In fairness to whomever wrote the Onion’s Oscar-night tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, I’ll admit I was in my forties before I realized that the expression “going off the reservation” was racist.
There were many nuanced and thoughtful responses to the Onion debacle, thank heavens, since you’re not going to hear one from me. (I happen to be the mother of a nine-year-old girl. Anyone who calls her a four-letter word will have trouble hearing what I say back to them, because they’ll be choking on their own freshly-severed ears.) But microaggression as a broader problem is something I’ve thought a lot about.
Microaggression is a big word sociologists have invented for the little insults and put-downs directed at marginalized groups. Unlike plain old aggression, which doesn’t mind calling attention to itself, microaggression is sneaky. It’s a crushing handshake offered with a smile; a verbal elbow to the ribs. It can happen accidentally, or it may be an intentional assault, camouflaged so the aggressor can claim, “it was only a joke,” or “I didn’t mean it,” or “I didn’t mean it like that.”
The Onion’s slur about Wallis was overtly insulting; its author presumably thought it was justified on the grounds of comedic privilege. From that perspective, you can kind of understand how the “joke” was supposed to work, in the same way that, if you look at pictures of Richard Nixon as a child, you can almost see how he might have grown up to be a decent human being. The tweet could have been attempting an ironic commentary on our culture’s casual aggression toward women, the delight with which beautiful, accomplished actresses and musicians are publicly called sluts and whores and bitches and worse, usually for no greater crime than gaining five pounds or dumping Justin Timberlake.
So let’s give the Onion the benefit of the doubt, and assume their writer was attempting some serious social commentary. That’s a noble goal, and something that humor often does better than any other genre. Take all the shots you want at misogyny and oppression, comedians! Just don’t steady your weapon across the back of a nine-year-old girl of color.
It seems like an obvious lesson, but when you come from a place of privilege, as I do (white, middle class, not originally from Texas), you have to pay extra-close attention to these things. “Going off the reservation,” for example, was a phrase I used to use to describe someone breaking ranks in an inconvenient way. It’s exactly the kind of colloquialism that appeals to me: folksy, historical, tinged with violence and complex power relations. I liked the way it implied a certain panic on the part of the Powers-That-Be who created the reservation and tried to keep the Native Americans there. I applauded the sense of agency the phrase attributed to the Native Americans. I liked the unstated questions inherent in the backstory: Were the Native Americans who had gone off the reservation merely hunting buffalo, or were they about to start burning down white people’s houses? Sometimes being the oppressor isn’t much fun, is it? There’s a lot to worry about.
Without thinking too much about it, I had mentally filed the “reservation” phrase alongside “maverick,” another Old West idiom; a synonym for a steer that wanders off its owner’s range. Curiously, “maverick” has acquired a connotation of enterprising, trailblazing behavior over the years, even though it technically describes nothing more inspiring than a hungry cow that happened to see some grass over the next hill. A maverick steer doesn’t represent a bold new vision, just a monetary loss to its owner. Yet today we laud certain politicians and businesspeople as “mavericks.” It’s livestock terminology, but for some mysterious reason it isn’t considered derogatory.
And for most of my life, if you’d asked me whether “going off the reservation” had a derogatory meaning, I probably would have said, “Not at all! It celebrates Native Americans’ heroic efforts to resist their oppressors.” I still think the phrase itself can have that connotation. But a couple of years ago, for some reason, it finally occurred to me that maybe Native Americans wouldn’t appreciate being “celebrated” in this way, a way that reduced their disenfranchisement from an entire continent to a game of hide and seek. At least, maybe they wouldn’t appreciate me hosting such a celebration, in the context of whatever trivial point I was trying to make.
I really wasn’t sure; both interpretations seemed plausible. The logical way to find out, I concluded, would be to ask someone of Native American heritage whether my use of the phrase was insulting or irritating. And then I realized something that shouldn’t have startled me, but did; namely, that I didn’t know anyone of Native American heritage.
That single fact told me a lot. If I’m trotting out a phrase or expression, or making a joke, about a group of people, and I don’t even know anyone from that group? That’s a pretty good indication that 1) said group has probably been marginalized—out of my neighborhood, at least—so I need to be especially thoughtful about dragging them into my attempts to make my own speech more colorful; and 2) I’d be wise to consider sidelining that particular expression for a while, at least until I manage to make some friends who will tell me how they feel about my use of their culture. Because regardless of how well-intentioned I am toward certain people, there’s a good chance that my appropriation of their history will widen the gap between us, not narrow it.
In fact, my lifelong habit of dropping phrases like “going off the reservation” may have already done so.
Since that little epiphany, I’ve opted not to use the phrase “going off the reservation” when I speak or write. I can’t undo the slaughter of millions of Native Americans, I decided, but I can at least refrain from building little Dixie Cup castles of whimsy on their graves.
