My church currently runs weekly evening sessions where we get to discuss or hear about slightly ‘wider’ issues or perhaps one might say more ‘applied’ theology, i.e. how what we learn from the Bible informs how we should live today. Recently, some of these sessions have been discussing the issue of race.
I have found these sessions to be thought-provoking, but perhaps not always in the ways the speakers intended.
One of the things I have found myself wondering is to what extent is general rudeness or politeness taken to be racist when it is directed at people of colour, or ableist when directed at disabled people? For example, in the UK I find that it is common courtesy and kindness to comment on a change in a person’s appearance. Commenting when someone has changed their usual clothing style, is or isn’t wearing make-up when they usually don’t or do, has put some jewellery on, or looks particularly pale/flushed/tired/enthusiastic/happy is a sign that we pay enough attention to that person to notice when something is different about them. Paying that much attention is a sign that we care about them.
So when we comment on a difference, we aren’t being rude. When church people commented when I started using a wheelchair again, or progressed to my mobility scooter, or on occasion get a lift to church so am able to walk with a stick from the blue badge space to where I sit on my special chair close to the door – this was a sign that they knew me, cared about me and remembered me. Whether I want my change in health status to be remarked upon or not, I know that what is meant by any such comment is, “I see you; I care about you; I have brotherly or sisterly love for you”. I take it in the spirit in which it is meant, and not as an ableist, rude, intrusive, inappropriate or offensive remark. I have no interest in ascribing malicious intent or offensive ignorance to someone who is being not merely polite but actively kind.
If I can’t cope with such remarks, then it is for me to let the person know specifically, in recognition that the issue lies not with them for being either intentionally or ignorantly rude, but in me for struggling to handle something that is everyday kindness. And that’s okay – we’re all different and we have different likes and dislikes. But I’m not going to claim that we should all stop expressing kind interest in disabled people just because I may not want a comment that week, because doing so may well stop us from then commenting on someone who was desperate to be noticed that week. It may stop us from reaching out to someone who was desperate for people to see that she was unwell; or needed affirmation that the effort she had made that week was noticed; or wanted to know whether or not anyone cared enough about her to recognise if any difference was made in appearance.
Some women find it offensive if a man holds a door open for them. Other women find it offensive if men don’t. Some older people find it offensive if a young person doesn’t give up a seat on the bus for them; other older people may not care. But for Christians, the default is love, and love always trusts and doesn’t easily take offense. Love trusts the intention behind the other person’s comment or action, and love takes the action or comment as affirmative not offensive. Love accepts the man who doesn’t hold a door open as someone who respects women enough to recognise that we are capable of looking after ourselves; and love accepts the man who does hold a door open as someone who is kind enough to take a brief moment to make a small gesture of thoughtfulness.
Switching to the other side, some of the panel members gave examples of being subject to racial abuse or discriminatory behaviour. But what I found interesting was that in some, or even most, of the examples they gave – and only a handful were given – it didn’t sound like it was a racial issue. It just sounded like how life works.
Sometimes people who are rude are rude regardless of who they are dealing with at that moment. If they happen to be dealing with a black person, they’ll use a term that is offensive to black people. If they’d been dealing with a white person, they’d have used a term that was offensive to white people, such as ‘chav’ (not exclusively white, but predominantly so) or US terms like ‘white trash’ and ‘ofay’. They might have commented on someone’s age (‘old fart’) or perceived social group (‘gammon’; ‘Karen’); on their weight or on their dress-sense. Rude people don’t need a particular level of melanin in their interlocutor’s skin to give vent to their rude-ness; they have a wide range of slurs based on different traits from which to choose.
Some comments and behaviours have nothing to do with race, but are easily assigned as ‘microaggressions’ if they’re directed towards a person of colour. Melissa Smith talks about how some of her behaviours around people – turning around to avoid them; watching them carefully or uncertainly – might look racist, when actually she applies them to all people because of her shyness.[i] But she’s black, so looking awkwardly at another black person isn’t ascribed to racism when she does it.
Similarly, I’ve heard people talk about how a white woman seems uncomfortable when a black man approaches her. The likelihood is that it isn’t because the person is black, but because they’re male – as a woman, I’d generally be uncomfortable alone with an unknown man of any colour, but not with a woman (regardless of her colour). I’m nervous when groups of men approach me when I’m out and about, but I’m not nervous about a group of women. If the men are coloured, perhaps they’d ascribe my nervousness to their colour – but that would be wrong. My ‘microaggression’ isn’t about race. It’s the normal reaction of the physically weaker sex towards members of the physically stronger, more aggressive sex; and it’s enhanced by the fact that I have impaired mobility and reduced strength.
