has impacted my life.
Microaggressions are brief, often daily encounters in which marginalized people are slighted or stereotyped based on their race, class, gender, ability, sexuality and other identities. Microaggressions may seem insignificant to some, but a lifetime of daily denials to our common humanity can create a hostile, violent environment for marginalized communities.
In my own life, when someone was blatantly oppressive toward me, at least I knew that in some cases my experiences would be validated by peers or bystanders. I feel fully confident that if I were walking around campus and someone yelled that I was a dyke or a bitch, someone would stand up for me or check in to make sure I felt safe. I feel less confident that my peers would voice opposition to a wealthy student disrespecting meal hall workers or a cisgender student “forgetting” to use a non-binary person’s proper pronouns.
These situations are harder to explain and detect than someone yelling a known slur or refusing someone service based on their physical appearance. Because it is not always evident that these situations are, in fact, deeply discriminatory and harmful, these seemingly minor experiences are rarely validated by individuals outside of their community.
Though these actions may be conscious or unconscious, they hurt. Marginalized people are expected to grow a thick skin and ignore the “small stuff.” This “small stuff” is the reason we don’t feel safe. In my own experience (and I do not by any means speak for all marginalized people), it has been small, daily actions that have affected me much more profoundly than obvious circumstances of prejudice.
I can write off a drunk guy saying something gross to me at a bar as an isolated experience, but I can’t write off the countless times I’ve been catcalled or made to feel unsafe while walking home alone. Nor can I write off the widely held belief that survivors of sexual violence were somehow deserving of that violence. It’s the seemingly insignificant daily actions of those with power that make me want to yell, cry and never leave my house.
It’s straight men who invalidate and fetishize bisexuality. It’s white people who feel entitled to touch Black women’s hair, who commodify their culture, and yet still refuse to support Black Lives Matter. It’s assuming that all Indigenous people are not taxed and go to post-secondary school for free. It’s upper-middle-class students who ask me why I work three part-time jobs while at university. It’s the fact that many professors at this institution don’t think it’s important to include women of colour on syllabuses. It’s the belief that disabled students should accept the inaccessibility of our campus. It’s the way men constantly speak over women in the classroom, the boardroom and everywhere in between. It’s the way cisgender people think they have a right to inquire about the genitalia of non-binary individuals. The list goes on and on and on.
It is exhausting. We are exhausted. This is not at all to say that we should pretend like outward displays of violent racism, misogyny, classism and other forms of discrimination do not exist. They do. But in the context of a lifetime of casual slights and a lack of representation, microaggressions don’t feel micro. Instead, to recognize the prevalence of microaggressions is to better recognize the lived realities of marginalized communities, validate our experiences and call for justice in our daily lives. Many people in Sackville hold a vast amount of socio-economic power relative to marginalized communities, and as such we need to educate ourselves on the harm a seemingly insignificant word or action can have on a person who has lived a lifetime of subtle discriminations and prejudiced interactions.