Microaggression can be hard to see, depending on the angle from which you view it; based on my experience, I estimate that I can identify microaggression roughly two million times faster when it’s directed at me than I can when I’m directing it at someone else.
That figure emerged from an evening I spent last month live-tweeting the entire UFC fight card, including Rhonda Rousey and Liz Carmouche’s bantamweight championship match. A bunch of my friends from the dojo came over to watch the pay-per-view festivities with me—after all, this was the first women’s fight in UFC history, and we were pretty excited about it. Until about ten minutes into the prelims, when I couldn’t take the announcers’ inanity anymore, and tweeted to the world at large, “SHUT UP ABOUT HOW THE FEMALE FIGHTERS ARE ALSO BEAUTIFUL.”
Granted, it was far less egregious than the Onion’s sexual slur against a child, yet I found it incredibly irritating to listen as the UFC commentators insistently and repeatedly described the female fighters as “beautiful,” as though beauty’s co-existence with power were an unprecedented occurrence. Or as if fighting prowess were so obviously unfeminine that a qualified male had to vouch for Rousey and Carmouche’s femininity. Or as if to lull me into believing the pleasant fiction that the announcers were just so gosh-darned surprised at how gorgeous these ladies turned out to be, because we all know that beauty isn’t a necessary quality in any woman we’re going to show you on TV, right? It’s just a weird coincidence that female weather reporters are so much more attractive than their male counterparts.
You probably think I’m exaggerating, but it was relentless, and very jarring to hear. Swear to god: One announcer described Rhonda Rousey—a professional fighter, mind you—as a “triple threat,” possessing skill, beauty, and a third quality I didn’t hear because “beauty” was so fucking stupid.
Seriously, do they ever talk about how attractive the male fighters are? If you watch the men’s UFC fights, you will wait in vain for any reference to the beauty of the combatants. (To be fair: This is partly because most professional MMA fighters look like they have fallen into a cement mixer at least once in the past six months. And it may also have something to do with the considerable homoerotic tension during these events, which is only heightened when the announcers have to say things like “submission by rear naked choke hold.”)
At any rate, I was pissed. I’d paid $54.99 to see a professional fight—the first professional women’s UFC fight. If I’d wanted to watch the goddamn Miss America pageant, I could have saved my money and switched over to Lifetime.
Luckily, the fight itself was good—Rousey got Carmouche in that dreaded armbar after only 4:49—and more spirited than some of the men’s fights on the card. Recapping the event on Twitter the next day (while also correcting my fight-night error in misdirecting people to a spam porn account instead of Liz Carmouche’s #lizbos hashtag), I remarked that my “least favorite thing” about the evening was the announcers’ “inability to frame Rousey-Carmouche as anything other than ‘they can fight AND THEY’RE HOT!’”
And guess what? Many (presumably male) people on Twitter were kind enough to reply, explaining that what I thought was sexist microagresssion was in reality “compliments”; that the fighters should be “flattered,” and that I was just “jealous.”
Needless to say I wasn’t flattered, and I tweeted as much, which provoked further attempts to educate me on the proper appreciation women should show toward men’s observations about our appearance. I sensed that the men found these exchanges even more frustrating than I did. It’s baffling, isn’t it guys? You keep belittling and patronizing me, and yet I keep not being flattered. I’m not flattered by your insistence on defining women as sexual objects, no matter how hard those women have worked to demonstrate their worth in other contexts, including full-contact fighting at a level 99% of the male population will never even attempt.
But keep telling me I should feel flattered. That ought to help.
Microaggression is pernicious and hard to confront, which is why I much prefer regular aggression myself. I’d rather deal with punches and elbows and knees to the groin any day; they’re hard to misinterpret. When somebody slugs you, you don’t have to wonder whether you’ve been attacked. You don’t have to second guess whether that person really just said the thing you think they said, or whether what they said might be right, and your feelings are wrong. Microaggression, on the other hand, wounds while simultaneously denying the wounded party a fair fight.
One telltale marker of microaggression is that it disrupts empathy. Regardless of the purpose behind it—whether the act is well-meaning but thoughtless, or intentionally hurtful—it tends to make people angrier at each other, to move them further apart, not closer together. I suppose this is one reason I’m interested in it; when I see disruption between people, I see a fight, and when I see a fight, I want it resolved. I want an armbar or a knockout or a rear naked choke hold; something that puts a definitive end to the conflict, so the fighters can shake hands.
Call me a dreamer.
But microaggression perpetuates conflict in terribly unhealthy ways. Which is why we need to engage with it, even though it’s not much fun. Doing so may, for instance, require you to listen to someone explaining that you’ve done something to hurt or anger them. That’s about as pleasant as being kicked in the groin, but if you want to build empathy rather than destroy it, you have to listen.
And if there’s no one there to tell you what they think? Then maybe you should listen to their absence. You might have done more to cause it than you realize.