There are normal conventions of conversation that also get labelled as microaggressions. Fairly typical, inoffensive questions when you first meet someone include asking where they are from and what their job is. These are hooks on which to hang a conversation. It’s a major part of how we get to know someone; and the way someone answers (how brief or effusive; whether they look like they’re settling down for a long chat or are keen to get away asap) is part of the social cue for whether and how to continue. In these conversations, we’re looking for shared experiences – however nebulous the connection – on which to build rapport, and to enable us to understand where the other person is coming from and therefore put their words into proper context.
It may be that the person is from a place that we know, so the conversation continues on about that location. Maybe they have a similar job to us, so we talk about that. Or maybe something in their appearance or accent seems to be in contrast with where they say they’re from, so this is an interesting area to explore further.
We’re told that it’s offensive to ask a coloured person where they’re ‘really’ from. Yet it is entirely normal to place people based on appearance and accent. A person who looks middle-class yet tells you they’re from Moss Side (a down-and-out ward of Manchester) is likely to engender surprise. A person who tells you they’re from Liverpool yet speaks with a Glaswegian accent is likely to make you want to ask more questions. A white person living in China and speaking with a foreign accent probably won’t get away with saying that they’re ‘Chinese’ when talking with other Chinese people, no matter how long they’ve lived there. It’s not about being rude. It’s not about denying that coloured people are born in the UK. It’s just asking for more ‘hooks’ on which to hang the ongoing conversation.
My worry is that when entirely normal conversations and behaviours are labelled as microaggressions, it just makes those of us who aren’t a member of that minority group nervous of talking to those who are. I am unsure of how to talk to a black person at my church if I can’t ask them about their background for fear of being labelled racist. I’m already aware that asking about someone’s job is difficult when the person you are asking is, like me, unable to work – but you don’t know that in advance of asking. Chatting about the weather is fine for a person you’ve bumped into in the park, but not usually how we get started with a conversation in a more social setting like church. And asking about hobbies can seem too personal too quickly.
This is why we have norms of conversation. It is so that we can explore certain topics in the safety of knowing that we’re not being racist, ableist or sexist. We’re just using the social standards, and that’s okay. They are social standards not because they’re perfect or ideal for every situation, but because we need a designated ‘safe space’ of conversation where your words will not be taken and twisted and thrown back at you.
Instead, microaggressions say that we should take social norms and label them as rude if they’re directed towards certain people. Microaggressions say that society’s standards of politeness aren’t actually polite; they’re offensive. Microaggressions say that we can’t have common standards but somehow need to know in advance of every person we ever meet precisely what they will and won’t find offensive – before we’ve ever spoken to them. Microaggressions say that if our words unintentionally trigger a painful point in another person that isn’t painful for most people, then the fault lies with us. It says that the remedy is to not talk about that issue with anyone.
But God tells us that ‘love is not provoked’ (some translations say ‘easily angered’, but there is no ‘easily’ in the original text). ‘Provoked’ is from a pair of words that mean ‘alongside’ and ‘sharp’. It is the idea of ‘getting at’ someone; riling them up; jabbing at them with your words with the effect of getting them emotionally roused. To not be provoked, then, is to not be emotionally upset by what another person says to or about you. It is the very opposite of microaggressions. It is to take even the intentional hurts and absorb them in love.
So when people ask me where I’m from and are surprised that I don’t have the right accent, or ask me what my job is, or even ask what’s wrong with me – I don’t get offended. Nor am I offended if they hold a door open for me – or if they don’t. I respond to comments on changes in my appearance or mobility. I don’t label the person as committing a microaggression. I take their words and actions in the spirit in which their meant: polite, courteous, respectful, kind. I continue the conversation, I answer their questions, and I ask some back.
It is hard to be on the ‘wrong’ end of social norms. To be the one who isn’t from the local area, or isn’t wearing the same style of clothes, or has a different accent, or has a disability, or isn’t in education or employment. But that doesn’t make it okay to label ordinary, polite, kind, thoughtful people as micro-aggressors.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- [i] https://medium.com/@melissasmith_50058/im-privileged-my-shyness-isn-t-seen-as-racism-229f519b93dc