I encounter a lot of strange, offensive, strange comments in the course of my daily life, the micro (and macro) aggressions of living for so many people who live in a society dominated by certain social and political classes. And, like so many of us, I also feel the need to tell the stories of these events when they’re done, to process them with people who’ve endured similar comments, to get angry together, to talk about what bothered us together, to discuss what to do in situations like those in the future. It is a form of therapy but also of group cohesiveness; for a group of disabled people to commiserate over a snide comment made to a wheelchair user, for genderqueer people to sigh over being called ‘ma’am.’
When I tell these stories, I often struggle at the end. Because the thing is, I want to be able to finish the story on a triumphant note with the perfect snarky, corrective, snide, or beautiful response. I want to be able to sound like I was on-point, collected, and brilliant in the face of someone being awful. But the thing is, I’m often not. Sometimes I’m left totally unable to respond at all and I just stare blankly, and that’s how the confrontation ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Other times, I find myself appeasing the person who’s talking to me, excusing or justifying my existence, ignoring the microaggression.
I want to tell the story that people want to hear, though. Because people look up to me, and I feel like I have a burden of responsibility, to be the role model, to be the person who is perfect. I might not like being forced into that role, but here I am, and now I must be the good activist, the one who is always totally together and on top of things, the one who is never caught out in a conversation, who is able to handle any weird, or offensive, or irritating comment. After all, I’ve been put in a position of authority, and I don’t want to let anyone down.
So sometimes I tell the truth. Sometimes I shamefacedly admit that the encounter ended in a way I’m not proud of. But sometimes, gentle readers, I lie. Which is something I’m not particularly proud of either. But I’ll substitute in the comment that came to me three hours after the incident, and not with an ‘I wish I had said,’ or ‘three hours later, I realised I could have said,’ but with a framing that implies that’s how I responded, in the moment, that’s how I dealt with the situation.
I try to catch myself before I do this, because lying makes me uncomfortable, and it does me a disservice, but more than that, it does other people a disservice too. Because if we live in a world where people are expected to be perfect all the time, it puts tremendous pressure on people who aren’t and can’t always be perfect, which is, shocker, everyone, because we are all human. And humans have bad days. Humans get flummoxed and flustered and upset. Humans can’t always come up with a good response to a comment that cuts to the core of their identity, that casually dismisses them, that makes them feel like garbage. Because, being humans, our brains are rather stressed and overloaded with all kinds of things.
And when people we view as authorities act like they never slip up or experience bad days, it makes us feel bad, like we can never hope to attain any level of self-respect or worthiness in the world—if that person can do it, so can I. If our heroes (and I find it odd that people think of me as a hero, but who am I to tell people how to feel?) can admit that they, too, are human—and if we can respect the fact that our heroes are humans like us—it relieves a lot of the pressures that keep us constantly feeling as though we will never be good enough.
Because the fact is that sometimes you can’t come up with a good response to a nasty comment. You’re in a hurry, you’re busy, your defenses are low. You’ve never encountered a comment quite like that one before, so you’re not prepared. You’re focusing on other things and you don’t have time to get into a Thing with someone who obviously doesn’t respect you or view you as a human being. You don’t want to Make a Scene. You just want to get whatever you need done with a minimum of fuss, and that means eating the microaggression, it means acting like you didn’t hear or nodding tightly in a dismissive way, or just walking away, or just standing there with an expression of confusion and hurt.
And you know what? You’re not a bad person when these things happen to you. You are not a failure as a human being, and you are not a bad activist. You’re just a person, and people aren’t equipped to deal with all things all of the time, and it’s okay to give yourself permission to be human, and to give others that same permission. And when we talk about these things, these microaggressions, we can talk about ways to deal with them. We can talk about the retorts that come to us later, we can come up with scripts for dealing with situations like these in the hopes that we will be better prepared next time.
And we can admit that even with all the preparation in the world, even with all the focus on being ready for the next time someone is rude, and the next time someone marginalises you, you still have clay feet. And clay feet are beautiful and okay, because they’re part of you too.