How to interrupt (or not) microagressions.

Apr 19 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Over at Portrait of ... Peirama had a blog post titled How to encourage a supportive environment. The story she tells, in short, is that a (male) senior prof was talking about, in a science context, another senior prof, who was a trans-male individual. The senior prof kept referring to the other as "her" or "she". Peirama asked

"What is my role? Does my silence support this kind of behavior? Would saying something raise awareness and promote respect or just irritate people? Does the power differential between me and the speaker affect how I should react?"

This, indeed, is a Hard One.

When I read this I had two sets of response-thoughts. The first, from when I was young, was "of course!" If one does not interrupt oppression (as my generation would have said), then one will see it over and over again.  I've not just been there, I lived it. For me, for others who are not like me. And then I thought about this advice, from a senior woman to me, when I was a grad student about fighting injustice (read the whole thing if you want context):

If you fight it, 1) it is his word against yours and you will lose. 2) you will lose at least a year of time in your program, if you are able to graduate at all and 3) even if you do finish, you will also be known as the ‘women who filed a grievance against…’ rather than by your science”.

And this was about fighting something far larger than "micro" and done to me (with no one else willing to fight it).

These thoughts informed what I commented on the blog to Peirama:

Bottom line, you can work towards a respectful workplace. You can interrupt racism/sexism/ageism/abled-ism/etc when you see it. But sometimes, when someone is on the path, and working towards a goal, interruption won't move the person or the workplace forward.

But the second stream of thoughts, later, is part of what prompted me to write more, now.

I remembered what it felt like to be the hearer of unwelcoming verbiage. I remembered what it felt like to want to fix the world in the face of such words. To help others who had even more problems to shoulder than I did. But I tried to stop and put myself in the shoes of the Prof who was screwing up. My immediate response would be: but of course I would never do anything so heinous. Well, not knowingly. In fact, I probably have. I've lived long enough that I know I've hurt people. That I've done and said stupid things. And probably a lot more than I know or remember or would even willingly acknowledge behind a pseudo.

So, what if I had, unwittingly, unintentionally, called someone by the wrong pronoun? And what if a graduate student or junior faculty told me, senior woman in the department (and the department before, etc), that I had said something "wrong", even in the nicest possible way?

Honestly? I would be embarrassed. I would not have meant to insult anyone. I would not have meant to make the environment less than welcoming. So my response would be  "thank you, it was a mistake on my part" to the corrector.

But, and a big but it is, I would at some level be pissed at them. Not rational. Not necessarily right. But what the fuck is this young thing, who didn't spend the years that I've spent fighting all the things I've fought telling ME what I am doing wrong? I am pretty sure I wouldn't say anything other than the thank you. I am pretty sure I'd be doubly careful in the future with pronouns (goal of corrector). But I am also pretty sure I'd avoid the corrector in the future and limit my interactions with them. I would walk on eggshells to make sure I wasn't doing anything that smacked of retribution, but I wouldn't want to interact with the corrector if I could help it. An honorable response? No, but I'm trying to follow the outcomes as honestly as I can, here and now.

Now this set of outcomes? ZThat's me, who recognized I did something less than perfect. I know I have colleagues who would give the same polite response (because they are professional) in public, and in private excoriate the corrector: who the fuck does the corrector think they are?  Others would  absolutely cut off anything but the most superficial contact required by the situation, with the justification "they obviously don't think much of me, so damned if I'm going to waste time on them".

Peirama's goal is laudable:

to make the speaker and the other people in the conversation aware of how their words affect other people.

She wants to make this little corner of the world better and more welcoming for a group of people who have a very hard social row to hoe. But Bill's reply captures what I think would be perceived by a lot of older (white, male) faculty:

Policing someone else's behavior is always a claim to power over that other person.

No matter whether the policing is the goal, it is an effect of the behavior. For many, the criticism, whether or not they agree that using the wrong pronoun is a problem, is far ruder & insulting, far less "welcoming" and in fact (though they might not use these words), a claim to power by a junior person over a senior person.

Peirama is asking for advice and strategy. One must know to whom you are speaking, and a sense of their response. It is galling to think that one must tailor one's response to the audience. If the speaker has done something awful, should it not matter who they are? Yet, there is a cost benefit analysis to be done here. What is the cost in speaking out? Is it worth the benefit (to the larger community? to one's sense of ethics?)? There are injustices everywhere in this world, one does not challenge them all. Where is the line on what to do? Or is waiting to fight, err.. interrupt -isms, another day, a better strategy in the long run?

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post-script:

I discussed this with some of my lab peeps. Yes, they know who I am, but I also know who they are. It works out ok. Anyway, what was said, quite succinctly was: it depends on the tone of voice. how is the correction made? Who else is involved? Anyone in earshot? Context, context, context.

My reaction to someone saying, gently, "P, do you realize what you just said? and how it might sound?" is a lot different than someone who thinks they have the truth by the balls and is accusatory about a perceived transgression & sin. And one thing is sure, in my post & Peirama's, tone, intent and subtlety is tough to convey in a narrow bandwidth post of a couple hundred words. Sigh. Which is just another reminder that wetware is still capable of much more than can be gleaned from a written page.

3 responses so far

  • becca says:

    Given that the prof in question did correct himself, the best thing would be to use the appropriate pronoun profusely, or say something lighthearted about it "It's times like this I wish we spoke Chinese, where spoken pronouns are gender neutral!".

    I will say, if you have a friend that changes their preferred name independently of any transition event, it can be very hard to remember. So it's worth keeping in mind that "the transition happened forever ago" will make it easy for young people in the field to remember the appropriate label, but not older people.

  • peirama says:

    Thank you for the expanded discussion Potnia! Several commenters pointed to the fact that while 20 years may seem like a long time to me, the older prof may have known the transgender man as long before that. That makes his perception of the situation very different.

    It may still be worth doing as becca suggests and model correct usage, especially because there were other trainees present. At least one followed the older prof's lead and said "she, she..he" even though they are approximately my age.

    • potnia theron says:

      As I said, this is not an easy one. And what my peeps kept pointing out, is that there is a huge amount of subtle interaction, tone of voice, etc, that is not captured in either my post or yours.

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